Oregonians would not usually look to Alabama for an example. But during his post-election press conference, Alabama’s Senator-elect Doug Jones said something that applies to our state’s condition.
Noting his historic win Tuesday — becoming the first Democratic U.S. senator from Alabama in 25 years — Jones said that a state benefits when its two political parties are competitive. Conversely, Jones said, it is not healthy for a state to be dominated by one party.
That observation fits Oregon, because we have become a one-party state. Victor Atiyeh was Oregon’s last Republican governor. He was one of Oregon’s best governors of the postwar era, serving from 1979 to 1987.
More significantly, the state Legislature is dominated by the Democratic party. That has led to a very unhealthy outcome, with public employee unions carrying outsized and unchecked power in the capitol.
There is more than one reason why we are in this fix. While it is true that metropolitan Portland’s phenomenal growth and its overwhelming Democratic party registration is a factor, so is the Republican party’s litmus test of abortion, which has scared away good candidates. As a result, the Oregon GOP has not much of a bench from which to call up candidates for statewide races.
It is worth remembering that until 1954, Republicans were Oregon’s progressive party, in the Theodore Roosevelt mode. In the words of one historian, Oregon Democrats were “inarticulate” until the 1950s. A state legislator from Portland named Richard Neuberger appeared and the Democrats gained a voice, who happened to be one of America’s most prolific writers. Neuberger became Oregon’s first Democratic U.S. senator in 40 years. Subsequent Democrats such as Vera Katz, John Kitzhaber and Barbara Roberts were Neuberger’s beneficiaries.
More importantly, Gov. Tom McCall credited Neuberger with being his inspiration. Neuberger was an environmentalist before that word became part of the lexicon.
Republicans today who excoriate Oregon’s statewide land use planning statute forget that it was Republicans — McCall, Hector MacPherson and Hermiston’s own Stafford Hansell — who moved Senate Bill 100, Oregon’s landmark legislation. In other words, it was a time when Oregon Republicans offered big ideas.
The Democrats who hold sway in Salem are also not so inspirational, but perhaps for a different reason. Gov. Kate Brown’s tenure has been a disappointment mainly because she fails to lead on the matter that is killing local governments across Oregon — the growing financial obligation of the Public Employees Retirement System. The public employees unions would disown Brown if she went near a courageous PERS solution. It may be that Brown lacks imagination or it may be that she lacks the guts of a governor such as McCall or Atiyeh.
As much as Democrats like to preach the virtue of diversity, you seldom see that coming out of the statehouse on many urban-rural issues.
Alabama’s new senator wants to reach across the aisle for bipartisan compromise. He might discover that too many Senate Republicans lack the imagination or guts to let that happen. In politics you never know where inspiration will come from. Doug Jones’ improbable election may be one of those moments. Oregon is waiting for its improbable moment.