Eastern Oregon Summit: A Glimpse of Bi-Partisanship Hundreds of Miles from the State Capitol:
Hermiston, Oregon - - June 17, 2022:
Sen. Janeen Sollman (D-Hillsboro), Rep. Bobby Levy (R-Pendleton) Sen. Kayse Jama (D-Portland) and NWPA's very own Doug Riggs.
"Maybe moving the State Capitol to Eastern Oregon would make a difference," said a farmer in boots and a weathered hat. After listening to twenty-plus speakers talk of collaboration and building relationship, I was hard pressed to disagree with him.
11 legislators, 11 County Commissioners, 3 Mayors, Governor Kate Brown, 2 of the 3 main candidates for Governor, education and economic development leaders (including Local Workforce Boards, chambers, businesses, etc.), building trades groups and more than 200 of their closest friends gathered in-person at Hermiston High School for the "Eastern Oregon Summit."
Hosted by the Eastern Oregon Women's Caucus, the group reconvened after a two year hiatus brought on by lockdowns, social distancing and the COVID pandemic. In-person tours earlier in the week took legislators to trapse through the massive Three-Mile Canyon Dairy Farm, wander fields irrigated with water stored through an innovative "aquifer recharge" program, and take a peek into innovative housing initiatives in rural Oregon.
But while the speeches focused on topics like housing, water, infrastructure and federal funding, nearly every speaker also hailed the importance of "listening to others," "building personal relationships," and "working collaboratively to build a better Oregon for all of us."
Two of Oregon's federal delegation hooked in via electronic connection (Sen. Wyden and Rep. Cliff Bentz), but U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley joined the gathering in person (and in cowboy boots), focusing on CARES Act funding, water and transportation infrastructure. The Senator praised local governments (specifically Counties and Cities) for rapidly and appropriately distributing federal funds to businesses and individuals in need, and suggesting that that local (and not state) delivery method should be prioritized for any similar future efforts. He touted "Community Initiated Projects" (what most of the rest of the world would describe as "earmarks") that he and Sen. Wyden have been pushing, including 149 Oregon projects that will soon receive federal funds.
The nearly dozen state legislators (more than 10% of the entire Legislative Assembly) spent much of their time touting the value of these types of "East/West" legislative exchanges. Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland) noted that "80% or more" of all bills are bi-partisan. Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) reminisced about an earlier trip when he brought two overloaded vans full of progressive inner-city Portlanders to Pendleton, and the impact it made on their perspective. Rep. Janeen Sollman (D-Hillsboro) noted that "It's critical to find common ground." Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Pendleton) summed up the general mood of the bi-partisan group: "We come from different parties and from different parts of the state. I may sometimes view you as an opponent, but I will never view you as my enemy."
Sidebar conversations proliferated along the sides of the hall, giving participants an opportunity to touch base on everything from potential legislation to address voracious Junipers draining regional creeks and streams, to additional legislative attention to homeless youth, or the need for improved and expanded trades apprenticeship programs for high school age youth.
The final panel of the day gave an opportunity for the already contentious race for Governor to take center stage. Democrat Tina Kotek, and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson appeared in-person, while Republican Christine Drazen gave a pre-recorded video presentation. All three candidates answered the same list of questions posed by a local moderator. Kotek continued the theme of working together, touting her work with former Legislator Cliff Bentz on the Eastern Oregon Economic Zone, and noting that she wants to be the "chief facilitator, and the chief coordinator" for the state. Drazen, who appeared perfectly tuned in to the political sentiments of the crowd stated bluntly that "The place we're left today after 20 years of Democrat control is a mess." But the fact that she didn't appear in person seemed to leave many in the crowd disappointed. Johnson hit her stride mid-way through her talk, generating enthusiastic applause after declaring that when it came to state agency leaders, she would "hold them accountable...and make them instruments of yes." She drew the most smiles and the loudest applause when she claimed to be an "equal opportunity pisser-offer."
Already overtime by this point, the crowd began drifting out, many facing a 3 hour drive back to the Portland area, or a 3 hour and 10 minute drive to Ontario. The summit offered a good model for improving relationships between the two parties, as well as a template for other regions to follow. (Central Oregon and Southern Oregon Legislators have hosted similar events in past years, but the scale of this gathering eclipsed both of those events). Perhaps it foreshadows a more collegial in-person (and in-Salem, as it's highly unlikely that we'll see the State Capitol moved to Hermiston any time soon) 2023 legislative session.