Jeff Merkley

Oregon, Washington May Provide Presidential Hopefuls

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Washington Governor Jay Inslee are seriously weighing Democratic presidential campaigns in 2020. Both are from the progressive lane of the Democratic Party, have earned national recognition for their key issues and have campaigned in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Washington Governor Jay Inslee are seriously weighing Democratic presidential campaigns in 2020. Both are from the progressive lane of the Democratic Party, have earned national recognition for their key issues and have campaigned in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

Oregon’s and Washington’s role in recent presidential elections has been relegated to ATMs. Candidates swoop in, attend high-priced fundraisers and slip out of town, often without even a perfunctory press interview. That may change in 2020.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Washington Governor Jay Inslee have dropped huge hints they are considering entering the 2020 Democratic presidential sweepstakes. Though both would be considered today as political longshots, each has a distinct political issue to push. Merkley is focused on voting rights, Inslee on responding to climate change, as issue he has championed for years, including the book he coauthored, Apollo’s Fire

Merkley has earned national recognition for going to Texas to expose the internment at the border of asylum-seeking Latin American migrants and their children. Inslee gained recognition for leading the Democratic Governors Association as it reclaimed a number of statehouses in the 2018 midterm election. 

Both hail from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which could be a crowded lane in the 2020 Democratic primary with candidates such as Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Merkley and Inslee have been point persons confronting President Trump on key issues such as immigration, environmental protection and trade policy. Both have hit the campaign hustings, appearing side by side at a campaign event in Johnson City, Iowa and in New Hampshire, both early-voting primary states.

One advantage Inslee has over better-known candidates, and Merkley, is his executive experience (Inslee served in Congress before his election as governor). Now serving his second term, Inslee can point to achievements on voting rights, a higher minimum wage, ensuring net neutrality and major transportation investments.

As Jennifer Rubin, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, sees it: “[Inslee] might consider stressing his entire record as evidence of his ability to successfully govern, which includes climate change policies, and his role in challenging Trump’s immigration policies. Almost as an afterthought, he notes that renewable-energy legislation helped launched a multibillion-dollar wind industry and helped his state lead in GDP growth and wages. That seems to be his greatest selling point – creating a progressive haven while growing the economy, raising wages and saving the planet.”

Another advantage of potential Merkley and Inslee candidacies is that neither are in their 70s, as are Warren, Sanders, Joe Biden – and Donald Trump. Merkley is 62 and Inslee is 67. They also are fresh faces on the national political landscape, which might appeal to newly registered Democratic voters that helped Democrats regain control of the House.

Merkley faces a big decision. If he runs for President, he can’t under Oregon law run simultaneously for re-election to the Senate. He has told reporters he will make a final decision in the early part of this year. Meanwhile, Merkley has staged what amounts to a marathon of townhall meetings in Oregon before the new Congress convened this week. It is unclear whether he has taken steps to recruit a campaign staff or start fundraising in earnest. Political observers suggest it may take anywhere from $40 to $60 million for a Democratic presidential candidate to make it to Super Tuesday primaries in March, 2020.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, like his potential Pacific Northwest presidential aspirant Jeff Merkley, has gone to the US-Mexico border to denounce Trump administration immigration policies and establish their credentials as credible national contenders.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, like his potential Pacific Northwest presidential aspirant Jeff Merkley, has gone to the US-Mexico border to denounce Trump administration immigration policies and establish their credentials as credible national contenders.

Inslee received encouragement to throw his hat in the presidential ring in 2016 as one of the few Democratic governors to survive. He has campaigned around the country for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2018, giving him more exposure than usually accrues to a governor from the Pacific Northwest. Inslee is given credit for helping seven Democrats capture statehouses and assisting some Democratic incumbents such as Oregon Governor Kate Brown fend off well-financed GOP challengers.

There are indications Inslee is lining up donors to his political action committee and preparing to form a presidential exploratory committee, which is something Warren did this week as she moved closer to becoming an announced candidate. He also has amassed a list of more than 200,00 climate change supporters nationwide that could serve as a jumping off point for his candidacy.

The presidential primaries will have some other new twists. California and Texas have moved up their primary election dates in a bid to have a greater say about who emerges as party nominees. As big states with sprawling, expensive media markets, they pose special challenges for lesser known candidates without big campaign war chests. 

Another challenge is the emergence of Beto O’Rourke, who lost his bid to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz while gaining a rabid national following and lengthy small-donor contributor list, and Harris, who represents California in the US Senate and received positive national exposure for her sharp questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The best thing going for Merkley and/or Inslee candidacies is a clear focus, which will be essential in a field of up to 20 candidates and a Democratic debate schedule that begins as early as this summer. Democratic voters – and GOP political strategists – will be watching closely to see who stands out from the pack based on substance and style and who has the best chance to go toe-to-toe with Trump in the general election.

 

Trump’s Bad News is Every Republican’s Bad News

Former Oregon Senator Gordon Smith lost his seat in 2008 in part because GOP presidential candidate John McCain pulled out of the state while Barack Obama pursued a vigorous grassroots campaign that boosted Democratic voter turnout. Similarly, the absence of a national campaign structure in Oregon this year will be a huge loss for the state's Republicans.

Former Oregon Senator Gordon Smith lost his seat in 2008 in part because GOP presidential candidate John McCain pulled out of the state while Barack Obama pursued a vigorous grassroots campaign that boosted Democratic voter turnout. Similarly, the absence of a national campaign structure in Oregon this year will be a huge loss for the state's Republicans.

News this week that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign war chest is down to $1.3 million is sounding alarms for Oregon Republicans.

In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton raised nearly nine times more money than Trump in May, and she entered June with about $42 million to spend. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager through the primaries who was fired on Monday, has called Trump’s campaign lean, with only 30 paid staffers. What cash and manpower there is will likely go to swing states, but Oregon isn’t viewed as one of those.

Donald Trump's decision to fire embattled campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is one of many signs of trouble for the presumptive Republican nominee's campaign leading into the November general election. 

Donald Trump's decision to fire embattled campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is one of many signs of trouble for the presumptive Republican nominee's campaign leading into the November general election. 

The bad news for Oregon Republicans is they won’t get much if any help from Trump to bolster their own campaigns. The absence of a national campaign structure is a huge loss. Just ask former two-term Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, who lost in 2008 to Jeff Merkley.

Smith became the first incumbent Oregon senator to lose re-election in 40 years. A key reason for his loss was the near absence of a campaign in Oregon by GOP presidential nominee John McCain compared to a vigorous grassroots effort by Barack Obama. What Republican apparatus there was got pulled in the latter stages of the campaign when McCain, strapped for money, concentrated on other states instead.

There is virtually no chance Trump will even try to score an upset victory in Oregon, which casts an even darker shadow over the nearly invisible campaigns of Republicans running for statewide office this year.

Donald Trump has less cash on hand than Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, whose campaigns have been suspended.  (Source:  NPR )

Donald Trump has less cash on hand than Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, whose campaigns have been suspended. (Source: NPR)

What seemed not that long ago to be a blockbuster election year in Oregon has turned into a bust. There are little known challengers trying to unseat Senator Ron Wyden and Governor Kate Brown. Dennis Richardson, the best known Republican running for statewide office after a better-than-expected challenge in 2014 to John Kitzhaber’s re-election, has so far run a low-profile campaign for secretary of state.

Figures from the FEC show Hillary Clinton with a robust campaign war chest approaching the general election. (Source:  NPR )

Figures from the FEC show Hillary Clinton with a robust campaign war chest approaching the general election. (Source: NPR)

Without the oomph of a national campaign, these GOP candidates may be left further in the fumes to their Democratic counterparts who will have the benefit of added fuel from an expected Hillary Clinton campaign team in Oregon.

The other political sparks that can incite higher voter turnout are ballot measures. Those don’t look too good for Republicans either. So far, only two measures have been certified for the November general election ballot in Oregon – one to repeal the mandatory 75-year-old retirement age for judges and the other to slap a major tax increase on corporations with $25 million or more in annual sales in the state. IP 28 is more likely to generate voter enthusiasm on the political left than the political right, even if it winds up losing.

A number of other measures, such as ones dealing with a higher minimum wage that might have bumped up turnout, have been scrapped because of the anticipated electoral brawl over IP 28. It's expected to suck up a lot of campaign cash.

Many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are voters who have hung out in the fringes of politics, many without casting ballots. Fundraising, campaign organizations and message discipline aren’t important to them and may even be antithetical to their vision of an ideal “tell-it-like-it-is" candidate. For political insiders who know through experience what it takes to win big-time races, Trump is a nightmare unfolding in slow motion.

Trump’s puny fundraising, his tiny staff and his ubiquitous media appearances in lieu of political advertising will affect more than his own poll numbers. They will affect many down-ballot candidates seeking re-election or, in Oregon’s case, trying to get noticed. Just ask Trump's 16 frustrated and defeated primary opponents.

First Lady Faces Conflict of Interest Charge

Governor Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes woke up this week reading a Willamette Week article accusing Hayes of conflict of interest, which the governor denies.

Governor Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes woke up this week reading a Willamette Week article accusing Hayes of conflict of interest, which the governor denies.

Willamette Week delivered a pre-election wallop to Governor John Kitzhaber's re-election campaign this week with an investigative report suggesting First Lady Cylvia Hayes may have benefitted financially from her special relationship with the governor. 

Rep. Dennis Richardson, Kitzhaber's underdog Republican challenger, seized on the story and said via a statement,"The latest scandal shows once again that the State of Oregon is being run more like a mafia than a public entity. The governor and first lady are not above the law."

Kitzhaber denies any wrongdoing by himself and Hayes. He said Hayes' contracts were reviewed carefully for any conflict of interest. "We were very proactive," Kitzhaber told The Associated Press. "Very rigorous and very transparent." AP reported Hayes declared three conflicts of interest in August 2013. Kitzhaber said Hayes has no current contracts that touch on state government.

The conflict of interest charge against Kitzhaber and Hayes comes amid a continuing controversy involving GOP Senate challenger Monica Wehby, whom Buzzfeed has accused of plagiarizing health care policy talking points from Karl Rove and her Republican primary challenger, Rep. Jason Conger. 

Neither charge may affect the outcome of the November election. Polls show Wehby trailing incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley by double digits and Kitzhaber's re-election has been assumed since he announced his bid for an unprecedented fourth term. However, the charges mark a significant turn in elections in Oregon, known as one of the most politically polite places in the country.

The piece about Kitzhaber, and its timing just before general election ballots arrive in voter mailboxes, is vintage Willamette Week. The lengthy story about Hayes' work was written by Nigel Jaquiss and carried the edgy headline: "First Lady Inc./Cylvia Hayes has two careers. She pursues both out of the governor’s office."

Jaquiss' piece details when Kitzhaber and Hayes became a couple and earlier brushes with conflict of interest that popped up before Kitzhaber was elected to his third term as governor. Neither Kitzhaber nor Hayes agreed to be interviewed by Jaquiss.

A Ho-Hum Election with Interesting Implications

In an election overshadowed by a court ruling outlawing same-sex marriage discrimination, only three out of 10 Oregonians bothered to fill out and send in ballots. For Democrats, it was a ho-hum primary, but for Republicans, it was a battle for what some called "the soul of the GOP."

Little unexpected occurred at the state level, but there were some dramatic and interesting decisions at the local level. Clackamas County voters retained two commissioners facing a challenge, Multnomah County voters overwhelmingly elected a new chair and commissioner. Washington County voters returned three incumbent commissioners, including two who faced vigorous challengers from the political left.

The GOP Race for a Senate Seat

In just a few weeks, Oregonians will begin to vote for candidates in the May primary. One of the most contentious races this cycle is the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. State Rep. Jason Conger (R-Bend) and Portland physician Monica Wehby are fighting it out for the opportunity to face incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley this fall.

The race has all kinds of drama for inside politicos — from the ongoing battle of a conservative vs. moderate candidate fight in Republican primaries to how the candidates are funded. Of particular interest of late is the Wehby/Andrew Miller of Stimson Lumber romantic relationship and the so-called lack of coordination between Wehby’s campaign and the pro-Wehby superpac funded, in part, by Stimson. All of this drama makes for interesting political gossip among the chattering class in Oregon.

Business Leaders Tackle Persistent Poverty

Oregon's poverty rate has continued to club even after the end of the last recession. Oregon business leaders will discuss how to meet their goal of reducing poverty sharply in the next six years.Oregon business leaders will gather a week from now and focus on a very untypical business topic — how to reduce Oregon's poverty level.

The Oregon Business Plan calls for reducing the level of poverty in the state from 17.2 percent to less than 10 percent by 2020. Sounds good, but how? And why do business leaders care?

The answer stretches over several subjects — ensuring a trained, available workforce, restoring economic prosperity to rural communities and making Oregon an appealing place for outside investors. After all, who wants to invest in a state that some call the Appalachia of the West?

Leadership summits often hover at the grasstops of problematic issues, but this year the Oregon Business planners are definitely getting into the thick weeds. After the obligatory morning sessions about success stories, the afternoon sessions dive into subjects such how to connect workforce training with actual careers, grow profitable minority and women-owned small businesses, finance public works that make communities ready for new development and tap the natural resources key to returning rural economic health.

A Happy Tale of Two Cities

It may seem strange to write about disparate developments in two Oregon communities in the same blog post, but what happened illustrates the solidarity of Oregon citizens when they face challenges.

In one case, hundreds of citizens, accompanied by a host of public officials, turned out in Vernonia this week to dedicate a new school building that replaces a former school ravaged by the disastrous floods of 2007 — which left many people homeless and resulted in a state and federal disaster declaration.  

The new school is a beautiful facility on higher ground that will help 600 Vernonia students from kindergarten through high school learn in a modern, quality environment. But it also is a tribute to the resilience of citizens who after the flood raised almost $50 million to finance, design and construct the new school. The last piece of the funding puzzle came in the waning hours of the 2011 legislature when Joint Ways and Means Committee leaders finally made good a session-long pledge to provide the last $3.9 million in bonding authority.

Citizens who ate the first meal in the cafeteria of a school that should last well into the 22nd century cheered as Reps. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and Debbie Boone, D-Cannon Beach, and Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, complimented them for pulling up their own bootstraps in the aftermath of the worst flood in the history in this small Columbia County community.

The phrase "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" reminded me of a time many years ago when, as deputy director of the Oregon Economic Development Department, I spoke to a graduate school class in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Leaders there wanted to hear about how Oregon had diversified its economy after the decline in its forest industry. They reasoned Oregon's experience could help them identify a strategy to diversify beyond making Michelin tires.

My French translator that evening had difficulty communicating the meaning of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." He ended up gesturing as he grabbed the seat of his pants and stood up.

That's what went through my head as I watched citizens in the small town of Vernonia celebrate their own success in lifting themselves up by the seat of their pants.