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Posts published in April 2008

Another Senate round

Taken generally, there wasn't a lot of news out of the one televised Oregon Senate primary debate tonight - excepting a reference to a primary winner endorsement (more on that below). But it did offer a few indicators, just a couple of weeks or so out from the start of balloting. (The debate, we should note, was sponsored by KGW-TV and the Oregonian.)

There are four candidates in the Democratic primary; three were present this evening - House Speaker Jeff Merkley, Portland activist Steve Novick and Eugene realtor Candy Neville. Neville presumably was there largely on the strength of a recent poll showing her in a close second place to Novick, with Merkley trailing distantly. That result feels like an outlier, and the larger probability is that Merkley and Novick are in a fairly close race. But Neville's passion for certain subjects, primarily Iraq and veterans, came through as in earlier encounters.

She seemed nervous going in; in the first half of the program her answers were halting, and she blew at least one question (on bringing legislative bacon back to Oregon) completely. But she toughened as she went. Merkley seemed cautious and stiff at first, loosening up as he went. Novick was his usual blunt self and came across effectively throughout (his gift for converting wonkish data into plain speech was fully in evidence), though he seemed to exercise a little more caution tonight than on some earlier occasions when his sharp tongue caused him grief (as on bloggers and some other subjects).

Their issues answers were, overall, strikingly similar. (Just one question seemed to elicit genuinely distinct answers, a query on the proposed Cascade Locks casino: Neville was generally in favor, Novick leaned against, and Merkley wasn't sure).

And there was little attack mode. About halfway through, Merkley brought up some Novick snark against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and others, but that was about the only explicit direct shot fired. (There were some subtle shots back and forth, here and there.)

The most striking moment, though, was a reconciliatory note. A few days back, Novick was quoted after one encounter as suggesting he thought more highly of independent Senate candidate John Frohnmayer than he did of Merkley, that he "would be a better senator than Jeff Merkley" (although he did say he would endorse Merkley if he were the Democratic nominee). The resulting storm among Democrats may have given Novick pause. Tonight, he went somewhat out of his way not only to specifically throw his support to the Democratic nominee but also to encourage Frohnmayer to drop out of the race, and his supporters to back the Democrat. It felt like a sharp pivot, and it's not hard to imagine the reasons.

No great excitement or news. But suggestive of a race that's highly competitive as the final lap approaches.

Kitz on health care

John Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber

The doctor was in today at McMinnville: John Kitzhaber, physician, former governor and current medical system activist, had diagnosis and a fair amount of prescription. And it put the rest of the health care talk and activity - by the presidential candidates and within Oregon's government - in some perspective.

Kitzhaber, now on the road a lot spreading his message well beyond Oregon as well as occasionally inside, leads the Archimedes Movement, aimed at sweeping, systemic health care reform. His take (which we don't entirely share) is that the new Healthy Oregon program recently underway, and proposals by presidential candidates (presumably mainly the two Democrats, though he didn't get into a lot of detail on this) are useful in terms of getting people into the system, covered by some sort of insurance, but that's a limited benefit. Kitzhaber's focus, on the other hand, is on changing the system fundamentally.

His presentation makes a case hard to argue with - and most people probably would implicitly recognize most of it as true. Of the factors contributing to a person's health, he points out, only about 10% is health care - the rest has to do with things such as a person's inherited biology, environment and manner of living. Those factors are little addressed in health care, he notes. He points out too that an overwhelming portion of the costs in the health care system is spent in treating people with chronic conditions (such as diabetes, circulatory disorders and others); but all the system's financial incentives are aimed at treating acute conditions. There's no financial incentive to treat conditions and health factors while they're small-scale, easy to handle and inexpensive; the real money only comes into play when they become massive and life threatening. You'll search in vain, he points out, for new and expensive substance abuse or obesity treatment wings at hospitals, while heart wings and cancer centers are everywhere. "The system is set up to reward acute cases," he said.

On top of that, the system is horribly inefficient in other ways, notably the lack of automation which keeps doctors from sharing patient information, and makes information handling enormously more expensive and drives up error rates.

Looked at this way, a picture of the system as it ought to be begins to move into focus: A realignment of incentives and efficiencies.

Our impression, from watching the development in Healthy Oregon (which Kitzhaber endorsed, and approves as far as it goes), is that it does start to move in some of these directions, and pieces of the Clinton and Obama plans do too.

But Kitzhaber's unique contribution may be in the way he thinks about health care wholly and systematically. If universal health care coverage of some sort really does materialize in the next couple of years, that could be step one in making more sense of the system. Some of where Kitzhaber is going may be step two.

A side note: Kitzhaber has lost none of his flair as a speaker, and someone encountering him for the first time now would have no trouble imagining how he became a two-term governor still popular even as he declared Oregon to be ungovernable. If he chose, he'd still be the strongest political campaigner in the state. Not that he gave the slightest signal of any interest in a return to that arena.


Question arose in comments a couple of days ago which suggests something more than a quick reply: "I’d just be interested in any history you have on the chances of a challenger beating a weak incumbent in a rematch (as a Grant-Sali race would have been) versus a new candidate taking out the incumbent."

That had to do with a post on the 1st district U.S. House race, where the Democratic field shrunk from two candidates to one. The departed was Larry Grant, who ran against Republican Bill Sali two years ago and was hoping for a rematch. Still standing, and now the presumptive Democratic nominee, is Walt Minnick, who has not run for this office before but did run for U.S. Senate in 1996.

The question breaks into two parts, one having to do with beating incumbents, the other concerning whether rerunners might be better positioned to do it.

It's hard to get scientific about this because the data is pretty small - in most places around the country in recent years, and certainly in Idaho. The reality is that not many incumbents lose anymore, either in primary or general elections. Some do, as a number of Republican U.S. House members found out in 2006 (or Democrats in 1994). But it's unusual. (more…)

The last game

The chant wasn't something on the order of, "Go Sonics!" - although, as the Seattle Sonics happened to win last night's game against the Dallas Mavericks, the crowd was certainly supportive - but rather - "Bennett sucks!"

Bennett being Clay Bennett, leader of the group which owns the Sonics and plans to move the team to Oklahoma City.

We'd guess that before long, someone will launch a new basketball team at Seattle, likely not major league but something professional. The audience for basketball clearly is there; money can be made. Question: Is that good enough? Or is it that the idea of major league, as opposed to basketball, is what's important here? And if that is, why?

Spokane’s Iraq revolt

You have to wonder whether this will be picked up on elsewhere. Maybe it won't. But that it has happened in a place like Spokane, well . . .

The story is that the Spokane County Republicans, the Spokesman-Review reports, "formally rejected the Iraq policy of their current president and their party’s likely nominee, saying American troops shouldn’t be on overseas missions for more than six months without a formal declaration of war. At a county convention that some party leaders said may have set an attendance record for Republicans in Spokane, supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul Saturday handily defeated an attempt to scale back the platform’s stringent limitation on using American troops on foreign soil."

Aha! It's those Ron Paul people checking in again; and they did show some substantial strength in Spokane during the February caucuses. Still, they had similar strength in a lot of other places around Washington too. And the Iraq battle at the Spokane organization means that although their candidate won't be a Republican nominee (though they still sent a pile of Paul delegates to the state convention), they may not yet be done in pursuing his agenda.

WA Gov: Price tags

Is the Washington governor's race a big deal? Of course. Is it competitive? The polling generally indicates as much, and - this is a reasonable indicator - both Democratic incumbent Chris Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi are raising piles of money, what could amount to somewhere around $20 million between them by the time it's over.

But we've not felt for a long time that this is an evenly-balanced playing field. Some comments from Goldy at Horse's Ass outline some (and there are others too) of the pertinent reasons why.

The big difference, in my opinion, will be the lessons learned from 2004, a race in which an overconfident Gregoire allowed Rossi to get away with running as an amiable tabla rasa, on to which voters could project a fanciful image of the Rossi they’d like him to be.

First rule of political campaigning: . . . define your opponent. And you can be damn sure that a substantial chunk of Gregoire’s (and her surrogates’) war chest will be spent doing exactly that. Rossi is simply too conservative for WA state, on both social and economic issues, and this time around he’s not going to get away with refusing to talk about issues that don’t poll well for his campaign. There are also character issues regarding Rossi — his dubious business ethics and his documented reputation as a downright mean spirited campaigner — and in 2008, voters are going to be informed of that too.

Since Rossi’s near miss in 2004, David Irons, George Nethercutt and Mike!™ McGavick have all tried to duplicate the Rossi model — a low-key, likable, issue-less run toward the middle — and all with disastrous results. That strategy simply won’t play here anymore… at least not if your Democratic opponent is awake.

Without here passing judgement on the validity of each of the arguments against Rossi, we don't have a lot of doubt that they'll be made. And the point about Irons, Nethercutt and McGavick ought to be food for mulling.

The suit is on

Over the course of a lot of years, we've talked to a lot of Republican Idaho elected officials who in no way wanted a closed primary (of the sort Oregon has, where you have to declare party affiliation to vote in a party's primary). The fat is now burning. From an e-mailed state GOP release on Friday:

The Idaho Republican Party filed suit late Friday in U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho against the Idaho Secretary of State, in an effort to close the party’s primary elections process, so only registered Republicans would be allowed to vote in Republican primaries.

“The party presently has expressed its choice to implement closed primary elections, and we have taken concrete action to carry out these wishes,” said Sidney Smith, Executive Director of the Idaho Republican Party. “We hope this suit will move quickly through the process and lead to an effective structure that respects the rights of our party members.”

This session, the legislature did not implement an appropriate closed primary system such as the “call for ballot” process. The Idaho Republican Party urged the legislature to approve closed primary legislation this year, in order to avoid litigation, but several proposals were unsuccessful.

Therefore, according to the resolution approved by the party Central Committee in January of this year, the party was required to file suit within 10 days of adjournment of the legislature, thereby making this suit unavoidable.

Won't affect this year's primary, the calendar being too late for a serious change now. But it could - who knows? - have some effect on this year's politics . . .

Ammons is out?

Well, this is going to be the real news of the season at Olympia: Dave Ammons is leaving the Associated Press to go to work for the secretary of state's office.

We've not had the pleasure of meeting Ammons, in person; but years of reading his weekend columns on Washington politics for so many years makes that seem a detail. Political reporter at Olympia for the AP since 1971, he may be one of the handful of truly key statehouse reporters in the country, in place so long as to develop an overwhelming memory of what has been (with insight into what will be), and the best news platform of all, the AP. For those outside the news business: Most news used by newspapers and broadcasters gets there via the AP, and the AP's coverage of stat events and politics is what most people around a given state read about it.

David Postman of the Seattle Times wrote a 2001 column on Ammon. It's worth a read, and a reflection on how little point there would be to such a column at all if the subject were most journalists. But Ammon - the source, certainly, of a large chunk of what we've come to learn about Washington politics - is one of the exceptions.

Three to two to one

Former Governor Cecil Andrus, who in 2006 supported Larry Grant for the U.S. House and this year supports his primary opponent, Walt Minnick, for the job, played master of ceremonies at the downtown Boise press conference at which Grant announced he is pulling out of this year's race. With the earlier departure from the contest of Rand Lewis, that gives Minnick the direct shot at the nomination.

Andrus mentioned in passing that he'd just learned of Grant's decision today, but thin rumors were floating around Boise yesterday. There were matters of timeliness. One was that, as Grant said, the time was about to arrive when the candidates would need to get into doing comparatives against each other - some sort of attack, direct or subtle. If Democrats wanted to avoid that, now would be the time for dropout. There's also word that Minnick's fundraising - expected to be released within a few days - has gone well, crossing the half-million line and running ten times or more what Grant has raised so far. There's also the point, raised at the press conference, that the national Democratic Party has targeted the Idaho 1st this year, but couldn't get involved while the primary contest was ongoing. So this could bring them in earlier.

A piece of this probably does have to do with joining forces; Grant could have done a separate withdrawal rather than the joint appearance and endorsement he did do. (After the press conference, Minnick and Grant and for a while Andrus repaired to a nearby coffee shop and spent a considerable time in apparently detailed discussions.) That would seem to suggest that, rhetoric notwithstanding, the Democrats do recognize that their target, Republican Representative Bill Sali, will be very tough to take out. And he will - barring some sea change in the ground-level structure of Idaho politics, there's not a lot of good reason for thinking Sali will fail to at least match his vote results from last time.

But there is, evidently, a certain amount of discipline on the Democratic side, which would be a first step toward shifting the environment. That and focus: Minnick vs. Sali, a battle of extremely different people.

The Way It Was with Glen Taylor

Glen Taylor

Glen Taylor

You can still run into Idaho people who recall Glen Taylor, a U.S. senator from 1945-51, who will write him off as an embarrassment or worse. Cecil Andrus, who years later would enter politics and become governor, recalled that as a young man he saw Taylor come through town and do his stand-up campaigning bit, and thinking that if this was what politics was, he wanted no part of it.

Taylor was by profession an entertainer, a singer and dancer and skit player in the old traveling show circuit that began to die out with the coming of talkie movie theatres. But he was also substantive, a true ideologue (probably the closest to a true socialist Idaho ever sent to Congress) and surprisingly substantive. And politically courageous besides.

Which is by way of seconding College of Idaho Professor Jasper LiCalzi's suggestion of Taylor's memoir, The Way It Was With Me, as a good read. Taylor was as entertaining a writer as he must have been on stage, and he includes tales that could only have been told by someone who knew his political career was far behind him, and who had moved for good from the state where he ran. LiCalzi remarks in his blog post that "This is the most enjoyable political memoir I have ever read but it is the person that is most fascinating." Not hard to feature (even if the book may not be especially easy to find).

When do we get to February?

April snow

Snow in the Blue Mountains Tuesday/Stapilus

So when is this winter thing supposed to be over? Heading into the Blue Mountains Tuesday - and yes, this is the Blues but still, this was April 8 - was heading into snow, then slush, then snowpack, and for about a quarter-hour near the top, genuine blizzard with the snow solidly horizontal. The trucks were spooked. So ws most everyone else.

So much for a nice pleasant April drive.

First chore headed out this morning in Boise was to scrape an inch-plus of snow off the car. (After hearing reports about rough travel to the northwest through Snoqualmie.)

The snow hasn't stuck. But hey. This is supposed to be April.

One acknowledgement

Some credit to Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter, for owning up. Some governors in his position might bluff through, saying the last legislative session was just fine; or might fuzz over the fault in lack of progress in a long list of key areas (transportation being a big one Otter was working on directly).

Otter acknowledges that he - his relations with the legislature - are part of the reason for all that. And in fact, the fault is best spread around; there's a tendency to focus on one easily identifiable person when large-scale things happen, but usually a lot of people are involved. As here.

Having said all that, Otter has been going public recently with quite a few statements blasting away at legislators. And you have to wonder, with two rocky sessions now under his belt, if session 3 is going to be a lot different.