While voters in some rural counties dream of being part of another state, Les Zaitz is trying to rediscover what holds Oregonians from all over the state together.
A veteran Oregon journalist who runs rural newspapers and a digital news service, Zaitz is on a mission to find out what Oregonians think about the urban-rural divide and what they want from their next governor. He teamed up with Rural Development Initiatives and the Agora Journalism Center in Portland to conduct four hour-long virtual listening sessions with participants from all corners of the state. The Pamplin group of newspapers and Jefferson Public Radio in Southern Oregon also assisted.
Among the findings: Oregon voters are hungry for someone who can look past party affiliation to unite the state. That’s the view of 41 percent of non-affiliated Oregon voters, who now make up the largest percentage of the state’s electorate as registration for both Democrats and Republicans has declined.
“These citizens are worn out by the focus on party over performance,” Zaitz writes. “They recognize the impact – in Oregon and across the United States – of Republicans and Democrats treating each other like the enemy. For these voters, those party affiliations seem to be more about who has power, not who is doing best for Oregon.”
Zaitz’ story includes a handful of quotes from listening session participants:
“Bipartisanship is hugely important, especially considering how much rural communities, low-income communities and communities of color have in common,” Angela Uherbelau said in an email after one session. “A governor who brings Democrats and Republicans together to solve our literacy and math crisis in Oregon would transform the state for years to come.”
“It’s important for the next governor to act in an apolitical, inclusive and constructive manner,” wrote Daniel Bachhuber. “These days, it seems like there is very little working across the aisle. Instead, it’s mostly attacks across the aisle.”
Ginger Savage wrote, “The last two years have shown us that no one party has the right answers to everything. Through the process of discussion and compromise, Oregonians’ lives will be better. The governor must rebuild so much trust, communication, compromise.”
“My hope for a bipartisan leader is that they will emphasize entertaining solutions and ideas representing all sides and viewpoints,” said Claire Conklin, noting that “our state and our country continue to move further apart.”
“We are at a pivotal time in our state, when we can either continue to see further division or begin to realize some unity,” Charlie Mitchell wrote. “This is a deep and wide divide and will not be resolved quickly or easily … I have little faith in the major parties as they are currently structured. I don’t believe the two major parties are serving us well at the state or national level.”
They think the next governor would learn a thing or two in far corners of Oregon that could be shared elsewhere – even in the cities.
Listening sessions confirmed Oregonians in rural area believe the urban-rural divide is real and impacts their daily lives. “This wasn’t some political talking point from rural politicians,” Zaitz observed. “This wasn’t some rabid table-pounding demand to be cut loose to shift to Idaho. They live the divide every day in their communities.”
The divide manifests itself, according to listening session participants, in a lack of opportunity and short shrift on state funding.
“They see their communities as capable of solving their own problems,” Zaitz wrote. “No one wanted the next governor to ride into town with saddle bags stuffed with solutions. They want a governor to understand the real distinctions of rural life – why it is attractive for many, how its cadence differs from urban areas.”
“Several speakers remarked that rural communities are particularly skilled at addressing community needs” Zaitz said. “’Resilient’ was one description applied several times. By that, they seemed to mean that they were willing to do the work needed to fix whatever needed fixing. They just needed a few more of the tools that urban areas get to do so. They want the next governor to deliver.”
No one wanted the next governor to ride into town with saddle bags stuffed with solutions. They want a governor to understand the real distinctions of rural life – why it is attractive for many, how its cadence differs from urban areas.
Their hope is Oregon’s next governor will “listen to them”, including getting out of Salem to meet with them on their home rural turf. “They want genuine engagement, not just a whistle-stop tour through a Rotary Club luncheon or a contrived community meeting,” Zaitz said.
“They think the next governor would learn a thing or two in far corners of Oregon that could be shared elsewhere – even in the cities,” Zaitz added. “Rural communities don’t need or want those in Salem to come up with a single solution to, say, grade school reading problems and insist that every part of the state use that solution. They want adaptability, more freedom to conceive answers that serve the people in the community the best.”
Here are links to both of Zaitz’ columns: