Writings and observations

Gordon Smith
Gordon Smith

When in December Senator Gordon Smith spoke on the floor of the Senate to break, for the first time, with the Bush Administration on Iraq, and position himself mostly with Democrats, that event was widely viewed as having significant political consequences for Oregon politics in 2008. And it may. It was widely seen as a reflection of Smith’s possible difficulties as he looks toward a re-election campaign in an increasingly blue Oregon.

But his decision Wednesday to support a locally significant but far less known Democratic position could have even larger political effects.

That position is in support of the proposal by Oregon’s Democratic Governor, Ted Kulongoski, to raise cigarette taxes by 84.5 cents per pack, and use the money to underwrite health care for uninsured children. On Wednesday, he appeared together with Kulongoski at the Statehouse to endorse the idea.

Let us count some of the many ways this simple endorsement shook Oregon politics.

bullet It greatly improves the odds that Kulongoski’s proposal ultimately will succeed. News stories about the proposal in the week or two preceding the announcement centered on the idea that it may fail in the House. Because it involves a tax increase, at least five Republicans would have to cross over to join unanimous Democrats to pass it there – a tough goal. Talk had centered around simply referring the issue to the ballot. Smith’s announcement gives partisan cover to any Republicans interested in supporting it, and that could mean enough shift to allow to for passage.

Even if it doesn’t, his announcement will provide more sweeping support and cover – and the lack of major office holders in opposition – if it goes to the statewide ballot. His announcement changed the dynamic. And remember, this is no small issue.

bullet It offered a fresh infusion of political power to Kulongoski. The governor started his second term with what felt like a burst of energy, but you can think of this in terms of a car – every so often it needs a fill-up at the station to keep chugging ahead. Kulongoski was not out of gas, but he may have been approaching the quarter-filled mark this month as the Healthy Kids plan, which as much as anything is central to his agenda this year, seemed to run into trouble. Now, standing with Smith, he re-emerges as a bipartisan leader of an important program. He’s re-filled up, with a tiger in the tank.

bullet It muddles Smith’s philosophical stance as a Republican. What does Smith – and do the Republicans – stand for? A little harder to say now, at least much harder to put on a bumper sticker, since Smith has emerged in favor of a Democratic tax increase. And other Republicans, who may be opposed (many are), could be stuck pulling their punches against the Democrats on taxes; will they now dare blast Democrats on that front, realizing their one statewide office holder could be tarred with the same?

If the idea was to present himself as a Republican acceptable to Democrats – a maverick stance – he could get some traction there. But the advantage may be severely limited. To avoid splitting too far with very many other Republicans, he may have to re-emphasize their areas of agreement, a move back to the right that could undo what he’s just done.

bullet It may energize a primary challenge to Smith from the right. Talk about a “more conservative” challenger to Smith has been floated for a while now; with what results are unclear. Smith’s shifting stance on Iraq, as notable as it was, may not produce such a challenge, though, the way this announcement does. This time, after all, Smith has come out for a Democratic tax increase. That’s cutting deep into the philosophical bone. Few stances more quickly generate Republican primaries than an incumbent who has backed a Democratic tax plan.

bullet Primary aside, it is splitting Republicans. Consider this from Republican blogger Ted Piccolo: “Some insiders are now saying that this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is the first major vote that the Republicans were going to be taking the Democrats on and means so much to maintaining caucus control. Smith did not tell any caucus members about his betrayal until Tuesday night (last night) the night before his press conference.”

And, from a followup post, this: “I have been on the phone with various party operatives over the past few hours and they are stunned, stunned at the turn of events over the past 24 hours. Some are afraid that the elected Republicans still don’t get the losses the public handed out last November and fear a trek deeper into the wilderness.”

bullet It stands to solidify Democratic control of the House and provide its first big win there. Piccolo again: “Let me give kudos to Speaker [Jeff] Merkley. The guy knows how to win. I only wish that our leadership would have figured this out about ten years ago. Republicans can learn something from the Speaker. Oh and I am sure the Smith people enjoy the praise they are receiving from the Democrats.” The Republican votes needed for passage remain uncertain, they’re nearer than they were.

The Democrats, as you might imagine, sound giddy.

bullet Smith may be stuck with state issues now. Traditionally, candidates for the U.S. Senate, incumbents included, can avoid wading into contentious state government issues if they choose, saying their race is about federal matters. As Kari Chisholm points out in Blue Oregon, “That excuse is no longer available to you. You’ve put your marker down on Healthy Kids – and thank you, by the way – but you’re now open for business. Reporters, bloggers, legislators, everyone gets to ask now: What’s your position on House Bill X? Senate Bill Y? Ballot Measure Z?”

Quite a bit of prospective impact for a simple little endorsement.

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The old description of editorial writers as the people who ride onto a battlefield after the fighting is done, to shoot the wounded, may fit neatly today’s Seattle Times editorial on the proposed expansion of NASCAR into Kitsap County.

The NASCAR proposal, which would set a region-scale track operation in a location with inadequate transportation capacity (meaning, the crowds of track-goers would swamp local highways and ferries) and incur massive public subsidies for the privilege, certainly has seen some skepticism in this spot for some months. (We see no problem with a NASCAR facility located in a more logical place, and which pays its own way.)

Over the last third or so of last year, public opposition to it, especially locally in Kitsap, seems to have solidified. By the time the legislature – which was being asked for legislation to allow it local and for money for its private backers – convened in January, it seemed to have been politically adjudged DOA. Nothing that’s happened since seems to have changed that, as a string of newspaper headlines has made clear.

So the editorial about the current NASCAR legislation might have been great six months ago (before legislative introduction, true, but when its contours were known) rather than very good now. It still has some real muscle. The bill, it said, is “is a slick piece of work that is tougher to stomach with every turn of its 57 pages. . . . The outrageous number of exceptions and tax breaks should also give legislators pause. . . .” And it makes sound points about the hash it would make of important provisions of local planning law.

Sometimes the wounded do merit shooting.

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Mount HoodWe don’t maintain to have perfect insight into the minds of extreme sport enthusiasts. Part of the thought process does seem clear enough, though: Society has become so safe, so boring, so un-challenging, that somewhere there ought to be a place where you can still test yourself against the elements, against the wild.

Mountain climbers have sought such a place on Mount Hood, where the peaks rise higher than 10,000 feet (it rises to 11,237 feet) and the risks can be real. In the last few months, people have died on that trek. But just last week, three climbers were rescued, efficiently, because they carried and activated electronic location devices. The timing was remarkable: Just then, a bill in the Oregon Legislature, proposed by Representative John Lim, to require that climbers moving above 10,000 feet carry such locators, was moving through the legislature.

The mountain-climbing community was outraged. “Self-reliance and knowledge are what’s going to keep you alive on the mountain,” said one at a hearing. Such locators may give climbers a false sense of security give them an easy out instead of exerting themselves to get themselves out of risk. Underlying seemed to be this: You’re civilizing one of the few ways we have to get away from societys safety nets, to be truly self-reliant.

Part of the problem with leaving it at that, though, is that when people on the mountain go missing, searches are ordinarily launched. Such searches can be highly expensive, meaning that – apart from whatever responsibility other people in society feel toward the climbers – these searches can cost a great deal, and can put the searchers themselves at some risk.

So how about this as a compromise . . .

Amend the bill to say that if climbers don’t want to carry locators, they have two other choices. They can agree, in writing, to pay all costs of any search for them, and maybe a liability fee beyond that. Or, they can state in writing that no search for them should be launched, and emergency organizations won’t be required or encouraged to.

That would certainly take care of the societal safety net.

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