As Gov.-elect John Kitzhaber plans his first moves, heres a suggestion: Tend to Oregons losing side.
Yes, theres a staff to hire and a budget to balance, but Kitzhaber ought to borrow Chris Dudleys campaign bus and driver and ask him to retrace the winding route that Dudley recently took over the Cascades and through rural Oregon.
Its not that Kitzhaber, a Roseburg native and two-term governor who has lived here all his life, doesnt know the geography.
Its that he needs to reassure people out there that he still knows them.
Sitting in Portland and watching Multnomah Countys overwhelming Democratic vote steadily, inexorably, push Kitzhaber past Dudley, its hard to imagine the frustration in a place like Crook County, where unemployment is 19 percent and foreclosures have emptied entire sagebrush subdivisions.
Rural towns have struggled not just for years, but for decades, with Oregons worst poverty and joblessness. Most of these communities never have seen the governor or other top elected officials. Time after time they wind up on the losing side of statewide elections. Is it any wonder they no longer think that anyone in the Willamette Valley hears them or, if they do, cares?
Dudley heard them. Thats why, when he conceded last week, he told reporters he hoped Kitzhaber made a point of visiting all 36 Oregon counties every year. Kitzhaber was elected governor by winning seven counties Multnomah, Washington, Benton, Clatsop, Hood River, Lincoln and Lane. Its not a coincidence that five of those counties have unemployment rates below the statewide average. If youre doing OK, why not keep a Democrat in the governors office for going on 28 years?
Rural Oregon is not doing OK. Its the chronic unemployment. Its seeing forests, rivers and rangelands that once provided family wage jobs put largely off limits except as playgrounds. Its the powerlessness that comes from living far from political decision makers. Thats why 74 percent of voters in Grant County and 72 percent in Harney County answered Dudleys call for change.
Dudley lost, yet theres still a chance for something better for rural Oregon. Thanks to the Republican takeover of the U.S. House, Oregons most powerful federal elected official is now Rep. Greg Walden, who represents the rural 2nd District. Walden always has been a strong advocate for his rural constituents; now hes in a position to make things happen for them.
Rural Oregon also will benefit from the Republican gains in the state Legislature. No one is sure how a 30-30 House will operate, or what its priorities will be, but at least the agenda will not be totally controlled by Portland-area Democrats.
Lastly, rural Oregon may be pleasantly surprised by Kitzhaber. Few remember, but it was Kitzhabers strategic investment program that directed tens of millions of dollars of lottery funding into infrastructure and economic development projects across rural Oregon. And it was Kitzhaber who created the Oregon Salmon Plan, which fended off an endangered species listing for coho salmon and created thousands of rural jobs.
Of course, theres more to do. Walden and Sen. Ron Wyden, also re-elected last week, must push through an extension of federal timber payments that are a lifeline to rural communities. They also must work together and with the Obama administration to pass legislation to expedite eastside logging projects while protecting old-growth trees.
Meanwhile, Kitzhaber and the Legislature should look for every opportunity to encourage traditional rural industries, including farming and forestry, while building on new ones such as renewable energy. Its essential to extend broadband Internet service throughout the state. Facebook is building in Crook County, and Google has a computer center in the Columbia River Gorge. Rural Oregon has a future.
But you have to get out of Portland to see it.