Before being appointed to the House in 2002, Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, 56, worked as a logger, and as an environmental specialist for the state Department of Corrections. He has been reelected six times. Blake holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Evergreen State College. He and his wife, Debra Thomas-Blake live in Aberdeen. Blake is chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and also serves on the Business and Financial Services and Commerce and Gaming committees. Blake takes a special interest in issues involving natural resources, access to public lands and gun rights. If re-elected, he says he would work on preserving local jobs, resolving the state’s school funding dilemma, and advocating for the commercial fishing industry.
How has your approach to the job changed over time?
Being chair of Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee has allowed me more control over the policy that moves through the legislature. With time, I’ve gotten better and built more relationships. I just have a lot more gravitas in the process, in seeing how legislation is crafted, and in advocating for the district.
What do you feel your strengths are as a representative?
Being a good listener and being transparent with fellow legislators. Other legislators trust that I’m not sneaking around their back to do things — that I’m communicating with them what my agenda is for my district. I think it’s gained me friendships and respect on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers.
What have been some of your pet projects or causes?
I’m a huge proponent of public access to public land. We were able to completely rebuild the library and Pace building down there in Ilwaco. I’m always working towards preserving existing jobs. In Ilwaco and in the Long Beach area, the benefits of good long clam seasons. I’ve been working to see if we can’t get more clam digs.
What have you accomplished during your most recent term?
I think the $4.5 billion dollars put towards K-12 education. It’s a heavy weight on our shoulders. We said it would take several years to pay for it, and it has. We’re getting close now.
What do your critics say about you?
There’s a fairly large contingent of sports fishermen that are angry that I won’t destroy the commercial industry to benefit the sports fishing industry. I think that’s the biggest criticism you’ll hear out there from folks — “Come on Blake, throw the commercial fishermen under the bus and so we can catch another salmon!” I just refuse to do that.
In terms of quality of life in the 19th LD, what do you think has gotten better during the last few years? What has gotten worse?
I’m seeing change in the way K-12 teaching is delivered to students. Except for the problems with the domoic acid, increasing the razor clam season is helping to stabilize the economy in the district. With the investment the timber industry has made in bridges and culverts, you’re going to see some increase the recovery of natural spawning salmon. There have been what? Seven new bridges in Pacific County that have been constructed? We’re struggling to find bridges on our state highway system that still need replaced in the 19th District.
What do you see as the district’s greatest needs right now?
It’s a tough one to talk about, but we have a heroin epidemic in this state. We’ve got to mobilize all the resources that we have to stop this. It seemed like it was always an urban problem, and it truly has become more statewide. We’re losing kids, and it’s a crisis.
What do you think LD19 legislators could be doing better?
I don’t know about here in Long Beach, but in both Cowlitz County and in Aberdeen, I’m seeing a homeless problem that I’ve never seen before in my 56 years. There’s a lot of folks that are hurting, and don’t have healthy places to live. I’m a big fan of the housing trust fund and other efforts to get people housing. We’ve got to do more as a state to solve this crisis.
We’ve had the same core group of legislators working for us for many years now, and some citizens feel their legislators have gotten too complacent. How do you respond to that criticism?
It’s come up in the campaign this year — the “Good Old Boys’ Network.” I don’t think it was planned at all. I will remind folks that I wasn’t the insiders’ “Chosen One.” I think there’s too much made of that situation, although I will admit it’s unfortunate there have been so many appointments in recent history.
Some women’s advocacy groups say LD19 reps have done only a mediocre job of advocating for women, in terms of things like equal pay, family leave, domestic violence policy and access to healthcare. How do you think you have done at serving your female constituents?
I think I have been an advocate for every one of those things. I think women’s issues are priority issues for the House Democrats. I don’t serve on the health care committee, so I don’t tend to focus on on bringing those bills forward, but co-sponsoring those types of bills. Maybe it’s a fair observation on their part, and something that I’m going to have to reevaluate, but I guess I’m just not seeing it.
In the primary, your Republican opponent got 38 percent of the district-wide vote, and 65 percent of the Lewis County vote. Were you surprised by the support for him?
I’m not surprised about the numbers. I’m very well aware of the Lewis County political demographics. I think in the general election, when more people actually get the voters’ pamphlet, and look at his statement and my statement, my numbers will go up.
Why should people who are on the fence vote for yet another Democrat?
Because I am a moderate, and effective. I work very closely with the House Republican leadership on making sure that they feel like they have an effective voice in the process. Rational, moderate voters recognize my ability to get things done.
Since January 2015, you have voted against the majority of Democrats 12 times. Do you ever catch any heat for not being Democratic enough?
Yeah, occasionally, there’s times. Individual freedom is a big deal for me. So sometimes, I do get sideways with the majority of my caucus.
What do you mean by “individual freedom”?
Freedom to marry, freedom to control your own body. I got sideways with some of my caucus because they wanted to force parents to have their children vaccinated. I very much believe in vaccinations, but I’m uncomfortable forcing a parent to have their child vaccinated. I am strongly pro-gun.
Judging by their campaign contributions, the NRA is strongly pro-Brian Blake.
Yeah. I’m a life endowment member of the NRA. I will listen to the ACLU when they make a good argument on individual freedom. I will probably be 100 percent with a group like NARAL, and I’m gonna be 100 percent with the NRA. On the gun issue, you’re gonna have to make a pretty cogent argument that the legislation you’re proposing, one, will be successful, and two, constitutional.
What are you doing to stay in touch with your constituents in rural parts of the district?
Well, except during the legislative session, I stay out of Olympia and stay in the district! Here locally, I make my cell phone available. I’m on Facebook and encourage people to contact me. If I have time tonight before the storm hits, I’d like to swing by and talk to the folks at the Naselle hatchery.
What specific issues do you see as being important to Pacific County citizens?
Jobs. Local elected officials are concerned about their ability to deliver services. That’s a big concern of mine. Over time, these local governments have been squeezed. As we went through the 2007-2008 recession, the state was forced to make some decisions and shut down some key partnerships with local government. We’ve got to start a process of re-sharing those revenues, and rebuilding those partnerships.
How can we bring more sustainable, family-wage jobs to this area?
Tourism is a huge part of the economy, especially here in the south end of the district, so we’ve got to find ways to grow that. There’s been some concern about whether there’s enough broadband to support some of these businesses that are outside of the natural resources arena. I’m interested to hear from local folks, on whether the speed of broadband is up.
Do you think the potential economic benefits of bringing coal and oil through the region by river and by rail outweigh the health, safety and environmental risks?
Coal is much less risk to other users on the river, and I have not seen a deal-breaker to the Millennium Project up in Longview.
Oil? More concerns. I think we’ve got to be on top of increasing the regulatory functions that oversee that. So, real concerns, especially on the oil end of things.
Some of your biggest campaign donors have a lot riding the expansion of coal, gas and oil-related infrastructure and industry in this region. You’ve taken money from BNSF Railway, Alcoa and Millennium Bulk Terminal, which all have a stake in the “coal train” project, and the American Chemistry Council, which has a lot invested in shale gas development. Why do you think they support you?
I think that I’ve been willing to listen to what they have to say. It wasn’t that many years ago that I came out and said, “Absolutely no” to LNG coming in. I can understand how people would say, “That means Blake is gonna vote one way or the other.” I would say that’s not true. I’ve accepted money from tobacco and voted against their interests. I have voted against the interests of all those folks that have donated to my campaign.
In March, you did vote against a bill designed to keep vapor tobacco products out of the hands of kids.
Yes. Only because of the provision on cigars. I liked the bill, except for the provision that said the cigars had to be locked up, and only an employee could get you access.
Local communities are seeing some economic benefits of the marijuana industry, but they’re still not getting much tax revenue. What, if anything, can you do about that?
Communities are getting the revenues from the employees that are living here and shopping here. They’re getting the retail sales tax. My hope is to increase that. That’s one of the conflicts that I’ve had with my colleagues. I truly believe that a portion of that revenue stream should go back to communities that allow the commerce. They haven’t been able to get that past the finance and budget chairs, because of the McCleary decision and other reasons.
The infamous McCleary decision said legislators need to figure out how to fully fund education. In your view, what’s the best way to do that?
It’s very difficult to know how much revenue we need. The law is pretty clear that the local districts should not be paying for basic education. Some districts have taken it upon themselves to violate that, and pay for education. We’ve got to understand how that’s happened, and plug that hole. How? The economy is growing. I think that will be a large part of the solution. We may come to a point where we need to generate additional revenue, and I think some of the tax breaks that have been adopted over the years need to be reevaluated, to see if they’re delivering the economic benefit that they were granted in the first place.
When do you think it is appropriate to raise taxes?
There’s some truth to the folks who would say, “You increase revenue to provide services by growing the economy and business activity.” There is also some truth in that you have to have a tax system that works. Our tax system is a mess. Somehow, we’re going to have to find the fortitude to try again to develop a blue-ribbon panel or something, to propose how we would restructure it to provide adequate revenue. Frankly, right now the voters don’t trust either party to develop that system, and make that change, so we’re kind of in a holding pattern.
How would you describe your relationship with tribes in the region?
I would say very positive. I’ve been invited to the First Salmon Ceremony with the Chinook tribe several times, and have tried to attend whenever I could. [Former tribal chairman] Ray Gardner was such a close friend. I’m still grieving over that loss. I have a positive relationship with the current leadership in the Chinook Tribe, and Charlene Nelson at the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. I try to make them aware that they have representation at the state level.
Chinook leaders have said they need other influential people to support their fight for federal recognition. Have you done anything to support them?
Yes. I have actively in public stated my support. I worked with Congressman Baird in the drafting of his bill, and I have advocated with Congresswoman Herrera Beutler’s office that she should be introducing a similar bill.
If re-elected, what will be your top priorities during your next year in office?
Delivering the priorities of the district in the capital budget, and watching the transportation budget to make sure the priorities we’ve achieved in previous budgets are safe, or enhanced. Pacific County has seen a great investment in our transportation infrastructure. We’d love to do more. Just generally trying to look for ways to enhance jobs down here. Making sure that the investment in the Naselle Hatchery continues.