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Posts published in “Stapilus”

They’re not making more water

To start with, it’s not a bad deal. It’s just that it’s a temporary stopgap, if that.

Last month, the state of Idaho and users of water from ground and surface sources cut a deal about groundwater use. Absent a deal, thousands of groundwater users, across half a million acres of territory, were in line, because of state orders, to lose their irrigation water this season. Their growing season would have been wiped out. The economic impact, for these people and those connected to them, and even to the state overall, would have been massive.

The hit was directed generally toward groundwater pumpers, because many of them had more junior water rights, while many surface water rights were mostly older and so had a legal priority for water use (“first in time, first in right”). But the issue also pitted ground people against surface people, a not-unusual situation in Idaho water.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Water Resources calculated that the Eastern Idaho Snake River Aquifer was running low - too low. The aquifer has been in decline for about 60 years, a fact that has been carefully measured and hasn’t been ignored. The issue was important in working through the Snake River Basin Adjudication. In 2015 another agreement on water usage was worked out for preserving the aquifer, and the subject has been under regular review since.

The state has been involved in recharging (pumping water back down) and other steps to help, but if too much groundwater is drawn out, the aquifer will drop and eventually dry. You can ask people around the Great Plains’ Ogallala Aquifer about the terrible consequences of that.

Idaho’s water management system, in southern Idaho at least, long has tended to be cooperative, with interested parties usually more willing to talk than insistent on fighting. The state has been the beneficiary of that for decades.

So when the state ordered water shutoffs for thousands of irrigators, which led to - call it concerns or something approaching panic - widespread realization that a search for solutions had to be undertaken. Negotiations got underway (Lieutenant Governor Scott Bedke seems to have been a key figure in them), and finally late last month a deal was struck, included in an agreement signed as an executive order by Governor Brad Little.

It has six main provisions. It proposed to “improve understanding of the aquifer”; convene a legislative commission on water infrastructure; put a priority on funding projects that would help the aquifer; ask stakeholders to meet; get the regional groundwater management advisory council to submit a new plan by September; and commit groundwater users to develop a mitigation plan by October.

None of this is bad, but only the last item (and it’s still in the territory of aspiration) has the sound of something concrete that specifically addresses the question of how to deal with not enough water for everybody. Water mitigation in this case presumably means that groundwater users would have to specify how they will be able to use water, or engage in recharges or something else, without further endangering the aquifer. How exactly they will do this seems less than clear.

The problem may not be insoluble. Water conservation - which some elements of Idaho water law doesn’t always encourage - may be one of the options. Finding other new efficiencies or reuse of runoff water might be considerations. Some good engineers are at work on this.

The core conundrum, though, remains: If everyone uses the water they need for their operations, the aquifer likely would be drawn down, maybe to dangerous levels. That’s why the Department of Water Resources took action in the first place.

There are no evil players here. But unless someone comes up with an unexpected, and brilliant, answer, the problem looks like a diminishing circle: An ongoing game of musical chairs with someone being left out. This year’s negotiation, probably a predecessor to next year’s, leaves that problem unresolved.


Instant majority

At the end of a long road to ballot qualification, Idaoans will get to decide whether all the voters, or only a tiny sliver of them, will pick the leaders of its government going forward.

That’s the core of what’s really a simple proposition. There is no lack of efforts to confuse and distract, of course, from what the open primaries initiative actually would do; confusion and distraction are just about the best tools the opposition has.

For example, this from an op-ed by Morgan McGill of the Idaho Family Policy Center (a pro-Republican group): “Through open primaries, Democrats will slowly take greater control over Gem State politics as they build a coalition with more moderate or ‘squishy’ Republican candidates that can flip seats historically held by more conservative Republican candidates.”

The sense of that falls apart when you recognize that the initiative would not change the people of Idaho or their candidates either. It simply would bring more people into the process of selecting their leaders. The only rational reason for opposing the initiative is if you think that’s a bad idea, as a good many people in current state Republican leadership clearly do.

So how does it work?

There are two steps, one at the primary election, one at the general.

At the primary, instead of a convoluted system of trying to figure out which Idaho voters can vote for what, the answer would be this: Everyone (who is a qualified voter) gets to vote for everything. For instance: If there are five people - say, three Republicans, one Democrat and an independent - running for the state Senate seat where you live, you vote for whichever one you prefer. When the votes are tallied, the four candidates who get the most votes go on to November.

In November, once again you get to vote for whichever of the four you prefer - but you also can make another choice, if you want to: You can indicate the candidate who is your second choice (if your first choice doesn’t win), and your third choice (if neither of the top two come out on top). This is the “ranked choice” system, the terminology of which has tangled a lot of understanding about what’s really a pretty simple process.

The idea is that a candidate should have to get more than half of the vote to be elected. (Many of Idaho’s cities operate on this principle in their elections,and mayoral runoffs are not rare.)

This would mean that the people who are supposed to be in charge in this state - the voters, all who choose to participate - would get a voice in selecting their leaders. As it is now, because of the convoluted system governing party elections, only a small fraction do.

That’s it. Nothing terribly hard to understand about it.

What would be the effect? State Republican Chair Dorothy Moon wrote July 3, “In a winner-take-all election, the candidate with the most votes wins—the candidate that the most voters want. However, in an RCV election, the winner is the candidate a majority can tolerate. This shifts the focus, incentivizing candidates to avoid taking strong stands on issues.”

That’s one way of putting it: A move toward leadership by the broadly acceptable rather than bitter extremes. Here’s another: Wins under the open primary system would go to whoever has the most support among the most voters - as opposed to (in the current setup) whoever gets the backing of a small in-group, often a tiny fraction of the voters. Or: Do you want leadership representative of most of us, or of just a few of us?

Of course, looking ahead, all this depends too on the Idaho Legislature. Initiatives pass laws just as the legislature does, but just as no legislature can bind a later one, the legislature can change - or repeal completely - any initiative passed by the voters. Given how little regard the Idaho Legislature has had in recent years for the voters, the open primary law - if voters do pass it - may have a shaky future.

In the meantime, Idaho voters have a decision to make, about whether they want to be respected as vital participants in a system of self-governance. Or not.


A MAGA tilt but not a lockdown

Conservative southern Oregon, often an afterthought for many other Oregonians, may be the most politically dynamic large area in Oregon.

Few other areas show as much potential for political change.

Consider a couple of large Medford-area events just a few miles apart and on the same day, June 22.

The Jackson County Fairgrounds was dominated by the Republican political rally called MOGA 2024, the acronym standing for “Make Oregon Great Again.” Its headliners included national figures, including Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder and advocate for Donald Trump. This may be the only really large-scale Oregon event on this year’s Republican calendar, presented as “Come help us take back southern Oregon.” It was heavily promoted by the local Republican organization, by other groups around the region, and around the dial on area radio stations.

From a pro-Trump perspective, you might wonder if there’s much to take back in the southern Oregon area. Most of this large sector of the state already votes Republican.

But it may not be as locked-down some may think. The Jackson-Josephine counties seem to be on the cusp of something subtle that events like MOGA could be critical in influencing: Deciding if the area becomes MAGA-dominated enough that other points of view are swamped, which hasn’t happened yet.

One piece of evidence in that argument is the second event held only a few miles from the MOGA event, over in Pear Blossom Park in Medford, where organizers were holding the well-attended 3rd annual Medford Pride event. One participant said, “It gives a space for young people to be free to express themselves however they want. And an opportunity in an area that’s not always the most accepting to really give an opportunity for our community to be queer.”

These two events may fit into the larger picture of conservative southern Oregon as pieces of a puzzle shifting and developing.

The two big counties in the area are Jackson (where Medford is the county seat) and Josephine (Grants Pass).

Jackson leans Republican, but not by a great deal. In the last two decades, it has voted Democratic for president just once, in 2008, but no one has won its presidential vote by as much as 51% since 2004. Its legislative delegation has included mostly Republicans, and Republicans hold county government, but Democrats as well, including state Sen.Jeff Golden and state Rep. Pam Marsh, who represent a large share of the county’s voters. There are some indicators it has been moving gently away from hard right positions. It is one of 11 counties in Oregon to legalize therapeutic psilocybin. Hard-line positions on property taxes seem to have eased a little in recent years. Jackson shows no signs of becoming a blue county, but its tint seems to be shading gradually purple.

Josephine County is more solidly Republican. No Democrat has won its vote for the presidency since 1936, the longest such run of any Oregon county, and Trump just cleared 60% in both of his runs. Its state and local officials are Republicans, and there are no indications that will change in the near future.

Still, there are indicators of attitude shifts. Josephine has been one of the most rigorous anti-tax counties in Oregon, along with neighbors such as Curry and Douglas. Having experienced some deep austerity in local services, however, voters seem to have recentered on the subject.

Libraries are a good example. All libraries in the county were closed in May 2007 for lack of county funding, but since then libraries have been reopened, and a library funding measure was passed in 2017 with 53% of the vote. Law enforcement is another useful case study. Severely crunched funding during several years for the sheriff’s office was addressed in this decade with creation of a law enforcement taxing district, also approved by voters.

Both counties seem to have developed stronger tourism, recreation and wine industry sectors, which over time usually lead to a moderation in politics, and some of that seems to be playing out. That’s especially true in the well-known cultural and tourism centers at Ashland and Jacksonville, both growing and prospering, but also to a degree in both Medford and Grants Pass and several smaller communities.

Most of the more rural areas remain hard-right conservative, and the traditional “Don’t Tread on Me” and other similar signage is not hard to find outside the cities. These areas are a MAGA redoubt, and few people outside their tribe make themselves visible. That absence of a contrary culture allows for more sweeping adoption of the MAGA message.

But increasingly, alternative messages are becoming visible in some of the cities. They are not near changing the partisan lean of the area. But they may be enough to slow an overwhelming adoption in the region of support for Trump and his allies. Much depends on whether people are exposed more to one message or the other.

The margins are close. That is why events like the MOGA event and the Medford Pride activity, in their different ways, may have some real rippling effects.


John Peavey

I got to know John Peavey as a state senator, a job he held in two runs, for three terms in the 70s as a Republican and later in the 80s and 90s as a Democrat, 10 terms in all. He was a capable and active senator, and often in some kind of leadership position - formal or informal - while he was there.

Peavey, who died on June 16, may also have been one of those unusual people whose personal efforts actually helped transform the politics of a local area. Blaine County, which he represented and ran for office for so many years, probably moved away from a Republican tilt toward the Democratic side in considerable part because of the highly visible role Peavey played.

And yet Peavey, who was also an important figure in Idaho’s sheep industry and ran a livestock ranch all his adult life, might be as well remembered for demonstrating the impact a person can have even outside of elective office. He was a personal inflection point in Idaho history in at least three ways that had nothing to do with the Idaho Senate, or directly with his occupation either.

Peavey was in office in the early 70s when he tried pressing for passage of a campaign finance and lobbying disclosure law, and found that the legislature (notably members of his own party) weren’t very interested. So he went to work on it outside the Statehouse. In 1974 he was a key figure in promoting an initiative (the 1977 Idaho Almanac has a great photo of him carrying boxes of petitions up the statehouse steps) to set those open government requirements in Idaho law. With some adjustments over time, that law is still in force. Peavey is part of the reason we know as much as we do about who is behind changes in Idaho politics.

Some of Peavey’s compatriots also were less than thrilled when he helped lead opposition to the Pioneer Power Plant proposed by Idaho Power Company. That effort helped derail his legislative career for a time, when he lost his Republican primary in 1976. The Pioneer campaign he helped lead prevailed, however, and may have had a critical effect on Idaho development. With hindsight, Pioneer, then thought to be needed as a source power, likely would have become an expensive white elephant, and Idaho Power rates which for many years have been low might have ratcheted much higher. Idaho’s economic development in the last half-century is likely in part a piece of Peavey’s legacy.

By the time Peavey returned to the Senate (as a Democrat) in 1980, he was also a central figure in the debate and eventual lawsuit over water rights at the Swan Falls Dam on the Snake River. That lawsuit, one of the most consequential in the state’s history, resulted in the Snake River Basin Adjudication and many other developments.

Wendy Wilson, former leader of the Snake River Alliance, said of Peavey’s efforts that, “As a result, Idaho now has one of the most progressive water management systems in the West. When someday this system prevents the Snake River from being pumped completely dry – it will be in no small part because of John’s vision.”

There was much more too, notably on the environmental front, and watchdogging the Idaho National Laboratory (his Flat Top ranch is not far from its boundary line). The Trailing of the Sheep event at the Wood River Valley that he co-founded has become a local institution.

He did most of these things not from a position of special power, but from the office of citizen. There’s a lesson in that.

John Peavey had an instinct for grasping what was important and how to push to make a difference at the key moments when change could be had. He can continue to have an influence by showing us through example how much power we each can have.



Boundaries of extremism

A reader wrote recently with a reasonable question which likely is not his alone:

“My question is what you consider extreme.  Some current law makers and organizations that support them, such as the Freedom Foundation, you continually label extreme. Many of their ideals have been quite central in Idaho for generations. So just wondering why you consider their views being so far from central.”

Several ideas are packed into this, so let’s separate them.

First, not everything said by the IFF or the leadership of the Idaho Republican Party is extreme. The Idaho Republican Party has a platform running over quite a few pages, and much of what’s in it could be endorsed by most non-Republicans as well as party members, and close analogues for some of it can be found in the Democratic platform.

But any organization making policy decisions has to be judged not by its blandest statements but by those that mark out distinctive territory - that make it really different from the others.

Here’s a little more from the Republican 2022 Idaho platform: “We believe Social Security must be stabilized, diversified, and privatized … We support the total abolition of inheritance taxes [which are paid only by the very wealthy, not the vast majority of us] … The Idaho Republican Party hereby recommends that the Idaho Legislature and Governor nullify any and all existing and future unconstitutional federal mandates, federal court opinions, and laws, funded or unfunded, that infringe on Idaho’s 10th Amendment sovereignty.” Idaho citizens should lose their right to elect their U.S. senators, too, and the income tax should be wiped out without anything to replace it.

To that, this year you could add opposition to state funding for education beyond the high school level (the language of that measure was interpreted by some people as specifically targeting vocational-technical education, but that was unclear - and not a lot better). In-vitro fertilization was targeted as well, along with demands for tougher abortion laws (and considering where Idaho is now in that area, this should be interesting to see). When I see librarians and physicians arguing that a party’s direction is making it impossible for them to do their jobs in the state, you just might be extremist.

But many of us have what are clear minority opinions. So let’s weigh a couple of other considerations as well.

Second, extremism is also marked by an absolute unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of anyone who thinks differently. Don't listen to them, Anything they do is illegitimate. Even if what they’re doing is something you agree with, don’t join them because they're evil.

You can point to a near-obsession with concern about any involvement in the political process - not just the party organization - on the part of anyone who doesn’t toe a strict party line. The sensibility is strictly totalitarian.

Third, an organization waves the flag of extremism when it shuts itself off from transparency and outside review. We all need an editor (I know I do) and if we have any sort of power, we all need some oversight; it’s mainly the operators of far-gone organizations that shut out the outside world.

Mary Souza, the former legislator who ran for state GOP chair last week, recognized as much, saying, “When the party obfuscates and covers things up and isn’t transparent – and this leadership is not transparent – this kind of lack of transparency, lack of honesty, all of those things need to change. I’m running because there is a lack of respect for people in the party from leadership, and also (a lack of respect for) the voters.” She said that before the convention was held, a convention in which armed guards patrolled the grounds to make sure reporters and others weren’t watching any of the party activities which for decades had been commonly assumed (in the Republican as well as the Democratic party) to be open-access to the public.

She lost to the incumbent Dorothy Moon, who laughed when asked about transparency, and when asked if it was a consideration said, "Yeah, not really. Not in my mind. In my mind, this is a private group. It's a private association.”

I’ll credit her at least with honesty about that.

The Republican Party Idahoans have chosen by simple biennial reflex to run their state has morphed into, according to its chair, a private organization with broad control over the state’s public decision-makers and which is totally unconcerned about whether the policies it is pushing - with enforcement by penalties - are acceptable to more than a sliver of the people of the state.

To my reader inquiring about extremism: Yeah, in the context of politics I’d say that’s close to a practical definition of extreme.


The state of Oregon journalism

Two big slices of news about Oregon newspapers fell shortly after Memorial Day, sending shock waves across the state.

One was the sale of one of the largest Oregon newspaper groups, Portland-based Pamplin Media, and the other was the announcement of major cutbacks in another, EO Media Group, which owns the Bend Bulletin and other newspapers. Both show the immediate urgency for finding a way to rescue community news in Oregon – sooner, not later. Among other things, the Oregon Legislature urgently needs to take up the subject in its next session.

Consider where Oregon newspapers were just 12 years ago, when Steve Bagwell of the McMinnville News-Register and I co-wrote a book, called “New Editions,” about the recent history and prospects for newspapers in the Northwest. We counted 82 paid-subscription, general circulation newspapers, 16 of them dailies, in Portland, Eugene, Salem, Bend, Medford, Albany, Corvallis, Pendleton, Astoria, Ashland, Ontario, Coos Bay, The Dalles, La Grande, Roseburg and Baker City.

Since then an economic hurricane, a perfect storm, swept through the ranks of those newspapers. Many of the dailies which published six or seven days a week now publish three or four days a week if they’re not gone completely. The large business office buildings they occupied nearly all have been sold, along with nearly all newspaper presses, and increasing numbers of newspapers now consist of one or two reporters working out of their homes, with no office support at all. Some Oregon newspapers have been sold to investor groups, and where the papers still are actual print papers, they’re far smaller.

That has largely been the case with Pamplin Media Group, which owned 22 newspapers from Prineville to Forest Grove and Madras to Portland, more than any other owner in the state. Their operations and staff have diminished, But they have continued to publish on regular weekly schedules with reports about their communities.

On June 1, all of those papers were sold to Carpenter Media Group of Natchez, Mississippi, which, until recently, mainly had focused on southern-state newspapers. Pamplin is not its only major recent purchase, even in the Northwest, however. Last year, with backing from two Canadian investment companies, it bought 150 newspapers and other media from Black Press Media of Surrey in British Columbia, and included dozens of Washington state newspapers. Carpenter is now by far the largest newspaper owner in the Northwest.

It appears to be operated by former executives of Boone Newsmedia, which owns dozens of papers in the southern U.S. But other than reports about Carpenter’s many purchases there’s little public information about it – or where the money for all these massive buys is coming from. Carpenter has been buying large papers as well as small, including the dailies in Honolulu, Hawaii and Everett, Washington. What that means for Oregon’s largest collection of newspapers is far from clear.

The development with EO Media Group didn’t involve change of ownership, but it did mark a drastic change of operations.

EO Media Group, named for one of its papers, the East Oregonian of Pendleton, publishes a dozen newspapers in the state, most east of the Cascades. Operated by the Forrester family of Astoria, it has been a rescuer in recent years of community newspapers. In 2019, it bought The (Bend) Bulletin out of bankruptcy and kept it running. When the daily Mail Tribune of Medford shut down, EO started a new paper there, Rogue Valley Times.

EO said on June 3 that it will cut its 185 employees by 28, end print editions at the papers in La Grande, Hermiston, Baker City, John Day and Enterprise, and reduce the number of editions per week at Medford, Bend and Pendleton.

The areas in Oregon that are news deserts – or at least extremely arid regions – are expanding rapidly. And considering the scope of these recent large developments, the collapse of Oregon’s newspapers seems to be picking up speed rather than slowing.

Oregonians need news reports to decide how to vote and participate in their communities, and the businesses that have made that possible are dissolving rapidly. This amounts to a real, immediate crisis for the government and society in Oregon, as it does in many other places.

The answers are far from clear.

The Oregon Legislature did devote some attention to the problem last year with House Bill 2605. The proposal would have prompted a study of the situation but it never had a floor vote. Still, that was a good start. Next year, it ought to mark out serious time and attention to figuring out how to help Oregon citizens keep up with the news around them, so the system of self-governance we have had for generations can continue to function.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article misidentified Boone Newsmedia Inc. and misspelled EO Media Group. It also misstated when the Oregon Legislature considered grants for local media. 

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

The Big Fill

Well, this is a mess.

On the highway over Teton Pass, near the Idaho-Wyoming border, the fallout happened on the Wyoming side, though that was the luck of the draw. The Wyoming Department of Transportation said that the sequence of events started on June 6 with a motorcycle crash on Wyoming Highway 22 (which is the continuation of Idaho 33), observation of a possibly-related pavement break, and a quick repair job, after which traffic flowed normally. The Idaho Transportation Department has been providing assistance.

Next day, travelers spotted a mudslide in the same area, and Wyoming staff “surveyed the area and investigated the cause of the mudslide and have determined it was more than likely due to the heavy water saturation and spring runoff. With warmer weather, the chance of further issues will decrease. Water continues to come off the mountain, but maintenance crews have been able to channel the runoff off into controlled drainage ditch and into a culvert.”

WYDOT also reports, “we have affectionately named [it] the Big Fill Slide.”

Since then, the road has been closed. Having driven it a number of times, I can attest that a fix will be challenging and unlikely to be finished swiftly.

Until it is, it’s a problem for the whole region.

Idaho’s Teton Valley area, and its main communities of Driggs and Victor, has been among Idaho’s growth spots economically and demographically, among the few in a truly rural area. That has a lot to do with its close ties to Jackson, Wyoming, also a boom location. The connection has been symbiotic, partly because of business spilling over from one side to the other (mainly from Jackson to Driggs and Victor) but also because a lot of people made their homes on the Idaho side, partly because of property availability and cost but maybe also in part because of how crowded and busy Jackson is becoming.

Highways 22 and 33 are the lifeline patching this two-state community together. Ordinarily, it’s a short and slick commute: From Victor to Jackson is just 24 miles over the pass, and most (not all) of the drive usually can be done at full highway speed.

Problem is, there are no easy alternate routes. To the north, you’d drive for many hours all the way up to West Yellowstone, go through the national park, and south to Jackson - wholly impractical for anything less than a scenic day trip. The preferred route will run to the south, from Victor over the mountains down into Swan Valley, along the Palisades Reservoir to the Wyoming line, then north to Jackson - just shy of 100 miles, much of it over mountain terrain. Decent highway, but a long drive of the getting-old-fast variety if you’re doing it twice daily.

There’s really no one to blame here, but a few points probably should be made.

The Teton Pass route is only one of many single-option routes for getting from place to place around Idaho. There are places where geography and population combine strongly enough that multiple plausible routes for getting around are available, such as in the Ada-Canyon area (near the larger cities), in the Magic Valley and central Kootenai County and in the Upper Snake-Idaho Falls area. But for most of the state, commerce, emergency considerations and regular traveling is highly dependent on every major road remaining open and working.

That’s a stresser. And it’s not alone even this year. Work on the Rainbow Bridge near Smiths Ferry this season creates real blockage along Highway 55, a key route between the Boise area and places north. The highway may no longer be deserving of the Goat Trail label it long had, but it remains a thin line of connection between major regions of the state.

Topography and budgets will be constraints into the future against fully developing a system with adequate backups for travelers. But the idea of doing better, over the long haul, would be worth considering. If there's no one to blame for the shutdowns today in places like Highways 22 and 33, people half a century from now would be right to wonder why we didn’t at least start to look into how we might do better in years to come.


Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life

The distance was a bit of dissonance in this case. I attended a book signing and speaking event for an author who lives just a few miles north of where I do. But the book in question had reach around the globe, and the story opened with a scene in Congo - where the author was on board a rickety plane that looked to be about to crash.

He is Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and for years before that a for4eign correspondent for the newspaper. Obviously he survived the rough landing and, just afterward, he pulled out his satellite phone and called his wife. The idea was to tell her he was okay, but when she came on the line, he decided otherwise: The story was best told in person.

Except, that soon afterward his wife got a call from the home office in New York which included the comment that people there were happy Nick had survived. Oops. The lesson after that, Kristof recounted, was: Immediate transparency about important events is helpful in a marriage.

Kristof's memoir, Chasing Hope: A Reporter's Life, is packed with stories about things learned in the field. He's Harvard and Oxford-educated, but much of what he recounts here - and a lot of the book is devoted to the practical work of researching and writing about places around the world, many remote and some of them extremely dangerous - which plainly constitutes its own form of grad school.

Some of that relates to how to get the work done (how, for example, you get past checkpoints filled with armed soldiers when you're in the4 country illegally). Some of it relates to how people live in places extremely different from the United States (the hazards of introducing himself in certain locales) by his nickname).

But some of it too comes from what you learn when you're on the ground and can see for yourself - which can look a lot different than it does from a distance. That applies not only to distance places in Africa and Asia but even to his home town area around Yamhill, where many of the problems facing parts of rural America can come into sharp focus.

There are plenty of reporter memoirs out, and many of them make for lively reading. (In the last few years, I especially liked Seymour Hersh's.) None I've seen, though, has been livelier, or covers more ground, than this one. He talks in detail about life growing up in small-town Oregon, about his time in universities and freelancing articles about places around the globe - an achievement that seemed to me as remarkable as anything else he has done - and dealing with deadly threats, from illness to being in a crowd fire upon by Chinese troops at Tiananmen Square (then frantically running on foot miles back to his residence to send the story so the paper would have its own version).

There's plenty of solid fact and earned wisdom here. And if you're in the mood for an adventure story, you can find a while pile of them between these covers.

Photo/World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland, World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Doing the impossible

The single most useful political lesson in Idaho from last month’s primary elections may have come not from a congressional or legislative race, but from a school bond election in small-town Salmon.

The lessons weren’t immediately obvious, because they came not from the end result but from the way that result was achieved.

I’m leaning heavily here on an extensive account of this small-district, far-from-metro-area election in the excellent Idaho Ed News, which took the trouble to explain not just what happened, but also how and why. And the how and why are important.

Here’s the background.

As in many rural Idaho communities, the school district has been scrambling for funds for years. Money for operations, much of which comes from the state, has kept the schools running, but building needs have become severe. Those needs center on Pioneer Elementary School, built in 1959 and now close to a disaster area. As the Ed News explained, “the school’s foundation is crumbling, creating ripples in the floor that trip up the tiny feet of its students. Custodial staff crawl through raw sewage to fix backed up lines. Drainage on the site is poor and runoff leaks into the building. Bathrooms and the cafeteria are inaccessible to students with disabilities.” Among other things.

None of this is in dispute or unknown to the community (and the elementary school isn’t the only problem area). The school district board and administrators years ago proposed a bond issue to replace the school. It failed. Then it proposed another. It failed too. And the cycle repeated through 12 bond proposals and 12 failures. The last of them pulled 59% favorable, but that still wasn’t enough, since a two-thirds affirmative was needed.

Many people probably considered the situation hopeless.

And yet on May 21, they passed the bond, as voter turnout surged and 72% of voters signed off.

How did that happen?

First, different people got behind it, in the main not school administrators. That left space for others to jump in, and a core of about 30 volunteers started meeting, month after month, to consider the problem. Some had children in the schools, others were concerned about the community.

After months of work, the group went public and held a series of sessions aimed at both soliciting and answering questions. They also brought opposition arguments into sharper focus. The concerns covered such ideas as, “If we could see a plan and what our money is buying, then maybe we can support it;” “As long as it’s not fancy;” “We don’t need the Taj Mahal.” These were addressed.

On complaints about tax levels, the sessions finally brought a sense of where the break line was, defining the acceptable and unacceptable: Up to $20 million, most people could see their way to support, but not if it shot beyond that. (The proposal that passed was for $20 million.) Donations and alternative finance, and cost savings, were worked out as well.

That was just the beginning. The volunteer group - with help from school officials - conducted a media blitz and an intense public conversation through the local newspaper, online and wherever else was available. Nor was that all, as the Ed News said: “A few days before the election, committee leaders were confident the bond measure would pass, as if they had already tallied each vote — and they nearly had. Early in the bond campaign, the volunteers held a strategy session, where they read through the names of Salmon School District’s 4,999 registered voters and assigned a committee member to canvas for their ‘yes’ votes.”

After more than a  year and a half of organizing, it worked.

The lessons? People in the community should lead efforts like this. They should plan on working very intensively for a long time. They should run media communications, but not rely on that: Nothing beats face to face communication, between the more people, the better.

It’s hard work. But then, real democracy is.