UMATILLA COUNTY — Nothing is more sacred to HollyJo Beers than the U.S. Constitution.
As one of five candidates running in the May 19 primary for the only open seat on the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners, Beers, 66, is promising the nation’s foundational document will guide her as she aims to use her mixture of local and statewide political activism to better represent the voices of Umatilla County.
“I’m not a part of the good ol’ boys club, and I’m not a ‘yes’ man,” she said. “ I am a constitutionalist. I believe in the Constitution and in protecting the people’s rights, and for liberty and justice for all people of Umatilla County.”
Though she’ll readily acknowledge her minimal experience in holding elected office, Beers, who resides in Milton-Freewater, has lived in Umatilla County all her life and worked a variety of jobs.
Now retired, in the last five years, Beers has been politically engaged with Umatilla County’s chapter of the Oregon Three Percenters, a group she now leads locally that is devoted to resisting infringements on the Constitution by the U.S. government.
In Umatilla County, the Oregon Three Percenters have particularly petitioned and lobbied for greater protections of the Second Amendment, which Beers claims as essential to protecting the rest.
“Once the Second Amendment goes, you have no way to defend yourself from the rest of them falling,” she says.
Nationally, the Three Percenters have been associated with protests against immigrants and refugees, and were notably sympathetic toward Ammon Bundy and the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the group as “anti-government extremists,” a label Beers strongly disagrees with.
“We are not anti-government, we’re anti-corrupt government,” she said. “That’s been a common liberal description of our movement. When people around here look at me, they don’t see that.”
As for the 2016 refuge occupation, Beers said at least locally her and her group supported Bundy’s concept of resisting the government but didn’t support the means they took to do so.
Recently, Beers utilized the statewide network of the Oregon Three Percenters and helped organize its local members to deliver donations and connect resources to people in need after floods devastated the region earlier this year. While proud of these contributions to the community and her previous volunteering, Beers hasn’t had the easiest campaign debut with the coronavirus pandemic also stifling traditional methods of meeting voters.
“It’s been difficult for my first campaign really,” she said. “I ran for city council for Pilot Rock but I was unopposed so there wasn’t really any campaigning to do, and so this has been a new experience for me.”
But when she has been able to speak with voters, Beers said most people are seeking stronger representation on the other side of the state.
“They want Eastern Oregon’s voice heard,” she says. “We know it’s a fact that the other side of the state does not really pay attention to the needs of Eastern Oregon as they should.”
To be heard in Salem is exactly what Beers has been fighting urgently for over the last half decade by traveling around the state, attending rallies and organizing local ones of her own.
“I want to come back here to Umatilla County and institute the things that I have learned and the ways that we can deal with some of the laws coming out of Salem,” she says.
As a county commissioner, she said that would involve extending the leverage of eastern counties through the Eastern Oregon Counties Association and enacting local protections from statewide legislation.
“We need to make it known that we’re an entity unto ourselves,” she said.
Locally, Beers says her top objectives are economic development, homelessness and government accessibility.
Though in favor of some tax incentives to attract businesses to the county, Beers is also wary of excessive taxes she believes are hindering the growth of local businesses. She also identified an intersection between development and the rise of homelessness in the area, which she says she’d prioritize as commissioner to an extent.
“We do have a certain responsibility to assist those people, but I think it needs to be restricted to those who want to work,” she said.
As the lone commissioner candidate outside of Hermiston, Beers said she’s noticed a lapse in coverage from the sheriff’s office on the east side of the county.
“One of the problems I know we’re having in the very east end of the county is we don’t have enough deputies,” she said. “There aren’t not enough people to answer the calls.”
The county has prioritized increasing its patrol deputy numbers and has more than doubled them in recent years, but Beers hopes to work with Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan to continue that effort.
While some may be coming, Beers currently doesn’t have any endorsements of her candidacy. At moments during the race already, she admits she’s felt like “an infant among the big dogs.”
But Beers says she isn’t an underdog or an outsider. Because in her heart, she believes she’s the best person vying for the two spots in the November general election.
“I think I bring a fresh voice, a different perspective, and a new look at things,” she says.