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Posts published in September 2009

A bigger transformation

The McMenamins brothers have done some spectacular rehabs over the years, saving a whole bunch of buildings in Oregon and Washington (stretching some distance from their base in Portland) that probably would have gone the way of the wrecking ball otherwise. The indications from this next one may suggest an expanded level of ambition even beyond that.

That would be the Tacoma Elks Temple, a large and empty structure across from the city's old city hall building. Mike McMenamim was quoted as saying, "That's one of the most fun buildings I've ever come across."

Could be a great bonus for a slice of Tacoma that could use one.

Closed primaries, maybe

Those of us interested in political analysis will be poring over what the parties in Idaho Republican Party v. Ysursa provide in the coming weeks and months: Nothing less than evidence of who, exactly, votes in Idaho Republican Party primaries. Dry to some people, true, but lip-smacking to some of us.

All this comes out of a decision - a partial decision out today - in that case, where the Idaho Republican Party is seeking to get federal court, in this case, through Judge Lynn Winmill, to change Idaho election law.

For a couple of generations, the procedure for Idaho voters in primary elections has been that anyone can vote for any party's nominees. You can vote in the intra-party races in the Republican or Democratic parties or neither, but only for one. That's a little different from the "blanket" primaries - where you can bounce back forth between parties, voting for a Republican for the Senate and a Democrat for governor on the same ballot - which have been thrown out by courts. But not all that different. The closed system, backed by activists like Rod Beck and supported by current Idaho Republican Chair Norm Semanko, presumably would mandate a system something like Oregon's: You register to vote as a member of a party or as non-affiliated, and then you can vote for that party's nominees. And only that party.

The point is that people who are not members of a party can, under the current Idaho system, cross over to vote in another party's primary. Since so many Idaho elections are essentially settled in the Republican primary, the presumption has been that a good number of independents and Democrats do cross over to influence the outcome. That violates the right and ability of people to decide with whom they want to associate, an important point in many places but especially in a political context.

That can get overstated. For all the talk of crossover voting, you can't find a lot of examples in recent elections where it seems likely to have changed the outcome. The elected officials of the Idaho Republican Party are, with remarkable and even monotonous near-unanimity, conservative. And it's hard to buy Semanko's contention that (as Winmill described it) "'every single Republican who has been on the primary ballot since 1988' has modified his or her political message, ideology and position on public policy issues in order to persuade nonparty members to vote for him/her in the primary election." Really? Even such conservatives as Bill Sali? Modified from what?

Still, the larger point is a serious one, compelling at the least. And the tone of Winmill's decision today suggests he is more persuaded by it than not. He did not reach a final decision because the hard evidence that primary election results are or have been affected by crossover voting simply hasn't been provided. He invited both sides to present such evidence. Similar kinds of numbers have been developed for "blanket primary" legal cases, and likely comparable work could be done here too. At a guess (with such information as yet sight unseen) we'd suppose Winmill will grant the Republican request, if he gets evidence to reasonably support it. And there's a good chance that can be gotten.

And that evidence should be fascinating. Not to mention what happens if Winmill does ultimately side with the Republicans, and close the primaries.

Ever consolidating

St Alphonsus

St. Alphonsus RMC

One of the problems that the "let the market solve it" crowd - in the health care debate - has is that there's little real competition among many providers. And there's less and less all the time.

Most communities, of course, have only one major medical center. (And don't mistake this for an argument that we should be building more.) Increasingly, whole regions have but one, or maybe two, corporate organizations running them. Some are for-profit, some not-for-profit (though that term as often applied truly is a term of art), but the number of separate masters is shrinking. From a Wednesday press release from Trinity Health of Novi, Michigan:

Catholic Health Initiatives and Trinity Health announced today they have signed a letter of intent to combine their four Eastern Oregon-Western Idaho hospitals into a single local system. The agreement calls for transferring the three CHI facilities to Trinity Health, thus creating a new regional healthcare system to be operated by Trinity Health.

Three of the hospitals – Mercy Medical Center, Nampa, Idaho; Holy Rosary Medical Center, Ontario, Ore.; and Saint Elizabeth Health Services, Baker City, Ore. – are part of Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) of Denver, Colo. The fourth hospital is Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center (SARMC) of Boise, a part of Trinity Health of Novi, Mich.

Trinity describes itself as "the nation’s fourth-largest Catholic health care system with 45 acute-care hospitals, 379 outpatient facilities, 29 long-term care facilities, and numerous home health offices and hospice programs based in seven states. Trinity Health employs 45,000 full-time staff, had $7 billion in annual operating revenue . . ."

Catholic Health Initiatives "operates in 20 states and includes 78 hospitals; 40 long-term care, assisted- and residential-living facilities; and two community health-services organizations. . . . With annual revenues of $8.2 billion, we rank as the nation's second-largest Catholic health care system." It has operations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho: In Washington, at Tacoma, Lakewood, Gig Harbor, Federal Way and Enumclaw; in Oregon at Ontario, Roseburg, Pendleton, and Baker City; and in Idaho at Nampa.

This is, of course, actually just a shift of properties from one mega-organization to another. But it does tend to further consolidate ownership control within regions. The celebratory tone in the release suggests, of course, that the people of the Northwest are meant to celebrate this.

Kitzhaber takes the plunge


John Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber, governor of Oregon from 1995 to 2003, thought about running for governor in 2006 and the Senate in 2008, but he couldn't quite pull the trigger on either. (As running for the Senate was an untaken option in 2002, too.) So until he actually announced, there had to be some inevitable weighing of probabilities. It happens when it happens, and not before.

What Kitzhaber announced today was actually somewhat less than a formal announcement; technically, quite a bit less. But it was sufficient as a statement of intentions. As a matter of practice, the Hamlet period is over, and he's in the race.

As a strategic concern, a key matter is to what extent he clears the field, on both sides of the fence.

You can start on this with the KATU-TV/Survey USA poll just released showing favorable and unfavorables for Kitzhaber, incumbent Ted Kulongoski, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Bradbury and Republican Allen Alley. It does not indicate any overwhelming strengths for anyone, and Kitzhaber's 33%/36% favorable/unfavorable is less than commanding. But it's better than anyone else's. And once his visibility starts to rise, odds are it will improve.

State Representative Brian Clem, who has been exploring a run for governor, is likely to drop out by week's end. Bradbury sounded as if he plans to stay in, but who knows? Kitzhaber is simply going to be a formidable presence in the Democratic primary. It's hard to see him not winning it strongly.

There's some talk that former Senator Gordon Smith, defeated for re-election last year, may take a run at this race. A Kitzhaber-Smith contest would be high-profile and a lot of fun to watch. But Smith's path in a governor's race doesn't seem very clear. He emerged from last year's race not only defeated but also somewhat damaged, his nice-guy persona battered and identified with the distinctly minority party in Oregon. He would have serious recovery work to do if he wants to run for a major office again. The idea of running against Kitzhaber may make it less appealing.

Other prospects, from Alley (who is in the race) to Jason Atkinson (who might be), seem murkier still. Any Republican running statewide in Oregon starts from the double-bind of a need to appeal to the right in the primary and the center in the general, a problem that looks to be getting worse this year instead of better. Will an Atkinson run? Guess here is, maybe, but odds are less than even.

The unexpected happens, from here to November 2010 is a long opportunity for just that. But Kitzhaber enters this with a better than even chance of election next year.

Two sides, sort of

Business interests ordinary get a lot of respect and leeway in Idaho, so count this - the Dispel the Myths/Squash the Fear Rally in Boise today - as something of an unusual case. Here we had owners of small and medium sized businesses making both a business and human interest case that was being shouted down, literally, by a flash crowd from their philosophical right.

The rally had to do with health care reform, which drew the business people because they want provide health insurance for employees - or at least would like their employees to have it - but prices and conditions are putting it out of reach. They made the case compellingly, and one would think this is a serious problem worthy of address.

The 80 or so at the Dispel the Myths rally were met by 50 or so protesters, who (in Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Russell's account) shouted down the speakers and tried to keep them from being heard.

One paragraph from Russell's account: "Wendy Somerset, owner of Furniture and Appliance Outlet in Twin Falls, said her employees won’t take the insurance she provides because of the cost: 'It’s groceries or health insurance,' she said. 'We need reform and we need it now.' As she spoke, flag-waving protesters in back yelled, 'Take your socialism!' and 'Read the Constitution!' and a woman shouted, 'We’re not going to pay for your abortions!' When rally organizer Nancy Snodgrass of the Main Street Alliance appealed for quiet and respect from both sides, protester Lucille Verdolini shouted from the back, 'Let’s pray that you don’t get breast cancer and die.' The group in back then chanted, 'Obama lies, Grandma dies.'”

It would be nice, in writing about this subject as in many others, to describe the sides as if they are simply both saying their piece, and both sides have something useful to offer. But there's no realistic case these protesters are offering anything useful. Their repertoire extends to slogans, falsehoods, narrow ideology and purveyance of hatred. They'll deserve to be taken seriously when they offer (as the business people asked them to do) something resembling solutions and a willingness to behave like adults.

Culture war time

The speculation here (and elsewhere) has been that attitudes toward same-sex marriage have been changing considerably through this decade. When Washington's legislature passed its Defense of Marriage Act in 1998, that seemed like the clear majority-popular thing to do. When the legislature this spring passed the "everything but marriage" bill (Senate Bill 5688) to allow state-recognized same-sex partnerships, that was by then thought to represent a majority (if, obviously, far from universal) view. And now?

Well, now, we sort of get to find out where the public stands. Referendum 71, which would repeal the "everything but" law, was just declared ballot-qualified - it got barely enough signatures to clear the bar, just over the 120,000 or so signatures it needed. It was a close enough call that for the last couple of weeks the outcome was unclear.

That suggests the proponents have an uphill battle ahead of them. A little over two months, and Washington should be an interesting test of where the public stands now in this front of the culture wars.

Vouching for Kristof

Some skepticism of unnamed sources as the basis for news stories is understandable, and sometimes warranted. But in the case of Nicholas Kristof's Sunday New York Times column on health care - which revolves strongly around the story of a woman called "M" - we can personally vouch for the story. We happen to know personally the people in question, have followed this story for some time, and can affirm to you that Kristof got it right.

If you've not read the column yet (and please do), the story has to do with a woman and her husband who has progressive dementia and has begun racking up large medical bills, which are likely to get larger. As she sought out financial answers, the piece of advice offered her repeatedly and strongly was: Get a divorce. Fast. Her hospital told her that, and so did her lawyer.

They are certainly not the only married couple in this boat.

Remember that the next time you hear one of the irrationals talking about how America's health care is number one: We have such a wonderful health care system we're forcing happily married couples to divorce. We lead the whole rest of the world on that metric.