U.S. Representative Cliff Bentz is the newly elected representative for Oregon's Second Congressional District, which covers two-thirds of the state, including Central Oregon. He was a member of the Oregon House of Representatives from 2008 to 2018 and a member of the Oregon Senate from 2018 to 2020. In 2019, while serving in the Oregon Senate, he helped lead the Republican walkout against the cap-and-trade bill that would seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon.
The Source sat down with Bentz on a recent episode of Bend Don’t Break, our weekly interview podcast, to talk about his tumultuous first weeks in Washington, D.C.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Source Weekly: How are you adapting to life as a politician in Washington, D.C.?
Cliff Bentz: I went to Washington, D.C. to see what Congress was truly like, and I’ve learned over the past month and a few days—on the one hand it’s similar in many respects to Oregon’s legislature, but in so many other ways it’s extraordinarily different. The distance is interesting. As you know I live in Ontario, so it took about six-seven hours to get from Ontario over to Salem, and it takes about seven or eight hours to get back to Washington, D.C. So sure, the travel’s a little different, but the sheer scale of people… in other words, there’s 435 congressmen and women, and there were only 90 of us in Salem—60 representatives and 30 senators… of course we have the pesky governor… but that we’ve got so many more people that you have to get to know—it’s really a challenge, particularly when people wear masks. It’s a challenge.
SW: How does your staff compare now to the staff you had before?
CB: I had one staff member here in Oregon full time, and now I have between 16 and 17. It’s wonderful to have some help, and I’ve got some great help.
SW: You were appointed to the House Natural Resources Committee, which matches well with all of your experience in land management and agriculture. What are some of your perspectives on how this land should be managed now that you have more leverage over it?
CB: I’ll be the minority—and of course I’m accustomed to being in the minority since I was in the minority all 12 years I was in Salem. Not one day in the majority. So exactly how much I’ll have to say about how public land is or is not managed is a real question.
I was on a Zoom call, and people from all over the United States know where Bend is. They love Bend, and for good reason. It’s beautiful. The challenge in dealing with public land that surrounds Bend is making sure you get it right—because you guys focus on recreation, far greater than is the case as you go almost any direction, and it’s not quite right. Down in the Ashland area, in Medford, there’s equal pressure I think for more attention paid to recreation—and I’ll just tell you, that area deserves an enormous amount of careful thought, because cattle and hunting do a certain amount of damage to land, but people can do a lot more. And so you have to be really cognizant of how we’re going to manage this ever-increasing number of people. So one of the biggest challenges for me is to make sure I understand what Bend wants.
SW: What do you see as your biggest priorities for your district?
CB: Well of course the first one is trying to recover from COVID and to get people vaccinated—that’s the most important thing. It just dwarfs everything else.
The second after that is fire. I was looking at some materials this morning that show how we can measure the amount of carbon in the forests that surround cities like let’s say Sisters or Black Butte and we can perhaps, I hope, start telling people about the degree of risk they’re running just by living where they’re living. This is something we should be doing right now so that people understand that.
Water’s the third thing, and of course I’ve focused a lot of my law practice on water; a lot of time in the legislature. I look forward to trying to continue to help Central Oregon with its water challenges.
SW: Right below COVID on the media’s radar is the discussion about the divisiveness that the country’s experiencing in their national politics. As a freshman representative, being thrust into that spotlight, what are your initial thoughts about how we overcome that divisiveness?
CB: I do an enormous amount of reading. This room is filled with books. I subscribe to I don’t know how many different periodicals. What I have noticed is that the media trends toward what’s most exciting, and that’s generally not people getting along. It’s generally just the opposite, and so there’s kind of some odd reinforcement going on with the things that drive people apart, and I wish that were not the case. I wish we would be focusing on kumbaya as opposed to all the negatives that people seem—that seem to draw the attention of social media and the press.
“Watching the mob invade our Capitol was one of the saddest moments of my life.” —Cliff Bentztweet this
SW: Discuss your perspectives on the Capitol riots and your vote to object to the election results in Pennsylvania.
CB: Let me simply say first so the record is extraordinarily clear: I object to any kind of violence in the sphere of protest. I support political protest. I do not support violence, and that’s been the position I took back when you may recall, the occupation of the Malheur bird refuge, I took an absolute position opposing any violence whatsoever. And through the course of this summer, I took an absolutely clear position opposing the violence in Portland and other cities across the United States. I want to make it very clear I support the right to protest. I do not support stepping over the line into violence; that’s simply wrong and reprehensible, I condemn it totally.
Watching the mob invade our Capitol was one of the saddest moments of my life. Watching that happen… I was not on the floor—I was in my office at the time. We’d been asked by Speaker Pelosi to stay off the floor unless we were going to speak so we could reduce the chances of COVID transmission. So, we were in our office as we’re watching with horror and saw what was going on. On the… what I had done… I listened carefully. Before I vote, people come in and say, ‘how are you going to vote.’ I go, ‘I don’t know yet. I’m to listen and see what we’re going to do.’ What my team and I had done was go through carefully the six states that were going to draw an objection. The first one was going to be Arizona, and the mob came through the windows and doors and everything in the middle of that Arizona argument, so we went back afterwards—five hours later—and I voted against that objection when it came to Arizona. Why? Because my team and I determined the only foundation for an objection to any of those six states was if they had violated the Constitution. And we determined that the only one that had done so—it had been violative of in its electoral process—was Pennsylvania, and that was the reason for my vote. You can look at my press release. I’ve called out exactly what I did as clearly as I could in it.
Bentz went on to discuss plans for representing Central Oregon’s unique needs, thoughts on improving transportation and broadband access, social media accountability and more. Find the Bend Don’t Break podcast with Bentz here.