Writings and observations

The issue is clear – so that there is no issue – when private citizens like you or us, or a private business or other private entity hire an attorney, converse with the attorney and get advice from the attorney. Those kinds of communications are confidential. Only under the most extreme of cases, such that there are hardly any, can those communications be legally pried loose. (Or such has been the standard in this country.)

Now let’s say you’re a member of a city council, and you and the other council members agree to hire an attorney to look after the city’s interests – not yours personally, but the city’s.

Under the norms in open meetings and public records law, those communications are considered confidential between the city attorney and the city officials: The council and mayor, say, and whoever else they allow in. The people on whose authority the attorney was hired and on whose behalf the attorney is acting – that is, the residents of the city – typically are shut out. And if you suspect that from time to time, the advice the attorney is giving council members under such conditions may be aimed more at keeping the council members out of trouble, than at doing the same for the city – and those interests do not always perfectly coincide – you could be right.

Those are the kind of suspicions the Oregon Supreme Court will now leave to fester in the case of an attempt to more fully expose to public scrutiny the financial management of the Klamath County school district.

In 2000 the school district had an unexpected spending shortfall of $2.5 million. The months that followed suggested some ugliness, not clearly defined, lay behind it. Questions arose about contracts the district had entered into, about controversial purchases and about layoffs of some of the teachers. The questions persisted. The district contracted with a lawyer to investigate, but the results of that investigation were locked away, never released. In 2003 one district patron, Bert Teamey, filed a lawsuit seeking to tell the district’s taxpayers what that investigation found. Klamath County’s district attorney said the district should simply go ahead and release the records, suggesting they were covered by the strong Oregon public record law. The local Klamath Falls Herald & News, along with a string of other Oregon newspapers, eventually piled on.

Instead, the district filed a countersuit against its own taxpayer, and said many of the record he sought were protected by attorney-client privelege. The next year, Klamath County Circuit Court Judge Karla Knieps sided with the district.

So, to get this straight: If an attorney is involved in looking over financial records, that’s reason enough for public officials to refuse to tell taxpayers how their money is spent. The taxpayers, that is, on whose behalf the attorney is supposedly working. That Knieps ruling has to stand as one of the more outrageous judicial decisions in Oregon in recent years.

Alongside that of the Oregon Court of Appeals, which this summer agreed. And the non-decision – the decision not to consider the case – this week by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Rogue Pundit, which has followed much of this, noted, “I still wonder what [the school board is] hiding. When conducting the investigation, the lawyer and experts he hired told those being interviewed that the information would remain confidential … and it has.”

There’s some indication that legislation covering some of this will arrive, courtesy of the state newspaper association, at the Oregon Legislature next session. None too soon.

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One of the unwritten rules of D.C.’s Capitol Hill is that the members of Congress are to be seen and heard (as often as possible), but not the staff: Their names are supposed never to show up, for example, in news stories. For the greatworld outside the beltway, these people, who make a whole lot happen and shape congressional directions and careers more than many elected officials will ever acknowledge, remain a shadowy presence.

Reason enough to appreciate LegiStorm, a web site and service now just a couple of months old. (Hat tip to the Oregonian blog for noting it.) Formed as an outgrowth of a watcher of Pentagon activities, LegiStorm apparently will expand but has started as a tracker of salaries of congressional staffers – those working for a member of Congress. (Committees, offices, leadership positions and other nooks have staffers too but aren’t covered.)

So how does the Northwest delegation pay? A surface scan suggests: About normal for the nationwide marketplace. Which is what it is, since many of the key staffers for members of Congress float around among the congressional offices.

Pulling together material posted on LegiStorm (but not exactly in their format), here’s a statistical piece of the picture: The chiefs of staff for the members of the regional Senate delegation. (Are you a political junkie? You are if you know the names of these chiefs of staff, though many of them ought to be well known . . . so consider this an excuse to meet some of the people behind the curtain . . .)

This covers the year ending last March 31. Note that in all cases, the numbers may include or exclude some payments (bonuses and so forth) so the comparisons may not be strictly apples to apples.

State Member Chief of Staff Annual Pay
ID Larry Craig/R Michael O. Ware $158,250
ID Mike Crapo/R John Hoehne $158,204
OR Ron Wyden/D Joshua Kardon $156,585
OR Gordon Smith/R John Easton $156,257
WA Patty Murray/D Richard Desimone $141,287
WA Maria Cantwell/D Kurt Beckett* $96,230

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*Held the position only part of the year.

House information is available here.

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Wennerberg Park
Outside our front window, at low elevation

Yeah, there are some icy roads. But it’s pretty out there.

The whole Northwest – almost – has been drenched with snow, even places that seldom see it at all in the winter. The Willamette Valley in Oregon has a snow floor; the mountains to east and west may typically turn white, but the valley floor only uncommonly does.

A north-central Idaho friend informs us of 17 inches on the ground there. Seattle has been coping with the unexpected white stuff (though less ice, seemingly, than usual.) A string of ski areas will open for business in the next few days; the Spokesman-review’s Betsy Russell reports that Bogus Basin at Boise has gotten 14 inches of snow since late Sunday.

And more on the way. We seem well on the way to a solid snowpack for the season; might we get a white Christmas as well?

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The next time you see an institution talking about conducting a year-long, nation-wide, expensive search to fill a high-paying executive post, remember Baker.

The Baker City Herald reports today on the city’s efforts to fill its city manager position, which came open when Jerry Gillham resigned on September 1. After a busy period shortly before the deadline for applications hit on November 15, the city totaled them up and found the position had . . . 91 applicants.

One of the reviewers remarked, “I think there’s a pretty solid group of 20 at the top.”

Probably is.

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The gubernatorial campaign of Mary Starrett, running under the banner of the Constitution Party of Oregon, generated a good deal of attention – not least for the candidate’s solid campaigning skills – but it failed to hit what would have been key benchmarks.

It failed to reach even into the upper single digits (the percentage was 3.6% of the vote). And it failed to generate enough votes that it could even qualify as a “spoiler,” prospectively making the difference in the outcome between the two major party candidates. Democrat Ted Kulongoski won by 8%, considerably more than Starrett’s vote.

(We do take note that Starrett’s highest county percentage, 8.1%, was in Democratic Columbia County, which overall went for Kulongoski; that county was loaded with Starrett yard signs during the campaign. What’s happening there is worth another check.)

All this is prompted by email today from the Constitution Party of Oregon, which notes a new state party chair, Jack Alan Brown, Jr., and some political analysis from its perspective.

We intend to greatly increase our party’s visibility, building on the momentum created by Mary Starrett’s campaign for governor. One way we will be doing that is by fielding a few exciting ballot initiatives that directly relate to some of our platform planks. The first will undoubtedly relate to one or more of the following issues — abortion, English as our official language, and illegal immigration. We have other plans as well that we will unveil later.

Our presence in the governor race proved what I have said all along: Neither conservative nor moderate Democrats will ever vote for a moderate Republican, as they have nothing to gain. However, conservative Democrats might vote for a Republican perceived as a conservative, if their own party’s nominee is perceived as an ultra liberal, as the Nixon and Reagan presidencies demonstrated. If the Republicans can’t learn this, they might as well pack up and go home. The Constitution Party of Oregon, with its principles-over-politics approach, is here to stay!

Adding to Republican headaches in review of this Rubik’s cube of an election.

CORRECTION: The name of the new party chair was corrected.

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By way of the Republican RINO Watch, a new website dedicated to blasting Oregon Senator Gordon Smith’s stand on immigration:

Deport Gordon Smith.

Considering the recent history of the Ron Saxton’s campaign on illegal aliens, one has to wonder where Oregon Republicans – those, that is, pushing this latest effort – think this initiative is going to get them.

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Quick advisory on the National Journal Hotline report today on Oregon people and places. It notes but does not indicated probabilities on the prospect of a run by former Governor John Kitzhaber for the Senate against Republican Gorden Smith in 2008. Two more distinctive items emerge, however.

1. On the subject of Independent state Senator Ben Westlund – whose next moves are of high interest among Oregon political types – Stacy Dycus, who was his campaign spokesman during his run for governor this year, had little conclusive to say. There was this, however: “Democrats have been asking Ben to run against [Smith] but he really hasn’t considered it.” Same, she indicated, with re-election to the state Senate and with the office of state treasurer, where incumbent Randall Edwards will be term limited out. (Republican bloggers hve speculated Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski may champion a Westlund run for the latter as payback for Westlund’s support of him this fall.)

Maybe most intriguing, this: “He is an independent and all I can tell you is that his heart and mind is closer to the views held by Democrats, but he has no plans to change registration. If asked, he may caucus with the D’s this session.”

2. Among other Democratic names bring circulated for Senate if Kitzhaber declines: Edwards, Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo (nonpartisan in her current job, but a former Democratic legislator) and Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis (also in a nonpartisan job, but with Democratic background). The list of Democratic prospects seems to be growing explosively.

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Much of the context is still lacking, but political topic A in Oregon clearly is: To what extent is Senator Gordon Smith, the only statewide elected Republican, vulnerable in 2008, when his seat is up? Not only Democrats but Republicans as well are pondering the question.

Gordon Smith
Gordon Smith

Nationally, of course, Smith is too obvious a target to miss: A Republican in an increasingly blue state, and the only Republican among the three Pacific coast states (excluding Alaska). Nothing resembling a definitive answer is possible yet, of course, because we lack so much of what will be the context for that race. What will the state and nation look like then? How will Oregonians assess the credit or blame? Will they feel as harshly toward President Bush and the Republican Congress as they do now? Will the Democrats in Washington and Salem do well or poorly? How will the presidential campaigns affect political 2008 in Oregon?

Not to mention more race-specific issues. Will Smith run again? (The presumption is that he will, but there’s no formal declaration yet, and likely won’t be for a while.) If he does, will he raise a huge amount of money, or less than that? (He apparently has about $2 million on hand now.) How does he present himself to the state now, as the Bush era winds down? How do issues impact him? What sort of a campaign does he run? And, needless to say, who might he draw as opposition?

Only on some of those latter points is even loose speculation feasible. Which, of course, isn’t slowing down the politically interested from taking a crack at it.

First step is working out Smith’s own relative vulnerability.

Gordon Smith has been on the statewide ballot in three general elections, and three primaries, starting with the 1996 special election occasioned when Republican Senator Bob Packwood resigned.

Remember the atmosphere of early 1996: The Newt Gingrich Revolution of 1994 was still alive, Republicans were very much on the march. No Democrat had won a U.S. Senate race in Oregon in 24 years. Democrat John Kitzhaber had (1994) just been elected governor, but with just 51% of the vote, and only after Republican Denny Smith had been weakened by a hotly negative primary; in the general, a candidate to Smith’s right took 5% of the vote. The Democratic representative in District 1 (Elizabeth Furse) won that year by 301 votes; in the 5th district, a Republican replaced a Democrat. Republicans decisively held both the state Senate and House.

In that context, Republican Smith of Pendleton, a statewide figure as president of the state Senate, faced Democrat Ron Wyden, U.S. representative of the central Portland congressional district – by far the most liberal in the state. Both were capable and intelligent candidates; each (in that election) was willing to, and did, go heavily negative on the other. The result was close, but in the context of the times, not what you’d think: Wyden prevailed, by about a percentage point.

Almost immediately, Smith became the first person to run twice for the U.S. Senate in one year, to fill the seat from which Republican Mark Hatfield was retiring. He first faced a primary contest (from several candidates, chiefly Lon Mabon), which he dispatched easily, winning 78%. That gave him some momentum. In the general he faced Democratic businessman Tom Bruggere, an energetic candidate who had never run for office before. The result was a race that played out almost exactly like the presidential, in which Bruggere took the plurality Bill Clinton vote (Bruggere got 46%, Clinton 47%) and Smith the Robert Dole plus Ross Perot vote (combined, they took 49%, Smith won 50%). Another close outcome.

When Smith ran for re-election in 2002, he fared better, upping his percentage to 56.2%. Again, though, remember the year: Nationally, pretty good for Republicans, and in Oregon, not bad. Republicans came close to winning the governorship with a problematic candidate (Kevin Mannix). They lost outright control of the Oregon Senate (a tie resulted), but their numbers overall for state office weren’t bad. And Smith’s opponent, Bradbury, had obstacles, of which his multiple sclerosis may have been least. He ran on a strong anti-war platform, something few Democrats dared do then, and was a sharp critic of the Bush Administration; a long string of statements that would sell well today limited his chances in 2002. He came across as stereotypically liberal in his policy positions. And in that context, Smith – amiable, smooth, likable – was easily able to win over much of the center. And, of course, Smith massively outspent Bradbury. Given all that, 56.2% looks like a modest outcome.

And you have to wonder what would have happened had Oregon Democrats gotten their fervent wish in 2002, and then-Governor Kitzhaber had opposed Smith.

Consider the change in Oregon from 2002 to now, and speculate on how well Smith would have done earlier this month, if the other basic elements of his campaign remained the same. Look, for example, at the three counties that gave Smith his largest raw vote margins: Washington, Clackamas, and Marion, between them contributing about 100,000 vote margins over Bradbury. (Smith beat Bradbury by about 110,000 votes.) Smith won Washington County by 58.8%. Could he replicate that today? Since that 2002 election, Democratic candidates for the legislature have marched across Washington County, taking over a majority of its seats; and a Washington County (and Clackamas, and Marion too) that voted against Democrat Ted Kulongoski for governor, all voted, fairly decisively, in Kulongoski’s favor in 2006, and elected new Democratic state legislators, and some Democratic courthouse people as well. Smith would have to work much harder to win those counties today; our guess if that if the election were held now, he would not do much more than break even in them. And the the relatively soft Democratic vote Bradbury pulled in Multnomah in 2002 likely wouldn’t be as easy to achieve today, either.

(And again, once again: Yes, the election will be held in 2008, not this year, and who knows what the environment will look like then?)

You could also consider the Survey USA approval ratings, which put Smith in uncomfortable territory, bouncing between 47% and 51% approval over the last year; Wyden has generally run about 6-10 points higher. (That said, Smith’s approvals are no worse than Kulognoski’s or Washington Senator Maria Cantwell’s some months back, so they should be taken with caution.)

The overall answer to the first question then is: Prospectively vulnerable, not to be mistaken for easy pickings.

Of course, that’s but one consideration. Other factors including the opposition: Smith is clearly not vulnerable to just anyone. He retains some popularity, remains a personally likable figure, and Republicans will scrap with all the energy they can manage to keep from losing the last statewide office they have. Democrats would need a strong candidate to take advantages of changing times. (Presuming, that is, the times don’t snap back to Republican-favorable in the next couple of years.)

As in 2002, the big prospect would be Kitzhaber. Out of office and unencumbered, running his Archimedes Movement, Kitzhaber remains both a major statewide figure without the controversy that goes with holding office; in 2008 he will have been out of office almost six years. (For all that, age would be no hindrance either: He turns 60 next March. ) He appears to be as popular as he ever was; when he seemed to be considering a primary run for governor a year ago, conventional wisdom gave him even odds at taking out a governor of his own party, and strong odds to win the general election if he won the nomination. If he started reasonably early and ran a solid campaign, he likely would enter the race at even odds with Smith to win it. Maybe better than that.

How would Kitzhaber run, how would he compare to Kitzhaber as Oregonians remember him (figures from the past up to and including Tom McCall have stumbled over that one), would he do the kind of campaign he needs to do? Answers to such questions become available only after he actually enters the race. If he does.

The Democratic bench is deep at this point. If Kitzhaber opts out (and pressure will no doubt be intense for an early decision, which would run counter to his style) no lack of other prospects may emerge. Representative Earl Blumenauer, Wyden’s House seat successor, has raised his visibility around the state and spent time building contacts around the country as well. If he ran – and he’s stayed coy about the prospect so far, but it has to be a consideration – he would be well positioned and formidable.

Lots of behind the scenes talking is obviously underway. No one is likely to go very public for a while. But Republicans will want to know for sure, soon, whether Smith is running. (As noted, expect for now that he will, though the transition to the minority and the probability of a tough race ahead would be discouraging factors.) If he doesn’t, the Repugblican scramble begins. Then – sometime in the months ahead – look for signals as to Kitzhaber’s intentions. A serious race to take out an incumbent senator will need to get underway by next summer; Kitzhaber will be pushed for an answer before then.

2008 Oregon Senate offers a variety of plausible outcomes. The games should begin before long.

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The national or even regional real estate market is so large you can’t easily get your figurative arms around it. You wind up with oddities like a pair of stories in today’s Oregonian, headlined “Portland real estate goes own way – up” (actually, the story doesn’t very well justify the head) and “home building goes downhill.”

Pearl District (from Wikipedia)Maybe a little easier to absorb is the smaller-scale experience of a specific place. An excellent post on Blue Oregon lays out the situation in the Pearl District in near-downtown Portland.

The Pearl is Portland’s largest artsy and high-end district, blocks of refurbished warehouses now turned into restaurants, galleries and such – and condos, lots of condos. (Stroll by for a First Thursday art night and you’ll see the condo-ites overhanging their windows and balconies.) Condo construction has been brisk in this area, and so has the increase in condo prices. But in recent months, according to the post by Jenson Hagen, the bubble is bursting.

“They are still building these things like mad,” Hagen writes. “The John Ross by the new tram. The Wyatt will add another 245 units to the Pearl. The Strand is going up where I-5 crosses the Willamette. Their website claims an additional 1,335 condos are going up along the Willamette.”

But alongisde that, some disquieting trends. Hagen said that in July he started noting how many Pearl condos were available for sale on the major web site for such sales, Buying Pearl Real Estate. Those numbers rose from 266 in July, to 322 in August, 379 in September, 422 in October and 480 in November. The average condo price is not cheap – most you’ve seen listed in the last year or two run upwards of a half-million. But the numbers of condos offered for under $200,000 (steadily up from 13 in July to 41 in November) has risen faster than the average – an indicator of dropping prices.

Is that the distant sound of a train wreck we’re hearing?

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The concession Tuesday by Darcy Burner in her congressional race in Washington’s 8th congressional district had to come as deep disappointment to her and her backers. But let’s put a little edge on that. This was one of the seats, after all, that Democrats had a really high hope of picking up, long before those hopes started sprouting in far less likely places. There are new Democratic U.S. representatives-elect in places like Kansas and Nebraska and both seats in New Hampshire. The Democratic candidate for the at-large seat in Wyoming – Wyoming – came closer than Burner did to knocking off first-term Republican Dave Reichert.

close districts mapBurner’s race was not the only case where Democrats were hoping for a big win last Tuesday: They were sensing the wave too in Idaho’s 1st and Washington’s 5th districts.

In this batch of posts we’ll consider why the wave didn’t lap up quite high enough in the Northwest, and what that suggests for the next cycle . . . which is, incidently, underway . . .

Let’s begin with the other district that was, somewhat, in play in this last election: Oregon’s 5th district.

It is sharply different from the other three in that it had a Democratic incumbent challenged aggressively by a Republican (making it a reasonably comparison with the one U.S. Senate seat up in the district, in Washington). It may, however, help draw a few pieces of the puzzle into focus.

When on October 19 we cited four seriously competitive U.S. House races in the Northwest, we included this one – ranking it as least competitive. The pending Democratic tide was one reason, but there were others. The incumbent, Representative Darlene Hooley, was reasonably popular, having served in office in the district for many years (in local and state office before Congress), is well-known and liked personally. There is also this measure: She had not had a really close race since winning the seat in 1996, but had one of her closer wins in 2004 over the energetic Jim Zupancic (53.1% to 44.3%). She’s never had a landslide. And her central Willamette Valley district has historically been lean-Republican; it is not predisposed against Republicans.

Oregon District 5

The Republican who entered the race, Mike Erickson – they weren’t exactly crowding the starting gate – but have absorbed those latter points and concluded: If just a few points of Hooley’s support, some of it Republican, can be peeled off, and the Republican then presented as an acceptable alternative, this could be winnable. Especially if you could, as Erickson could, self-fund the campaign. That at least seems to have been his campaign’s operating logic.

And after his campaign spent $1,559,363 mostly on TV advertising (most of it, from what we could tell, negative on Hooley) – to Hooley’s comparable $1,557,354 (she had money stockpiled for such an occasion), here was the Hooley-to-Erickson percentage: 54% to 42.8%, a bit better for Hooley than two years before.

Why did this $3 million race change so little?

The Democratic tide contributed, certainly. This race does suggest its limits: Against a determined and well-finance opponent, Hooley was only barely able to increase her percentage from last time. (The other three Democratic House members in Oregon, none facing as competitive a race, increased their normal numbers somewhat more.)

But we’ll suggest this too: Running a harsh negative race against someone who is well known and well liked is a high-risk and usually a no-win proposition. We also suspect that the deluge of TV ads had more negative than positive effect.

None of which necessarily means Hooley is invulnerable; and come the point she doesn’t run again, this seat will likely be home to a hot contest. (It was, for several cycles, before Hooley secured it.) But a challenge that actually puts a Republican over the top cannot be as simplistically designed as those up to now, and Hooley’s odds for 2008, if she runs then, are good.

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