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Posts published in “Day: March 15, 2009”

The hall in McMinnville

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley at the McMinnville town hall/Stapilus

Town hall meeting number four for new Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, held (like Senator Ron Wyden's most recent in the same county) at the McMinnville Police Station, had some push and pull within the audience. Maybe there's something reflective of politics generally there: A majority of the crowd of about 100 who wanted to talk about the economy, finance reform and health care, and a smaller (albeit determined) group out to talk - as opposed to question or listen - on illegal immigrants and the citizenship of Barack Obama.

Merkley set up his town hall to run a lot like Wyden's; he was still new at it, and there were kinks to work out. The basics remained the same. There was the relatively nonpartisan nature of it, for one thing; Merkley gave over the floor for while at the beginning to Republican state Representative Jim Weidner, R-Yamhill. (His big topic, and a large one in the area, is the Highway 18 Newberg-Dundee bypass, a road improvement which has been sought after for a couple of decades and may be pursued for quite a few years yet.) Merkley opened with a description of his committee assignments, and what he was doing on them; much of the interest ran to his most recent appointment, to the banking committee, a slot he'd wanted but originally thought he might not be able to get. And the thing was dominated by questions. The audience for the most part seemed to center on the topics of economic recovery and health care.

And on that front he seemed well aligned with the audience, which probably leaned Democratic but wasn't monolithic. (Asking how many favored a single-payer health plan, he drew about 30-40 raised hands; just one raised a hand in opposition.) When he asked, "Did you see that outrageous story about AIG?" he drew an appreciative response from the group, or most of it, which was loaded for bear on the subject. What exactly Congress can or will do about the outrage, however, remained a little less clear.

The inevitable difficulty with the open format - which has the great advantage of fostering open discussion, which it did - is the ease with which it can be hijacked, which happened twice.

First was a person evidently suckered in by the web chatter that Obama was born in Kenya and wasn't a U.S. citizen. The other, longer, case involved a group determined that illegal immigrants were ruining the country and costing taxpayers massively; one called out, "Congress is the problem! You are the problem!" One seemed to argue in favor of an American equivalent of the Great Wall of China (apparently sufficiently unaware of history to know that it didn't work out well there either). That group seemed to want no other subject addressed. Merkley kept cool throughout, though, and pulled the discussion onward, over to health care.

Keeping the debate focused, and the facts in order . . . always a challenge . . .

A bull market in hate?

Hard times lead to hard feelings, and worse. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and related groups around the country, reports finding 926 such groups around the country, "up more than 4 percent from the 888 groups in 2007 and far above the 602 groups documented in 2000."

It goes on: "As in recent years, hate groups were animated by fears of Latino immigration. This rise in hate groups has coincided with a 40 percent growth in hate crimes against Latinos between 2003 and 2007, according to FBI statistics. Two new factors were introduced to the volatile hate movement in 2008: the faltering economy and the Obama campaign."

Some caution is called for, though, in evaluating all this. One of the newcomers to the list is the Eugene-based Pacifica Forum, which seems to fall into a gray area. Pacifica has given a platform to anti-semitic speakers in recent years, and the SPLC seems to have concluded that the relationship is closer than simply offering a soapbox. The Eugene Register Guard, which has watched it in action for years at close range, offers this interpretation:

"If the Pacifica Forum represents any kind of threat, it’s a small-bore threat indeed. The number of people who are actively involved can be counted on two hands, and among them are a high quotient of people guilty of nothing worse than being stubborn fools. Listing the forum as a hate group will serve mainly to pump up its sense of importance, and bolster its self-image as a martyred defender of free speech. The forum began, and functioned for years, as a platform for controversial political and historical analysis of every ideological stripe. Among its speakers were sharp critics of U.S. support for Israel, and some of these stepped over the line into outright anti-Semitism. When the forum was called out on this, its organizers mistook public criticism for intimidation. They remained blind to the difference between speakers who expressed strong views on matters of public policy and those who demonized entire groups of people. They confused their bad judgment with open-mindedness."

So some caution and acceptance of gray areas is called for. And numbers of a given category can rise and fall depending on how you define the category.

The SPLC points to 26 groups around the Northwest, 12 in Washington and seven each in Oregon and Idaho. In the national context, these aren't massive numbers. States in the south and border-south have many more per capita. It's a part of the landscape up here, certainly. But might this be an indicator that the Northwest is not a specific breeder of this kind of activity? (more…)

A tale of two bonds

spokane schools

From the Spokane School District 81 website

Those into parsing the details of election returns will want to turn toward a post on the Spokane Spokesman-Review Spin Control blog, which gets into the distinctive results of two March 10 public bonding votes in Spokane. One (the larger) passed, the other failed. The votes weren't close.

In fact, the one that passed, a $288 million school bond, was estimated at 15 times larger than the city of Spokane bond, which failed.

Why that result? Reporter Jim Camden points to a much larger campaign budget for the school bond than for the city's - $145,000 to $6,600 - and more sophistication on the part of the school campaign. But there was also this: "the city bond issue was for a fairly amorphous set of projects, such as an evidence warehouse, some new courtrooms, an expansion of an animal shelter. The District 81 bond issue was for specific schools, and the approval margin is significantly higher in the neighborhoods around those schools, presumably because parents who live there know what needs to be done to their kids’ classrooms."