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Winding down scene: Astoria

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley in Astoria (with Brad Avakian to the right)/Stapilus

From a distance, if you didn’t look too hard, the gaggle moving along Commercial Street in downtown Astoria, invading businesses here and there, might have looked like an unruly gang, one of protesters carrying signs . . . except that they were peaceful enough, as you saw when you got closer. They included, after all, a United States senator, a candidate for the Senate, and a bunch of other local and state Democrats . . . All they were asking for was votes, which, this being Astoria and they being Democrats, wasn’t unreasonably difficult . . .

This was one of the last campaign days, to put the lead point on it, for Democratic Senate nominee Jeff Merkley, and he was spending it with Senator Ron Wyden and other candidates (including Kate Brown for secretary of state and Brad Avakian for labor commissioner) heading down the north Oregon coast, down 101 to Newport. They gathered outside the Clatsop County Democratic headquarters, where something of a confrontation was underway.

The hot issue in Clatsop (there was a big ballot issue contest on it in the primary) concerns development of a liquid natural gas loading station. Most voters at least in the county are opposed, and LNG-with-a-slash-through signs are all over the Astoria area. But the development has backers too, and about a dozen of them showed up waving “I support” signs. (Several wore shirts or had other indicators of Republican support; one woman wore a shirt saying, “Don’t be insane, Vote McCain”). One of them, a man who seemed furiously angry, shouted back at the Democrats for a while.

When Merkley showed up, he moved generally around the crowd, and spent a while with several of the pro-LNG people. There were no votes to be had there – Merkley and they were simply on different sides of this one – but the encounter managed to remain cordial. Not a mean feat.

Reviewing Merkley’s campaign opening announcement in September 2007, this space said that he “seemed a little less fully-formed than those two [Sam Adams and Barbara Roberts]. There is in his voice a halting quality, a little catch, that for a second or two (no more) periodically makes you wonder if he forgot what he was about to say – except that he then continues and rolls on, and builds. He lacked a certain smoothness those others have (and Gordon Smith does, and Steve Novick). Something about his delivery seems subtly to undercut some of the emotion he builds; something in his style suggests a modesty calling into question whether he should be doing all this.”

The Merkley diving into varied one on ones and then commanding – and that would be the right word – the crowd of 50 or so in Astoria, not was halting or modest at all. He was fully formed, roaring ahead, every bit a strong campaigner, better than he once was, and better than he’s sometimes been given credit for. At times, he has come come across as diffident; today his energy level seemed cranked on high. He is a different, and more effective, campaigner. He wound up with a series of imperatives to the Democrats: “Let’s get it done.”

Democrat after Democrat warned that the election was not won yet and pleaded for all-out work till Tuesday night. (Brown, who recalled winning her first legislative race by seven votes, and now could be in a somewhat tighter race than originally expected, maybe most emphatically.) But an air of optimism seemed to underlie that.

Wyden’s presence may have given a little extra boost to the group. Likely the most popular politician in Oregon and not up for election, he seemed to be having a good time working the crowd and the streets. (And, while not tearing into Senator Gordon Smith, who Merkley is trying to unseat, Wyden kept reiterating his support of Merkley.)

The pro-LNG group wound up less standing apart from the scene, than being either integrated into the Democratic activity, or standing in counterpoint – in a clear minority stance – to it. The roving Democratic street event that followed the rally looked of a piece; with internalized confidence about what’s coming, it seemed as if it would simply absorb and work with anything it encountered.

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