The subjects on which Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley fielded questions today: federal help for education, filibusters, the Citizens United decision, war in Afghanistan, nuclear power, job wage reporting, Guantanamo, climate change, Wikileaks (the first time, Merkley said, someone from the public had questioned him about that), gas pipelines and health care. A pretty wide range. (Plus his opening statement, most of which is in the video.)

Nothing about taxes, deficits or the shredding of the constitution – in other words, not a sign of the Tea Party or its sympathizers. That makes it similar to the town hall held about 10 miles to the south by Senator Ron Wyden last weekend, and suggests the obvious question: Where have all the Tea people gone? So visible and loud for most of the last two years, they seem to have vanished from view.

What remained at the town halls was a civil crowd, and evidently dominated now more by backers of the senators – the questions were mostly friendly.

Merkley moved a little beyond that in asking questions of the audience as well. He posed questions about whether audience members like (saw as “a step forward”) various elements of last year’s health care bill; each got a positive reaction. (The audience may not have been strictly representative of the Republican-leaning Yamhill County, but the answers do suggest that most of the pieces of the bill were more popular than a sweeping, hard-t-grasp omnibus bill.)

He also asked about how the audience felt about pulling troops from Afghanistan. His original question divided the response into “within 18 months” or “longer if necessary.” Audience members called on an extra option, which was “right now” and which got the largest vote. Only four or five in a crowd of 150 or so voted for more than 18 months. (One man called out, “Stay till we win.”)

Merkley himself didn’t seem of a mind to stay for long. After describing some of his briefings and travel to the area, he said that much of the real rationale for staying seems to come down to: “We can’t afford the embarrassment of the Taliban (not Al Quaeda as such) gaining ground.”

A little more wonkish than Wyden (though more plain-spoken than in his first meetings a couple of years ago), Merkley was nonetheless comfortable with larger-picture ideas, talking at some length, for example, about the connection between a loss of manufacturing business in the United States and the diminishment of the country’s middle class. And turn of phrase. Discussing the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allows corporations to spend virtually unlimited and unreported funds on political campaigns, he described it as “a stadium sound system drowning out the voices of Americans.”

One other note: This must be one of the smaller Oregon communities (in counties that have larger cities) to host one of these events. On the evidence of the interest of the crowd, it made a splash, and might be a good idea to replicate in town hall planning for the future.

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Little-noted (so far as we can tell), Washington House Bill 1288 introduced this week by Representative Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) (and with a slew of co-sponsors from both parties), would do something that Washingtonians might want to pause and think about.

The summary: “Directs the department of revenue, the department of transportation, the employment security department, the state lottery, and the department of information services, on behalf of access Washington, to begin selling internet advertisements for display on those agency’s web sites.”

Key parts of the state’s web site, in other words, would be up for commercial sale to advertisers.

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on State Government & Tribal Affairs.

The imagination reels. As does the obvious fiscal desperation.

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If you’ve been watching the battle over the oil industry megaloads now slated to begin using High 12 east of Lewiston, starting February 1, you may have been struck by the large number of companies involved and the intensity behind their determination to proceed.

Why is getting this equipment to Alberta so important – at least, important to the companies?

A fine article explaining just that is out in the British Columbia The Tyee, which paints the oil industry mega-corporations – the “seven sisters” of legend – as being in a tight spot, a position of decline and desperation stemming from the rise of OPEC in the seventies.

Points to consider: “With the exception of Chevron, supermajor share prices have not gained any value over the past five years. “It would tend to indicate that these companies are not growing,” said Robert Walsh, an energy consultant who spent 26 years with Royal Dutch Shell. Though all the supermajors hold top ten spots in Petroleum Intelligence Weekly’s oil company rankings for 2010, they’re still placed lower than Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco and Iran’s NIOC. And the Financial Times in 2007 handed the “Seven Sisters” mantle to a new generation of energy firms, all state-owned. Much of that is a function of the reality that supermajors actually control very little of the world’s oil and gas. Resource figures from 2008 place ExxonMobil in a distant 17th among all energy firms, the highest even, of the western-owned private players.”

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What follows is a column (previously appearing in the St. Maries Gazette-Record) by Chris Carlson, now living at Medimont, Idaho. He was one of the founders of the Gallatin Group and was from 1989 until last year its representative based at Spokane. His Gallatin bio also notes that he was “a former press secretary to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus, Chris directed the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Public Affairs during the governor’s four-year term as Secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter. Following his position in Washington, D.C., Chris was appointed to the Northwest Power Planning Council by Idaho Governor John V. Evans. In 1984, he became regional vice president of public affairs for Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane.” And he was a journalist before all that. He’ll be contributing occasional columns in this space.


carlson
Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles


We’re all familiar with zealots, true believers who go to extraordinary lengths to attract media attention for their cause, hoping the coverage will generate new interest and fresh contributions.

In Idaho most of the zealotry we experience relates to differing visions regarding future use of natural resources and the wildlife on public lands. Thus, we sometimes see civil disobedience activities by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies or Defenders of Wildlife, protesting wolf hunts, timber sales or mining projects.

While at the Interior department serving as the director of the office of public affairs (1987-1991) I had my epiphany, my revelation about how best to handle the zealots that constantly besieged the agency. The key was to deny them the media coverage they seek.

Shortly after this insight, opportunity to apply it arrived in the form of Mitch Snyder, a self-styled social activist who had taken on the plight of the homeless people in our nation’s capital as his cause. He decided the best way to draw attention to the cause was to stage a sit-in of homeless people in D.C.’s stately Union Station.

Having just arrived home one evening, I received a call from an Interior assistant secretary, who said the Park Service police were reporting that Snyder had led 50 homeless people into Union Station and were conducting a sit-in until arrested and forcibly removed.

He wanted to know what I thought should be done. Once I ascertained they were not blocking the passage of commuters and customers to trains, I told him to direct the Park Police to do nothing until midnight.

Why midnight, he asked. Because, I explained, it was the news media picture of police carrying the homeless to paddy wagons that Snyder wanted and we weren’t going to let him have it.

At midnight, after the late evening news is over, I instructed, have the Park Police “gently” pick up demonstrators and carry them out of the station. No arrests. End of story. And that’s what happened.

Shortly after midnight, however, the assistant secretary called again to say the homeless had promptly lain down in the street in front of the station. The Park Police wanted to know what they should do now.

I said they should do nothing more. The street was the responsibility of the District’s city police, not Interior’s, and it was the city’s problem. Within minutes he was back on the phone saying the Situation Commander for the D.C. police on the scene was asking if we had any advice.

I said they ought to block off the street and leave the homeless there. It was below freezing that night and once they realized they would not be arrested they would leave before the sun rises. And that’s what happened.

Nothing ever appeared in the news media on this incident and there was no bad publicity for the Interior Department.

Fast forward a few years to the first part of this decade. Another opportunity arose for display of the principle in action when the public affairs firm I founded was retained by the president of Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO) to devise a strategy to counter tree-sitters occupying some of the spectacular Redwoods it owned.

Vexed by the long sit-in held the previous year by “Julia Butterfly,” he was determined not to be held hostage again. He asked for a counter-strategy. Our company’s game plan worked perfectly.

First, we had the client recruit and train several folks who could quickly scramble up the trees, surprise the tree-sitter, truss them up and bring them down n with removal activity happening after midnight long after reporters had gone home. We had each tree-climber wear a helmet with a small mini-camera affixed to it to record the removal and rebut any false claims (which there were) of “brutality.”

Secondly, tree-sitters were informed that by climbing a Redwood they were signing the tree’s death warrant rather than saving the tree. Any tree they scaled and perched in would immediately have a band cut around its base, much as a porcupine does, starting its demise.

The company only had to do it once and the tree-sittings were discontinued.

The key is denying zealots the attention they crave. Without it, they often wither and retreat.

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Last week, the new (and former) California Governor Jerry Brown said he had learned that the state was paying for 96,000 cell phones for state employees. He issued a statement saying that “It is difficult for me to believe that 40 percent of all state employees must be equipped with taxpayer-funded cell phones,” and ordered half of them to be turned in by June 1.

Which led to the question: How many state cell phones do Washington, Oregon and Idaho have?

We posed the question to the three states. The one responding so far is Oregon, where a Department of Administrative Services spokesman advises us via email, “that number is 17,142.”

Which on a basis of per-capita population in the states, means Oregon state government has considerably more. Could be interesting to hear if there’s a good reason for that.

We’ll check in again with Washington and Idaho too.

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Take note that Idaho state Senator Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, is a conservative in good standing, and as a long-time co-chair of the state’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, no free spender.

Listening to discussion today from Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna today, though, he had a question that economist Paul Krugman might have posed.

Luna has proposed a large-scale effort to change public education in Idaho, and one piece of that involves doing away with hundreds of teaching jobs in the public schools. The plan is being proposed, in part, as beneficial to the Idaho economy.

Cameron’s question: “You indicated that the economy demands this type of change. I have to wonder in my mind why a thousand less people working helps the economy.”

His point seems totally clear: A thousand fewer paychecks, many of them in rural areas, would seem to mean less money circulating in local businesses and more people on the unemployment line. Among other non-beneficial factors.

Luna’s response, according to reporter Betsy Russell: “Understand that through attrition, most if not all of these positions can be absorbed.”

Did he get the question?

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The megaloads will roll up U.S. 12, from Lewiston to the Lolo Pass (and then beyond), on Monday.

To no great surprise, Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness went along with his hearing officer’s report and signed off on the shipments. From the department’s press release:

“I am convinced the record showed the loads can be moved safely, without damage to the roads and bridges and with minimal disruption to traffic and emergency services,” Ness said. “Every argument has been heard and considered. We can no longer delay this process.”

Ness said he based his decision on four key factors:

– Administrative process was properly followed

– All sides received a fair opportunity to present their case

– An independent hearing officer recommended the permits be issued

– No compelling reasons were found in the interveners’ appeal to overturn the hearing officer’s recommendation

Two permits will be issued today to transport two loads beginning Monday, Jan. 24, if weather conditions allow. The permits can be extended if weather does not allow the transport.

“I will not comment further on this case because litigation is possible and because of the similarities of the pending request from Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil to transport oversized loads on U.S. 12,” Ness said.

Litigation is certainly likely, as are the shipments from other oil companies – hundreds of them, eventually.

Procedurally, that puts an end to the matter. Now, political and other efforts may come into play.

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This site has a feature (we’ll probably be taking it down in a bit) noting where Idaho journalists go when they leave the news media but not the state. The Center for Responsive Politics now has up something similar for members of Congress: Where do they go when they leave office?

They don’t always leave Congress, exactly: Some of them go to work as lobbyists. Others in private businesses, academia or elsewhere.

No listing yet on the Northwest’s most recent ex-members of Congress, Democrats Brian Baird of Washington and Walt Minnick of Idaho. But we’ll be checking back in for what’s reported there.

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Periodically around the national capitol, lists of legislative clout make the rounds – lists derived in large part from what leadership or committee chairmanship positions, or ranking-member committee seniority, positions one holds. Helps if you’re in the majority, which gets to give out the goodies of chairmanships and such, if you want to rise on such a list.

The situation would get complex in the Oregon House, which is evenly divided between the two parties. The chamber has co-speakers and co-speakers pro tem. But unlike the state of Washington House, which was in a similar position around a decade ago, the chamber also has co-practically everything else. Both parties have co-chairs of all the committees, for example. (In Washington, they split the committee chair spots between the parties, that being the subject of some tense negotiations.)

How well this will work will depend, of course, on how well the people get along. (Early indications are hopeful.) But this also means that, between party leadership and committee chair positions, there are a lot of plums to go around. Almost everybody in both caucuses gets to run, or co-run, something.

Everybody, it turns out, save one.

Just one Oregon House member has no such title. According to the Capitol Currents (public radio) news blog: “Only Yamhill County Republican Jim Weidner came up short. He’ll serve the 2011 legislative session as the sole state representative who can’t claim a Co-Chair or Co-Vice Chair spot. Weidner downplayed that distinction when I asked him about it today. He said he didn’t mind not having a leadership position, as that would allow him to spend more time with his family instead of at the capitol.”

Actually, that’s an ouch. As noted on Blue Oregon: “Clearly the GOP caucus doesn’t think much of Weidner. It’s up to his caucus and leadership to decide who gets committee co-chair and vice co-chair assignments–and the fact that they can’t muster up even one job for him is pretty pathetic.”

Last session, he was also the sole legislator to be given no more than a single committee assignment. This is developing into a pattern. Will his constituents (your scribe being one of them) take notice next election?

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The town hall meeting at Yamhill County by Senator Ron Wyden was generally ordinary and unexceptional, itself a bit of news after what happened to another member of Congress speaking to constituents a week ago in Tucson. Wyden said at the outset that continuing these events – he does one every year in every county – is important especially after that. “We’re just going to have some democracy,” he said.

And so it went for the 100-plus people in Melrose Hall at Linfield College in McMinnville, a somewhat smaller group than the year before. Part of the reason may have been the rainy weather. Another may have been the absence of anything resembling the Tea Party. The questions and comments were serious and sometimes intense, covering a broad field (widely through domestic matters though not touching on foreign policy), but it was mostly all practical. Ideology and theories of the constitution, and conspiracy theory accusations, didn’t make an appearance.

Practical, specific talk did, though. The first question came from the mayor of McMinnville, who wanted to know about the future of the long-awaited Dundee bypass (creating an alternate route for Highway 99 in eastern Yamhill County, a stretch that often turns into a parking lot.) Wyden held out some hope for the funding, and said it was top priority for transportation funding in the state.

Health care came up a few times, and Wyden said he would put much of his efforts into the bill he has co-sponsored with Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, to give states quicker and broader ability to develop their own health care proposals. (That may have special pertinence in Oregon.)

Jobs, or lack of them, and illegal immigration were linked together a few times, and Wyden spoke of legislation he supports on both subjects. He spoke too about campaign finance, and the “the malevolent influence of money in America,” with criticism of the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision. (Typical of his county town halls, though, there was no partisan talk.)

It was a town hall a lot like Oregonians saw before last year.

(A note: Please excuse the video quality: This was a first experimental video via Ipod Touch.)

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Oregon

Just watched the first episode of the IFC channel program Portlandia. If you have any interest in the city at all, watch. Or even if you don’t – the jokes are pretty good even if you’re not much familiar with the city.

If you are, you get the point: The image of Portland as a haven for techy and culturally outlandish sacker. A parody, pointed enough to generate some real laughs, but not mean-spirited.

Best bits: The Portland song at the beginning, and the discussion in a restaurant about exactly organic this chicken on the menu is. (And its name, and a portrait photo.)

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On November 6, according to a formal complaint, a nurse from the Boise-area Planned Parenthood called a Nampa Walgreen’s drug store to inquire about filling a prescription drug order for a patient, for a drug called methergine. The drug is “used to prevent or treat bleeding from the uterus that can happen after childbirth or an abortion.” The pharmacist asked whether the patient had just had an abortion. The nurse, pointing out patient confidentiality laws, said she couldn’t answer that question.

Then, said Kristen Glundberg-Prosser of the Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, “The pharmacist said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to tell me that and she had an abortion, I’m not going to fill this prescription.’ And then our practitioner said, ‘Why don’t you tell me another pharmacy that I can call or another pharmacist that can dispense this medication for my patient?’ And the pharmacist hung up on her.”

The formal complaint went to the Idaho Board of Pharmacy, and an informal complaint went as well to Walgreen’s corporate offices. (Some followup action was said to have been taken, though the nature of it hasn’t become public.) The patient did obtain the medicine through another provider.

Idaho has a “conscience clause,” which “The law states that a health care worker may refuse to provide care related to abortion, emergency contraception or end-of-life care if it violates his or her conscience.” Did this case – the pharmacist’s actions – fall within it? Not clear. In a case like this, the pharmacist didn’t know whether an abortion was involved or not; was it enough to suspect so? Even if so, why should that have run afoul of conscience? After all, the operation at that point would have been over; the only effect of the denial would be retribution toward the patient, not salvation of the unborn, so what sort of personal conscience would that imply? (None I’d want to entrust my health to.)

The ending was apparently fortunate enough in this case, but what about the next one? Here we had a medical professional whose job it is to help secure people’s health and lives but instead made clear that if this woman died, that would be just fine.

Reiteration of a related point. One blog (this story has gone fully national) has this:

There are consequences to conscience clauses – and when your job is to provide medical or pharmaceutical services – there are literally lives on the line.

There’s no conscience clause protection for vegetarians (including those who are vegetarian for religious reasons), for police officers who disagree with the laws they are enforcing, for judges who are asked to marry couples (or city clerks who have to give marriage certificates to couples) they don’t believe should be married (inter-religious marriages, gay marriages, or interracial marriages – and I’m sure there are some bigoted judges out there). As I have said before, if you can’t morally do the job you’re being asked to do, get a new job. There are millions of Americans out of work right now, I’m sure there are some qualified unemployed people who would have no problem fully performing the job this pharmacist was hired to perform.

So a suggestion for anyone interested in some extremely useful civic activism: How about an organized effort to convass pharmacies, inquiring of each: Are there legal medications you would be unwilling to dispense? And then post the results in a database online.

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