Writings and observations

weekly Digest

Here’s something unusual – a publication moving from monthly to weekly. But that’s what we’re doing with our Public Affairs Digests – for Idaho, Washington and Oregon – moving from a monthly to a weekly rundown of what’s happening. And we’re taking it all-electronic: The print edition will be moving to e-mail.

That means we can include more information, and get it out a lot faster: The weekly Digests will be in your in-box first thing Monday morning. If you subscribe, of course: That’s $59 a year, for 50 issues and the yearbook.

Yes, including the yearbook. The Idaho Yearbook, which we published for years up to 2002, will return early in 2011 – in printed book form – and Digest subscribers get it for free with their subscription. And the Oregon and Washington yearbooks will be coming out at the same time.

If you’d like to take a look at one of the new weekly Digests, here’s a link to the Idaho edition, to the Oregon edition and to the Washington edition. If you’d like to subscribe, here are the links (through to PayPal) for Idaho, for Oregon and for Washington.

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Mike Simpson

Large chunks of the debate among the Republican candidates for the Idaho 2nd district House seat – incumbent Mike Simpson and challengers Russ Mathews and Chick Heileson – are well worth a review. It was in the main, though, a conflict between Simpson and Heileson, who probably let not a sentence go by without including the word “constitution” and making very clear that he, and not necessarily anyone else to include the Supreme Court, knows what it means.

Maybe the key topic was the federal payout, in late 2008 and early 2009, in the TARP (banking) and other programs. Simpson was among those voting in favor, and that is a big part of why he has two energetic opponents this year. His take on why he voted as he did is worth running here (and worth reading) in full:

Given the same circumstances and the same knowledge we had at the time, I don’t think we had a choice. I think everybody believed something had to be done. You right: I knew we would get to this tonight because both of my opponents have criticized that vote, as have many people. But I will tell you when you’re standing in a room, or sitting in a room, with the secretary of the treasury and the chairman of the federal reserve, and they’re speaking, and their lower lip is shaking, and you can look in their eyes – and they’re scared. Because they see the economy going off the cliff. Literally going off the cliff. They see economic Armageddon coming if something isn’t done. Now whether TARP was the right thing to do or not, if other things could have been done – no one has proposed what else we could have done.

Some people have said it is unconstitutional. No: It is tied to the constitution. It is tied to the first Congress tht employed these powers in 1791 to incorporate and charter the first Bank of the United States. This is what the Supreme Court said in McCullough vs. Maryland, when they reviewed that case. They said in upholding that [action], they said that although no provision in the U.S. Constitution expressly authorizes the chartering of a national bank, doing so was necessary and proper. There is a “necessary and proper” clause in our constitution. Incident to the powers to lay and collect taxes, to borrow money, to regulate commerce, to declare and conduct war and to raise armies. The financial system depended on this.

This was not a bank bailout. This was a financial and credit system bailout. We had credit being frozen in this country. We were looking at potentially, and I think most economists will agree, probably 25% to 30% unemployment in this country if we did nothing. I am unwilling to accept that. So we did what we thought was necessary. If there are other ideas out there that we could have done to free up this credit situation, we would have looked at those options also. But to just sit back and say, “let them fail,” that was not an option I was willing to accept.

The challengers had very different views, naturally. Mathews argued against it largely on the basis that “Those corrections would have taken place anyway.” Heileson’s approach was quite different: What Congress did was simply unconstitutional – in his reading of the constitution – and that was that.

Quite literally, that was that: Neither the will of the people, the well-being of the United States or anything else should, in Heileson’s view, take precedent over what Heileson thinks some of the founders thought about their world in 1789:

“First of all, this is not a democracy. We don’t ask the will of the people what to do. You don’t take an oath to the Republican Party, the Supreme Court or Ben Bernanke or any of those guys, you take an oath to the constitution. It’s not what the people want, it’s what we have to do. If they can overturn things and make things – you know, well, you, say “we’ve got to do it because it’s expedient,” then what the heck did they write – my wife would have got mad because I would have said hell – what the hell did they – you think you can do anything you want. It’s not true. You have to follow that, and people haveto go broke, they’re going to get bailed out – let’s bail out everybody. Leave the rest of the constitution out and make decisions because we think it’s right. Or do we follow the rule of law. It is the rule of law. It is a republic, not a democracy.”

Simpson’s response was this: “I agree, you follow the constitution and you follow your oath of office. But you know what? People disagree about what the constitution says. Our forefathers, the ones that wrote the constitution, disagreed about what it said when they applied it to specific situations. This was 1791. This was two years after the constitution was ratified. These were the people that actually wrote it. Ultimately, someone has to decide what the constitution says. Now, Chick has his opinion and I have my opinion and Russ has his opinion. We probably agree 90% of the time on what it says, or maybe even more. But ultimately, someone has to have the authority to make a determination. That’s the Supreme Court. And when the Supreme Court says something is constitutional, then it’s constitutional. If you disagree with it, then it’s up to us to try to change that. But that’s the way it goes.”

And, toward the end of the debate, this:

“Now, I’ve cast 7,500-and some odd votes in my term in Congress, so essentially Chick is saying I voted against the constitution 3,750 times. I think that’s ludricrous. Are there some issues we disagree on? Sure. But ultimately the arbitrator of what is constitutional or not is the Supreme Court, not Chick Heileson.”

This was a significant exchange. The rise of Tea Party constitutionalists has led to a rise as well of self-appointed constitutional scholars, of a small crowd of Chick Heilesons who seem to live in a 1789 of the mind. Simpson, who by any rational measure of politics as it is today is a conservative, delivered here one of the best and strongest rebuttals on record.

Now go watch the video.

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There’s some chatter about the idea of Washington Governor Chris Gregoire getting an appointment as national solicitor general assuming the incumbent, Elena Kagan, is confirmed in her nomination today to the Supreme Court.

Pretty premature as speculation. But the Tacoma News Tribune political blog has a great bit about what would happen if Gregoire should resign:

Katie Blinn at secretary of state’s office says a resignation prior to May 31 would trigger a primary AND a general election for the office. But a resignation after May 31 but before October 3 would set up a winner-take-all general election with everyone who files on the ballot together. Then it gets even more strange because if Gregoire resigned AFTER Oct. 3, Owen would serve until the regular 2012 election even though his vacant lieutenant governor spot would appear on the 2011 ballot.

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Creating and joining civic groups to encourage people to get active in politics and civic life is a good thing, period. But some groups seem almost to be asking for some qualifiers to that – often, these days, when they presume to be speaking for people they’re not really speaking for.

Case in point today is We the People Vancouver, a politically-oriented group operating in Clark County. There’s some overlap and issue congruence with the Tea Party groups – the viewpoint generally can be described as conservative ideological, not greatly different from the Tea Party – but this one is distinctive on several levels, indicates an interest in a broader range of issues, and has gotten active in interviewing and presumably backing candidates. (Mainly Republicans show up; one of the founders is himself a Republican candidate for office.) About 80 to 100 people show up at a typical meeting.

All of which is just good civic activism, save for this: Their name. “We the People Vancouver” as a group name carries a presumption that this core of 80 to 100 people are acting and speaking on behalf of – or in concert with – all of the people of Clark County. Politically, Clark is deeply split, home to elected officials both liberal and conservative. How could any group with a clearly-defined point of view claim to speak for them all?

Toward the bottom of their website, you’ll see this organizational note: “We The People of Vancouver / SW Washington are part of the coalition forming www.WashingtonPatriotHub.org.” Go there, to the “Washington Patriot Hub,” which describes itself as a “communications hub” for conservatives, and you get another variation of this: Presumably, those whose ideology matches up with the groups involved are “patriots,” and those who see things differently are . . . not.

Sooner or or later, the whole matter of saying that only believers in an often extreme ideology are patriots or “we the people,” ought to be addressed more broadly. A lot of very patriotic Americans are being deeply insulted, day in and day out, by this kind of thing. And many of them don’t even know it . . .

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The opinion section in today’s Oregonian was packed full of good ideas about how to improve the public schools. Actually, the question uniting the comments was narrower – how do you make needed improvements at our weakest schools? – but the answers really seemed to apply to all. Parents, educators, students and others were asked for their ideas. The results are well worth reading.

A whole lot of what was offered includes concepts rarely heard around campaigners for office.

A superintendent at a rural school district suggested, “First, year-around school. . . . Retention would improve as students wouldn’t have to be “re-taught” material the first month of school. Secondly, promotion from grade to grade would be based on meeting state standards and testing, instead of “social” promotion.” Why aren’t these concepts pushed more?

There’s this: “Stop “reforming” schools every year based on the latest fad or political sound bite. It creates a lack of instructional and curricular continuity, and wastes precious resources.”

From a student, on why declining schools get into a death spiral: “The main reason that students do not choose to go to a lower performing school: electives. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. When not enough students go to one school, the government pulls funding from it, forcing the school to cut the electives.” (Here’s someone who understands how systems work.)

Some political figures came up with some good stuff. Senator Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg: “Teachers need to have the freedom to teach and motivate their students. As it is now teachers have to spend too much time filling out reports to comply with any number of mandates and too much class time simply teaching for test scores that in many cases are probably not a true measure of education.”

But the weakest comments came from the two candidates for superintendent of public instruction: Both of their answers almost seemed to suggest they didn’t understand thw question.

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So when you talk about cutting back government, here’s one little example of what that means.

When cuts like this one are imposed, legislators and other policy makers speak of them in terms of inevitability – there was no other way. That is, of course, not true: Additional money could have been raised, one way or another. There was nothing inevitable about this; it was a policy decision. The decision in Idaho was this:

In order to meet a $1.1 million deficit in a cash assistance program, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is reducing or eliminating payments to approximately 1,250 Idahoans. The reduction affects approximately 9% of people participating in the Aged, Blind and Disabled (AABD) program, which pays monthly cash assistance to participants.

“We regret having to take these actions, but we simply do not have the funds to continue the program at the current level,” says Russ Barron, administrator for the Division of Welfare. “We carefully looked at all types of assistance offered by the AABD program to determine what payments could be trimmed to meet our reduced SFY 2011 budget and better align Idaho’s program with other states.”

AABD provides cash assistance to individuals who are 65 or older, blind or have a disability. Eligible individuals receive a certain amount of cash each month to help pay for everyday living expenses. Most Idaho recipients will continue to receive a cash payment of $53 a month.

Over 14,700 Idahoans receive cash payments through the AABD program, which has grown more than 40% over the last ten years. Compared to other states, Idaho has provided some of the most generous cash assistance benefits, with all of the AABD payments funded by State dollars. Given the current budget situation, the State cannot continue current payment levels to the growing number of AABD participants. Without this change, the program would grow by a projected $500,000 of state general funds annually. The program is expected to cost $9.1 million this fiscal year.

Payment reductions range from $33 a month to almost $200 a month. The most significant change is for approximately 300 participants with developmental disabilities who live in certified family homes. Certified family homes are typically homes that provide care for one to two people with disabilities, providing room, board, and help with daily living requirements such as dressing or personal hygiene.

This group will no longer receive $198 a month in AABD payments, although they will continue to receive their Social Security Income payments of approximately $674/month as well as medical coverage through Idaho’s Medicaid program. All Medicaid benefits will remain the same, which includes a payment of $1,600 a month to the certified family home provider for helping a resident with daily living requirements.

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The Arizona immigration law has come up for some initial discussion in Idaho (as noted here a few posts back), and now apparently in Oregon.

This arrives via Republican gubernatorial candidate (and widely-presumed front-runner) Chris Dudley – although he sounds more confused than definitive on the subject. Guesting on the Lars Larson radio program, he fielded a question from the host on what he thinks about the new law, and responded (audio here):

If they have reasonable suspicion, and I think that is probably the key word here, is uh, then I think they should be able to, to look into that –um – and I and that’s uh – it’ll be int – obviously the –courts are gonna take a look at how the Arizona law has been written. I –uh – have looked at it, but the courts will decide whether it’s uh constitutionally uh um uh whether it works in that regard and if it does I think it’s uh- it’s something that we could look at uh, obviously we don’t have quite the same uh –problems that Arizona does with-with the border – um that is we don’t have a border – but we don have a problem with illegal immigrants and we need to look at solutions there. And I think that as a state we need to look at making sure that all the laws are enforced, I also think we need to look into technology um-and I think a uh uh prime – uh uh – prime uh source there would be businesses being able to determine whether their uh employees are legal or illegal and I simply think we should look into areas such as E –verify uh and in in order to get a get a hold of this problem.

(Transcript from the Oregon Democratic Party, but reviewed here for accuracy.) He sounds caught unawares (though why that would be is unclear, and Larson certainly wasn’t trying to trap him).

But however vaguely, he’s now opened the door to the subject in Oregon campaigns. His main competitor, Allen Alley, is flatly opposed to the Arizona law, as are the Democratic front runners. But if Dudley survives the primary, you can expect this to be a top issue, and a major wedge splitting him off from the independent centrists.

A comment from Sal Peralta (once a Democratic legislative candidate but now a leader in the state Independent Party) on the Blue Oregon post about all this put the point firmly:

“See, this is a problem with candidates who have zero experience, limited knowledge, and no track record. When the Oregon Farm Bureau endorsed Dudley they probably didn’t know that he supports police crackdowns on latino workers. If Rick Hickey and his buddies at OFIR had known that Chris would be this quick to attack brown people, they might have given his candidacy a more serious look.”

Such a line of thought may well resonate in Oregon.

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Seems as though the commonly-received wisdom in a bunch of quarters around Oregon is that in the Republican gubernatorial primary, former basketball player Chris Dudley will beat businessman Allen Alley, and the other candidates will be minor factors.

Maybe so. This space isn’t up for bucking what seems like the consensus view: Speculation here remains that Dudley will win the nod . . . and yet . . .

Dudley’s appeal is in large part simply that of an outsider celebrity. He comes cross as smart but not well educated in the wonky details of substance and process of Oregon government. (Could he give a good answer if asked simply, what is it that the governor does?) His support feels mostly like a calculation, this cycle’s algebraic result for the Republican puzzler of how to win the governorship. In the end, how many votes will that bring? Enough? Maybe; but does anyone really know?

Does anyone really know, either, what kind of number legally-troubled Bill Sizemore may get? Not only may he be the best-known name in the race, but he also has the strongest claim to straight-line conservative voters, who are dominant in the Republican Party. No, we don’t expect him to win. But might he break into double diget percentages? Maybe. And if he does, what might that do to Dudley-Alley? Does anyone have any idea?

Alley, on the other hand, has campaigned much longer and harder and has delivered a lot more meaty substance. He is even a better public speaker, and his personal presence may be better on every ground other than sheer physical height. A lot of the key endorsements have gone to him, including most of the media endorsements (with the main big exception of the Oregonian).

And he keeps winning straw poll-type events. Yes, they’re often self-selecting and statistically they don’t mean a lot, but they do add up. Today, as the ballots start to come back in, the Portland Business Journal is conducting a (self-selecting) online poll of its readers on the Republican gubernatorial candidates. With 2,095 votes in, Alley was ahead at 51%, Dudley at 30%, John Lim at 6% and Sizemore at 3%.

Lessons of some sort stand to be learned out this primary. As to what they may be . . .

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Today, as Oregon voters begin contemplating those voting spots on their primary election ballots, they’ll likely focus on the governor’s primaries mostly, then some of the other major offices. Only in a few places, at this point, will there be a lot of call to focus on the legislative races.

There aren’t a lot of contested primaries among the 75 legislative seats up. Republicans have primary contests for only about a fifth of them, and Democrats have contests in fewer than half that many. And most of those aren’t really major races. Some are contests between little-known candidates running against an incumbent who has a strong edge either in this election or in November.

But a few of these races will merit some discussion, and may let us draw some larger conclusions, after the numbers roll in. In order or interest (not competitiveness), here are five.

1 – District 58 House, Republican: Bob Jenson v. Michael Mathisen. Two very interesting primaries in northeast Oregon, in strongly Republican country, this one and in District 57 (see below). Jenson’s may be slightly more interesting because the contrast of candidates is so totally stark. Jenson is the incumbent, in fact the longest-serving House member, and though a Republican now he has been elected as a Democrat (in 1996) and an independent (in 1998) as well. Jenson’s ties in the Pendleton-centered district run deep, and his politics – as his party record shows – has tended conservative but is no rigid lock. That point came to a head in the 2009 legislative session when he and District 57’s Representative Greg Smith voted with Democrats for what became the Measures 66 and 67 tax increases. That drew a strong rebuke from party leadership together with explicit political punishment: A primary challenge for each of them.

Jenson’s challenger, Mathisen, has lived in Hermiston just three years – a newcomer by comparison, who has gotten his key support from Salem and Portland rather than in-district. But Jenson’s tax votes were a matter of controversy locally, too; and if the anti-tax crowd wants to make an example of a Republican legislator who crosses over, Jenson would be a classic case study. For Republican leadership, the risks are high: If Jenson survives, they may be exposed as toothless.

Presumption here is that he will survive the primary. But either way, there’ll be some significant lessons in it.

2 – District 57 House, Republican: Greg Smith v. Colleen MacLeod. The outlines of 57 are those of 58 – Smith and Jenson made similar votes (not exactly the same; Smith voted against one proposal). Smith, like Jenson, has been elected with slight competition for some years now, and he too is well-established, maybe a little less so. His opponent, MacLeod, is a former commissioner in Union county – herself better established and with her own base of support in her district than Mathisen in his, and she’s received a string of endorsements from conservative interest groups. This may be a more competitive race. But its implications are as real as in 58.

3 – District 19 Senate, Republican: Steve Griffith v. Mary Kremer. The eastern Oregon races have gotten a lot of attention for their high drama, this one less so; but its implications are significant. The 19th is in the Lake Oswego area, suburbs just south of Portland, an area considered solidly Republican until about a decade ago. But these were mostly moderate Republicans, and the voters were put off as the party swung harder to the right. They’ve been electing Democrats more recently; the incumbent here is Democrat Richard Devlin, who’s the Senate majority leader.

The Republicans, both experienced in Oregon politics, are distinctive. Former Portland School Board member (and 2008 state House candidate) Griffith, who has endorsements from the Oregonian and Willamette Week, is the moderate, a lot like the Republicans this area used to elect. Kremer is assumed to be the more conservative of the two and has backing from several conservative groups (Oregonians In Action, Oregon Freedom Works, Oregon Family Council, Common Sense for Oregon PAC). Which way will the Republican voters in 19 go? Analysts will be picking apart the tea leaves from this one whatever the result. (Our thin odds go to Griffith, but this race is clearly competitive, and Kremer appears to be running a strong campaign.)

4 – District 24 Senate, Democratic – Rod Monroe, Dave Mowry, Ron McCarty. Monroe, who is the incumbent and has been in elective politics around Portland for a very long time, probably doesn’t excite the base (and doesn’t tend to fare well in legislative rankings like WW). His longevity may not be a plus this year. But, Mowry is a former Republican who seems not to have left the old party entirely behind, and McCarty is a recurring candidate of whom, WW opined, his “elevator doesn’t climb all the way to the top floor.”

Bets probably should go to Monroe here. But keep a lookout for this one on election night in case it goes in some other direction. This is, in any event, maybe the most interesting Democratic legislative primary in Oregon this year. (Does that tell you something?)

5 – District 17 House, Republican – Sherrie Sprenger v. Bruce Cuff. In the first three races on this list, you have Republican contests where there’s what would probably be a genuine philosophical difference between the candidate on the conservative/moderate spectrum. Not so much here. Both are self-described as conservatives in the current environmental meaning, and there’s not much reason to dispute that in either case. Sprenger has a pretty solid roster of community backers and endorsers, what you’d expect from an established Republican legislator. But you’d have to say, after reviewing their campaign statements, that Cuff is considerably more emphatic about it – he has a long list of state programs he says he’d like to cut – and describes himself: “I am the conservative Republican in the race.” (A March blog post nailed some of that down more explicitly.) So, in today’s Republican environment, what sells?

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That Tea Party questionnaire delivered to Idaho candidates, and signed by a number of them, has all sort of peculiar entries. Maybe the most peculiar of all has gotten little attention, but it should for what it says about the real nature of the Tea Party, and the forces behind it.

It came up, though, when the two main candidates for the Republican nomination in Idaho’s 1st congressional district, Vaughn Ward and Raul Labrador, appeared on an Idaho Public Television weekly program in a near-debate. One of the questions (at just past the 13-minute mark) that may have seemed obscure to many voters came from analyst Jim Weatherby, who had noticed that the Tea Party form indicated support for repeal of the 17th amendment, and that both Ward and Labrador had said they supported repeal.

The 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1913, and it changed a procedure in place since the nation’s founding. Up to then, U.S. senators had been chosen by state legislators. The amendment, which was enacted as part of the progressive movement, changed that to provide that the voters of each state would do the honors.

The state legislatures idea grew out of the caution that the nation’s founders had about placing power directly in the hands of ordinary voters; those voters, remember, were once far more limited (by gender, property ownership and otherwise) than they are now. As the right to vote expanded, so gradually did demands that voters rather than politicians choose their own senators.

Eventually, problems associated with legislative selection made the case ever stronger. In some cases, legislatures deadlocked over choices, and states went without senatorial representation for years. Worse than that were the many cases of bribery and corruption; a seat in the U.S. Senate was something worth bribing and corrupting over. Popular election of senators has hardly been a perfect thing, but it has worked a lot more smoothly than its predecessor approach.

So why would the Tea Party, which likes to present itself as a movement which takes power away from politicians to give it to “the people,” be so enamored of this idea that specifically and clearly does the opposite? Ward and Labrador were at best incoherent in delivering sort-of answers, making reference to states rights. “I think it’s important that the senators be beholden to the people of Idaho,” Labrador responded at one point; but this change would make them directly beholden not to the voters but to fellow-politician legislators. Under either plan, senators are chosen within the various states; the question is whether they are beholden to the state’s voters or to a majority of the state’s legislators. (Ward said that he agreed.) Could it just be a general disapproval of every reform enacted in the United States since the dawn of the 20th century? (If so, there go the initiative, referendum and recall too.)

Maybe more specifically: Who benefits from such an approach?

Presumably, the same people who tended to benefit way back then: Those who have the big bucks to corrupt state legislators with, and to buy Senate seats – which often is exactly what happened in the 19th century.

Good plan, guys, for taking back government for “the people.” You just have to be clearer about which people would be getting the government under their control . . .

UPDATE In his blog, Adam Graham refers to the televised exchange on this: “Weatherby called this out as some big problem.In reality, it’s one of those conservative wish list items that Ward and Labrador won’t spend one minute thinking about if elected to Congress. It’s because moments like this that the issue won’t be addressed, because the argument is not given a serious treatment.” There’s a bit of news, actually, in that: Since when is taking away election of senators from the voters and giving it to the legislature a “conservative wish list item”? Can’t recall seeing it in years past; maybe missed it. But if in any event it is now, why is that? What’s the appeal in it for conservatives, even if they (Graham, at least) consider it a long-shot preference?

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