The race for the West Lane County Board of County Commissioners seat could change the direction of county leadership.
The board is technically nonpartisan, but political beliefs underlie many of its votes, which affect anything from land use to human services. After Springfield’s David Loveall eked out a win over incumbent Lane County Commissioner Joe Berney in May, the Nov. 8 general election could tilt county leadership toward a conservative or liberal dominant majority, which could have ramifications in a post-Roe v. Wade political landscape.
The general election race for the west Lane district, which includes Junction City, Santa Clara and runs out to Florence, has retiring Commissioner Jay Bozievich’s hand-picked successor Ryan Ceniga, backed by natural resource extraction companies, pushing for relaxing timber policies and claiming that rural voices aren’t being heard on the board.
Dawn Lesley, who says the county needs to invest in preparedness for climate change while adopting future clean technologies and advocating for rural affordable housing strategies, agrees that rural voices of west Lane haven’t been heard.
“If they haven’t felt represented for the last 12 years, they only have to look at the person who picked Ceniga,” Lesley says, referencing Bozievich, who has followed en vogue conservative movements, from the Tea Party of the early 2010s to defending Christopher Columbus when commissioners were discussing officially recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day in 2020.
The May primary race had five candidates, and Ceniga led the votes by about 1.5 percent. Since he didn’t secure more than 50 percent of the vote, the election has moved to a runoff between him and Lesley, the top two vote-getters.
Lesley ran for the seat in 2014, but lost to Bozievich by 74 votes in the primary election.
Although Lane County government doesn’t implement timber policy in Oregon, Ceniga says he would advocate to relax forest regulations, something he says he’s heard from rural residents that Lane County isn’t utilizing its forests.
“Part of it is relationships,” he says. He adds that he’s become friends with Republican state Rep. Boomer Wright, who supports passing pro-timber policies in the Legislature. “That’s how you do that. You don’t get to make that decision, but you’re the voice for that decision.”
Lesley says that Ceniga — like Bozievich — refers to climate change as something that’s not settled science. “The science has been clear for a long time,” she says. “Anybody pretending that it isn’t is either not well educated or deliberately trying to obstruct.”
She says that agricultural producers have been living the past 13 years of drought and are headed to a 14th year. “That hurts the rural area, which hurts the metro areas because we all are going to rise together or fall together,” she adds.
Lesley says she wants to work forward with the county’s climate action plan, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in future technology. “We’re going to need to invest in emergency preparedness so that we’re ready to take care of each other,” she adds.
Ceniga says crime in Eugene and Springfield has worsened because jails are releasing inmates too soon. He recently toured the Lane County Jail and he says that inmates who have a drug use problem need 60 days to think clearly again but are often discharged right after being booked.
But he adds that the county jail shouldn’t be used as rehab. “That’s the only treatment right now,” he says. “It’s time to try something different.”
Lesley says that the county not having enough housing worsens the county’s mental health and drug use problems, “which makes it harder for them to have stable housing, and you have this vicious cycle of issues compounding each other.”
She says the state Legislature needs to ease restrictions on establishing affordable housing outside of urban growth boundaries. Although Eugene-Springfield is where most of the county’s population is, she says rural areas need affordable housing units, too. “We cannot forget that Deadwood has an affordable housing problem, Florence has a horrible, affordable housing crisis,” she says. “Homelessness is a problem in places like Mapleton and Junction City.”
Lesley’s campaign has raised more money than Ceniga so far — $286,817 with an average contribution of $335. Her largest contributor is Lane County’s AFSCME union at $20,000. Her other contributors include environmental activist Tom Bowerman ($7,000), Madison, Wisconsin-based philanthropist Rebecca Krantz ($15,000) and state Rep. John Lively of Springfield ($2,000).
Ceniga has raised $170,083, and his average contribution is $1,148. Many of his contributors are resource extraction companies, such as Wildish Land Company ($10,000), Swanson Brothers Lumber Company ($3,000) and plywood supplier States Industries ($12,000).
But more than one-third of his money — $59,166 — has come from the Community Action Network political action committee. According to its campaign finance activity, Community Action Network takes money from timber, fossil fuel and other resource extraction companies, and then gives it to conservative politicians and PACs.
Ceniga also received an in-kind donation from Oregon Right to Life, which the organization reported to OreStar was used for polls and surveys.
Ceniga says that he’s pro-life and that life begins with a heartbeat, though he recognizes some exceptions with abortion in cases of incest and rape. “Roe v. Wade overturning gave it back to the state, and I don’t know if it should’ve ever left the state to begin with,” he says. “There’s extremes on both sides, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
But he says if elected he’d listen to constituent needs, whatever that would be with reproductive rights at the county level. If elected, Ceniga and Loveall would both be commissioners endorsed by the Oregon Right-to-Life organization.
Access to abortion in Oregon could change if the Republican Party took over the Legislature and govenor’s office in future elections, which could mean having access decided at the county level, Lesley says. And even if abortion remains legal in Oregon, Lesley says having a board that is pro-choice in the post-Roe era has an impact on which services get funded.
“Every county public health authority will always have to decide where they distribute the resources,” she says. “They never have infinite resources. You have to make decisions about which services you provide and how easy or how hard it is for folks to access those services depend on leadership decisions.”