Writings and observations

There hadn’t been any certainty about it beforehand, but Oregon Representative David Wu has been getting generally good marks for his town hall performances (in McMinnville, much noted here, and comparably in Portland). And so are others.

Washington Representative Rick Larsen drew a very favorable editorial in the Seattle Times for his Everett event, before a crowd of 3,000: “So there is Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, gently, cautiously guiding his crowd through hours of discussion. The size of the audience, the decision to proceed, took fortitude. Larsen did what he had to do in a high-minded manner. The event at Memorial Stadium in Everett began with the singing of the national anthem. Get it? We are all Americans who love this country. Common ground. From there, Larsen deftly led the crowd, acknowledging arguments on all sides. By conceding all sides have a point, he neutralized some heat in the stadium.”

Representative Brian Baird, who had bagged out on live events in favor of telephonic, has changed course and scheduled some live events.

These things help. The craziness can be defused. Sanity can prevail. And maybe will.

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Just a few years ago one of the big issues in Oregon was the low number of state police on the roads – a number considered low per capita, and too spread out to provide realistic 24-hour service around the state. The concerns were real, and the legislature and governor have, in the last three years or so, increased the numbers of troopers. They are stiller lower than a level most Oregonians would like, but better than they were.

In Idaho, the number of state police hasn’t been so big an issue. But maybe it will. From Betsy Russell’s Spokesman-Review blog:

“Col. Jerry Russell, chief of the Idaho State Police, just presented stats to lawmakers in response to questions last month about the ISP’s staffing. When compared to the six surrounding states – Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Washington, and Oregon – Idaho ranks dead last for its number of troopers per citizen, with 11,288 citizens for every state trooper. Washington’s at 8,874. When compared to states of similar size – New Mexico, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Nebraska and Maine – Idaho again ranks dead last, by a huge margin.”

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Seems worthy of comment when an Idaho congressional candidate is bringing in, in support, the father and father in law of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Difficult to say, though, exactly what.

The candidate is Vaughn Ward, who was the first Republican in the field for the 1st House seat now held by Democrat Walt Minnick. Is a Palin connection really an asset? If so, how much? And why?

The generic-sounding quote on Ward’s site from the Alaska duo (Heath Palin did live in Idaho for a time back in the 50s and early 60s) raises an immediate question. The quote is, “Vaughn is a proven leader that will stand up for the people of Idaho,” Palin and Heath said. “We are proud to stand behind Vaughn Ward’s incredible record of public service.” Ward’s resume is certainly respectable, as an aide and a staffer and service in the military; but so far as his own web site indicates, this campaign is the first thing he’s ever led. That no bar to running for office, but “proven leader” doesn’t seem an applicable description.

We’ll watch and see what comes next.

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At the Wu town hall

The man directly behind us in line at yesterday’s McMinnville town hall meeting, held by Representative David Wu, was an 84-year-old retiree, attending with his wife. He was mad as hell (he’d surely agree with that description) and he knew what he planned to ask Wu if he got the chance. He told me, partly in rehearsal: “Is your federal death squad going to gas us, or shoot us in the head?”

He was totally serious. And deeply worried, which makes sense if you think that scenario is just around the bend. His wife, next to him, was using a walker: Would they be coming for her?

I told him that scenario was not true. It is a widely-disseminated lie based on a radical twisting of a relatively minor bill amendment proposed by Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, having to do with payment for doctor consults. Death squads are not in the bill. No one is proposing them. And the Medicare he and his wife have been relying on would not change much at all.

Where he got his information originally was unclear, but as he absorbed some of the details, the tension and the anger drained away. Inside at the meeting, he turned out to be among those called on to ask a question. When he did, the basic subject was the same, but his question was calm and dispassionate: I’ve been hearing about seniors not getting care under this plan, or worse. What can you tell about that? Wu’s response, in different words, was about the same as much. The man nodded, and sat down. He looked as if he felt a lot better.

There’s an impulse to ask some of the people who talk about death squads and such: How is this even credible to you? Why is it even believable? But cable TV is powerful, and the widespread spread of lies is readily managed – is being managed. The path out from this morass comes not to isolation but from open conversation. The energy level of the relatively few un-civil people at the Wu meeting seemed to flag as the meeting went on and more people, and Wu, had their say.

In the context, the banner headline in today’s Oregonian, “Hostile questions fill Wu’s town hall,” seems a little off-point. Not that there weren’t hostile questions, statements, mumbles and grunts; there were. But by no means all the questions were hostile, many of the pro-Wu people didn’t pick up ticket numbers to ask questions (many of those were there to listen, or maybe deny a seat to an anti-), and most of the people in the room (you could tell from the timing of applause and other factors) were in the reform group. Outside, there was a protest of sorts, but the crowd there too was mixed. There was no violence, and no one was blocked out.

Jeff Mapes’ Oregonian story – keyed around the lead’s “mostly hostile questions at a packed town hall Monday evening that brought a political circus” – was accurate but feels incomplete.

Incomplete in part because the context of the meeting, and standards for assessing it, are a little unusual.

By the norms of most town hall meetings, yes, this was highly unusual, and the level of criticism and hostility far higher than most. We’ve attended a bunch of town halls by members of Congress over the years, and seldom seen anything like this.

But that’s not a realistic standard for comparison. Compare instead this one to the town hall explosions around the country, experienced by some legislators, who were shouted down, saw their meetings disrupted, people unable to talk other than in a yell – in other words, other recent town halls this year where the subject was health care and organizers got busy trying to raise the temperature. The McMinnville event, by comparison, was civil, and the points of view widely varied. (Did anyone make any note of the people inside and out carrying signs advocating for single-payer?)

Another comparison comes to mind: A Vancouver (WA) town hall meeting held a couple of years ago by Representative Brian Baird. That one was in a school auditorium, attended by more than 500 people, and the people there were almost entirely opposed to Baird’s revised stay-awhile Iraq policy. You could tell from applause and other indicators that no more than a handful of people there were supportive of Baird (or the Bush Administration); the anger in the room was almost visible. Baird was much more on the hot seat, hearing his constituents saying their piece for about three hours, taking far more consistently furious questions in that Vancouver auditorium, than Wu in McMinnville.

There’s an irony here. Baird, who has done more than 300 town halls in his district during his decade-plus in Congress, isn’t doing them now because (he’s quoted as saying) “there’s a lynch mob mentality out there.”

Maybe there is, to a degree. But Wu’s McMinnville event demonstrated, more significantly, that the extreme aspects of the atmosphere can be controlled to the point that civility can be had. And it also showed, in the face of an 84-year-old constituent and many others besides him, the real value and usefulness of trying.

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Susan Hutchison

If the voters of King County elect as their next executive the former TV news anchor Susan Hutchison – and she is likely to get through the primary election – they won’t be able to say they weren’t warned about what is likely to happen next.

Hutchison is well positioned at the moment, running against five veteran Democratic elected officials (in the legislature and the county council), all men, who probably have a hard time drawing distinctions between themselves – none has decisively broken out of the pack. Hutchison, the one woman and the one philosophically to the right of the other four, has never run for office before, has fewer policy stands to demand, and is at once the fresh face and (owing to her TV work) probably the best-known countywide. Little wonder she leads in polling and is likely to end the month headed for the general election with one of the other four. How she fares in that revised structure is less clear.

But King County is beginning to learn more about Hutchison than they have known before. In those broadcast years she seemed to have a good television appearance and her smile was warm, but off-camera there seems to have been more to the story.

That grows out of the end of her two-decade run at KIRO-TV, in the time when she was replaced as anchor and later, in December 2002, terminated. Her removal as anchor seems to have had to do with ratings (KIRO was third in the market) and popularity scores, and there’s no big lesson to be drawn about Hutchison in any of that. Happens all the time in TV news.

Hutchison filed a lawsuit against KIRO alleging discrimination. Those case records have been sealed. She said in a statement that “There is no doubt that the hard road I chose in fighting against discrimination so many years ago also prepared me for the rigors of this campaign, and the demands of serving in public life.” But if so that’s a puzzlement, since she fought their release. She didn’t want them out.

News organizations including the Seattle Times which this week won their release extracted a different picture. The Times, which noted “no bombshell revelations,” also noted that “after being demoted from the anchor’s chair, her supervisors said Hutchison’s behavior caused her to lose credibility with them.” (The Stranger Slog headline on the story: “Deceptive, Delusional, Unpopular: A Portrait of Susan Hutchison.“)

There were specifics. One, perhaps minor, involved a period when she claimed sick leave but was seen happily river rafting near Bend. More significantly, she said she was retaliated against for standing up for another employee (an independent review found no evidence of retaliation; and around the time of her loss of the anchor’s spot, she began to describe KIRO (to people outside the station) as a “bad environment” owing to “drug abuse and sexual misconduct.” The latter, she said, involved affairs and sexual harassment by top managers at the station; evidence has been lacking.

Those documents are a little over half of the total record. More should be coming in a few days.

Other than a brief statement after the release of the records, in which she said she couldn’t talk about the situation, there’s been no further explanation. The statement that she couldn’t talk, though, is odd since the station’s attorney explicitly said that there’s nothing in the legal agreement that keeps her from doing so.

So put her in charge of a politically-sensitive, massive organization like King County government, and watch what happens . . .

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