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Posts published in April 2012

Carlson: First test

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

The real test of a president is how well they make difficult decisions. Wisdom, insight, perspective, a sense of political necessity and public acceptability, are all critical factors.

The first insight one gets into the mind of the person seeking public endorsement for their pursuit of the highest office in the land is their choice of a running mate.

The simple fact is all too often the vice president has ascended to the presidency upon the death of the president. Sometimes the nation has benefitted as the vice president turns out to be surprisingly competent at holding and exercising judiciously the powers of the Office of the President.

For example, in the 20th century most presidential historians agree that Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson all turned in credible performances when called to center stage by the death of a president. Candidly, though, all four of those selections were based upon what were deemed at the time to be over-riding political concerns.

President William McKinley’s political mentor, Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, thought he and other GOP party bosses were putting the overly “progressive” Teddy out to pasture and out of the public mind. Imagine their shock when the young, ambitious, vain but brilliant Teddy inherited the Presidency upon the death of McKinley?

Twenty-two years later, “Silent Cal” became president upon the death of Warren G. Harding. The former governor of Massachusetts was considered by these same historians to have been a considerable improvement over the man he succeeded.

Truman of course surprised many by his ability to rise to the demands of the job. And LBJ, at last having reached his long-time goal, ushered through the Congress his “Great Society” legislation including the truly historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Each of these men won the office in their own right in the subsequent election.

Contrast those four with the four who succeeded to the presidency in the 19th century none of whom went on to be elected. Three of the four are viewed by presidential historians as “weak leaders,” the exception being John Tyler who set the correct precedents for a veep to succeed to and be able to exercise all the powers of the presidency. (more…)

OR: The close races

Some posts back we took a look at what might be some of the most vulnerable, at-risk Oregon House races according to party registration. There are, of course, other metrics too, and here's one: The districts which have seen the closest races in recent years.

OR political field guide
Based on material from the upcoming Oregon Political Field Guide

This is not perfect apples and apples, of course, since the districts have changed with redistricting. For the most part, though, they haven't changed so much that a look at the closest becomes altogether useless.

(Material for this post is drawn out of the just about to be released Oregon Political Field Guide, pictured and linked to at the left.)

In the last decade, the very closest Oregon House race was in House 28, in Washington County, when in 2002 Democrat Jeff Barker squeezed out a 41-vote win over Republican Keith Parker. Barker is still there, running again this year, but this doesn't seem like one of the contenders to watch most closely. Barker went on to win 2004 and 2006 in landslides, was unopposed in 2008, and won with about 57% in the Republican year 2010.

The next two closest races in the last decade were also in 2002, wins by Democrat Betty Komp in District 22 (in the Salem-Woodburn area), and by Derrick Kitts in District 30. Komp was closely challenged in 2006 and 2010 (and that 2010 opponent is on the ballot again), so that's a district worth watching.

So is Washington County's 30, though Kitts, who left to run for Congress, is long gone. He was replaced by Democrat David Edwards, who in 2010 was replaced by Republican Shawn Lindsay. In District 30, no candidate of either party has gotten as much as 57% of the vote, so this is clearly a seat to attend to.

The next closest races may be a little less indicative, though they suggest the unexpected places where close contests can develop. In 2006, Republican John Dallum, running for the second time in the sprawling east-of-Cascades 59th, was held to 50.68% of the vote in what would seem to be one of the stronger Republican districts in the state. Indeed, Republicans have returned to landslide levels here since, but time and change can make for surprises.

And time can change a district. In 2004 the closest House race in Oregon was in District 10, when Republican Alan Brown barely held his coastal district 10 seat after a challenged by Democrat Jean Cowan. That close race was foreshadowed by another very close win (51%) by Brown in 2002, and in 2006 Cowan narrowly (51.58%) defeated him. Those three races in District 10, in fact, account for three of the 20 most competitive legislative races in Oregon in the last decade. But: Cowan was unopposed in 2008 and won decisively in 2010. As she leaves it this year, the district seems to have a clear Democratic lean. But how genuine that lean is may be a question for the fall.

Kucinich? Again?

Thought this was settled.

After losing a primary election in his home turf of Ohio, Representative Dennis Kucinich seemed to have bowed to the inevitable, and didn't bring back up the talk of running for Congress from somewhere else in the country. Like Washington, where some months back he seemed to be semi-campaigning.

But now, here it is again. There's a web site, Washington Citizens for Kucinich, hosting a petition asking him to run and a survey on the question of whether he should. All of this is aimed specifically at getting him on the ballot in this state where he does not and never has lived.

And seems not to be much wanted, to judge from comments by state Democratic Chair Dwight Pelz: "Dennis Kucinich has to decide what his legacy is going to be. Will he be remembered as a principled member of Congress or the narcissist who lost two Congressional races in two states the same year?"

Kucinich's interest in the Evergreen State seems to be drawn mostly by its possession of three congressional districts, all strongly or semi-amenable to Democratic candidates, where no incumbent is running this year. Never mind that experienced in-state candidates already have surfaced and gotten to work in all three of them, and that all three would be iffy matches with Kucinich's kind of politics. (All three are better fits for more moderate Democrats.)

In truth, Kucinich might be a decent fit philosophically for one Washington district - the 7th, based at Seattle. But good luck trying to convince people to vote for a guy who's never even lived in the home district before campaign season. At all.

This week in the Briefings

Setting up the new food bank at the former funeral home, in Orting. (Image from Pierce County TV)

In Orting, they've turned a funeral home into a food bank, which may be a positive metaphor for something. Elsewhere, the region settles down into a post-policy mode as the last-adjourning of its legislature (Washington's) hit the sine die mark last week.

There were other governmental marks - the signing of the last legislation passed in the Oregon session (no vetoes this year for the one-time Dr. No) and the opening of a new east side courthouse building in Multnomah County - but more of the activity seemed to be environmental and cultural. A new study showed electric vehicle use in the region seems to be headed upward. A mountain lion was caught near Pocatello, even as reverberations continue over wolf hunting (or tracking, in the case of OR-7 near Oregon).

But in Oregon and Idaho, primary elections are only weeks away. Expect more politics in next week's editions.

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Enforcement by geography

Crying out for a study: Do the "emphasis areas" on drugs and prostitution (and sometimes other things, like alcohol offenses work? Or is this one of those intuitively-sensible ideas that go nowhere on closer inspection?

The idea is to identify areas where a negative activity is taking place - 82nd Street in Portland, say - and bust up some of the aggregative activity by banning people convicted of the offense from going there.

King County Council member Reagan Dunn (who is, not to make a perjorative out of this, running for attorney general) points out in a recent release that "In 2011, there were 802 gang-related incidents reported in King County. According to the King County Sheriff’s Office, there has been a 165 percent increase in gang-related crime since 2005. Judges currently have the ability to restrict individuals convicted of drug or prostitution-related offenses from entering specially designated areas."

Dunn's thought is to extend the principle to gang activity.

It has the sound of a reasonable idea, especially since - more than most of the other kinds of activity where this has been tried - gang activity tends to be geography-based.

But does it work? We've not seen much by way of comprehensive studies providing an indicator, one way or the other. This could be a useful tool, especially for gang enforcement, if it does work. Maybe someone should get a clearer answer to whether it does.

Records public only if you won’t use them?

Here's the background to the public records case, in the endlessly perverse Michael Gendler v. John Batiste, out of the Washington Supreme Court today:

Michael Gendler is an attorney who was bicycling across Montlake Bridge in Seattle one day when his front wheel caught in the bridge's grating. He was thrown from the bicycle, hit his back and neck, and has been quadriplegic since. Wondering if the same sort of accident had happened to others, he started to research, found that some had, and asked the Washington State Patrol for accident reports on the bridge to find out more. After some back-and-forth, the WSP said it could provide a historic list of accidents on the bridge; Gendler would have to fill out and sign a form to request it. When the attorney in him looked at what he was being asked to sign, he found this: "I hereby affirm that I am not requesting this collision data for use in any current, pending or anticipated litigation against a state, tribal or local government involving a collision at the location(s) mentioned in the data."

In other words, if he signed and got the information, he wouldn't be able to use it in the meaningful way. (Of course, if he hadn't been a lawyer, he might have signed away his right to legal action without knowing he had done so.)

Gendler said this was no fair, and took the WSP to court. The state patrol has fought him all the way up, from trial court to the court of appeals and the Washington Supreme Court Court where, today, it lost for the third time in a row.

The legal resolution of the case was actually fairly complex, because the patrol said the records were gathered in part for federal highway safety purposes which it said have a limitation on legal liability.

That the Patrol failed in this argument probably saved it from some high perversity: Keeping secret records gathered for the purpose of fostering road safety, from a man injured in a road accident seeking the records specifically to press for greater road safety.

Someone in Washington government really ought to start thinking through this kind of thing.

Carlson: A nuclear legacy

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Jack Byrnes, Dick Legg and Richard McKinley are names few Idahoans know---unless they happen to work at the Idaho National Laboratory located in the Arco Desert west of Idaho Falls.

On Jan. 3, 1961, these three died when the safety rod that absorbs neutrons and slows the nuclear chain reaction was removed too quickly from the reactor vessel core at SL-1, a small Army reactor approximately 50 miles west of IF. A steam explosion occurred blowing the top of the building and spreading radioactive debris into the atmosphere. They became the first humans to die in a nuclear plant accident and 51 years later are still the only Americans ever killed.

While overall the record of the nuclear industry in America, and at the site, is one of spectacular success given what engineers and operators are dealing with, whether the industry has a long-term future remains debatable. Incredible escalating costs for building new plants (ranges vary from $4000 to $9000 per kw) and waste disposal are major red flags.

In January 2011, this column raised questions about an amendment to the Idaho Settlement Agreement negotiated initially by Gov. Cecil Andrus and finalized by Gov. Phil Batt with the Navy and the Department of Energy in 1995.

At a time when Idaho is seeing the benefits of its earlier focus on removing transuranic waste from storage above the Snake Plain Aquifer, reprocessing and repackaging it for shipment to the salt caverns at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) site in New Mexico, it makes little sense to accept even a small amount of commercial spent fuel rods for research purposes at the INL site. The amended agreement signed by Gov. Butch Otter allows 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of heavy metal content in imported spent fuel rods each year for 23 years.

The overarching Idaho Settlement Agreement calls for the removal of all transuranic waste and spent fuel rods on the site by 2035. So, why fret? Well, that date is premised on Yucca Mountain, Nev., becoming the nation’s major repository by 2035. That site has been mothballed. Why run the risk of having to store researched upon rods, even a relatively small amount, approximately 10 tons, beyond 2035?

No one has provided a good answer. After additional research and candid discussions with Department of Energy spokesman, Brad Bugger, I have come around on one issue.

The Otter m.o.a. is NOT opening the floodgates to Idaho becoming the de facto repository for the nation’s considerable number of spent fuel rods. The 10 tons of spent rods that could come in are within the 55 metric ton amount negotiated by Andrus/Batt and capped. (more…)

Party angst

Idaho journalists, especially those who cover or write about politics at all, are having a difficult season on voter registration this year. The angst is contagious.

The rule for many years has been that while voter registration records - showing whether you've registered to vote, and whether or not you did - are open, no further information about votes and preferences have been. And journalists have been comfortable with that. But the rule changes this year. The Idaho Republican Party has chosen to limit participation in its primaries to people who submit a form declaring themselves Republicans. Or, more precisely, saying that "I wish to affiliate with the following political party," and choosing Republican. Democratic, Constitution and Libertarian options are also available, as is unaffiliated.

In the past, political reporters and editors (or any other voter) could walk into a voting place at primary election, go behind a curtain, and pick a party, or not, with no one knowing what choice was made. No longer: The choice has to be made out in public. (Though only in the case of Republican; Democrats are allowing others to participate in their primaries.)

For many journalists, this creates an issue. John Pfeifer, the publisher of the Twin Falls Times News, did a nice run-through on it today, outlining the issues and the questions involved, and it's worth a read. Among other considerations, what will the usual press critics do? (There's been some talk about Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, himself a former reporter, possibly publicizing those listings; but whether it's him or someone else, there's a good chance someone will.

Pfeifer writes "We’ve been told that reporters at Idaho Public Television have been instructed not to vote and Betsy Russell, political reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review and current President of the Idaho Press Club, has been instructed by her editor to do what she needs to do but with the caveat that if “it starts mushrooming into some kind of controversy” she might be reassigned off of the political beat." (Which would be something approaching a tragedy.)

Then he adds: "Really, have we in the media become that fearful of offending people? Have we subjugated our reporters to some persona-non-grata status where they can no longer express their opinions at the ballot box? Do we think that little of our readers? Do we think that little of our legislators? Are we really afraid that if someone broadcasts what ballot our political reporter requests on a single day in May it will affect how she or he reports the news the other 364 (oops, leap year — 365) days of the year."

He next questions whether that idea might be naive; but the view here is that it is not, that it should be pretty close to the responsive attitude on the part of journalists and their employers. In other words, spine up. (more…)

Oregon consistency

Oregon is developing some long streaks when it comes to voting for one party or the other.

OR political field guide
Based on material from the upcoming Oregon Political Field Guide

Up until 1986, Oregon - which was historically a Republican state until it moved more into a two-party camp in the mid-50s - elected a number of both Republican and Democratic governors. The longest streak of continuous control of the office by either party was by the Republicans, a run starting with Charles Sprague in the election of 1938 and ending with the defeat of incumbent Elmo Smith in 1956 - in all, 18 years. The current Democratic streak has, though this year, run 26 years, and presumably will hit 28 by the next gubernatorial election.

The record hold by a party of an Oregon Senate seat, the combination of Republicans Mark Hatfield and Gordon Smith in Class 2, just ended in 2008, at 42 years. The second-closest, involving three Republican senators over 37 years, ended in 1954.

None of Oregon's five House districts have changed party control since 1996, or eight terms ago. The 5th district changed hands a few times in its early days, but among Oregon's other four districts, you have to go back to 1980 when the 2nd went Republican, to 1974 when the 1st and 4th went Democratic, and all the way back to 1954 when the 3rd district went Democratic - in the latter case, 58 years of Democratic control there.

Many of the counties are about as consistent over time. Our new Oregon Political Field Guide notes, for example, that in the most Republican instance - Malheur County - it "last went Democratic for president in 1940, for governor 1934 and for U.S. senator 1926."

Quite a few eastern Oregon counties were at least semi-competitive into the 80s, and many had majority Democratic registrations as late as the early 90s. Since then, the consistency has been Republican - solidly so for what is now approaching a generation.

Is there anywhere to look for non-consistency - put another way, for those swing voters that campaigns logically should be most seriously courting? Mainly, it seems, in the suburbs. Counties like Washington and Clackamas are relatively non-consistent over the years, have been most willing to switch sides.

That, of course, is in relative terms.

Just another factor to bear in mind as the election year moves on.