Dick Hughes, who has been reporting, observing and opining about state affairs since 1976, believes contemporary political leaders are “unable or unwilling” to address issues dividing urban and rural Oregon.
In his most recent Capital Chatter column, Hughes writes, “Most Oregonians share the same core values, including family, good health, educational and economic opportunity, and a deep love for our landscape. Yet we, copying the rest of the country, have settled for a political system that focuses on short-term, partisan wins and losses instead of long-term, mutual goals that serve the common good.”
Hughes attributes this geopolitical shortcoming to short-term policymaking. Politicians see advantage in short-term victories, he says, that please special interests, build a political resumé and bring in campaign contributions. Politics in Oregon, like the rest of the nation, has been reduced to a battle to decide winners and losers.
The search for long-term solutions to complex problems has become the casualty of short-term partisan gamesmanship, Hughes argues. The biggest wound is a lost sense of unity and common purpose among Oregonians.
Hughes underscored his conclusions by citing similar ones from former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in his recent public commentaries, which they discussed in a recent conversation. In a December 19 guest opinion piece for The Oregonian, Kitzhaber lamented rifts between regions of the state and within communities such as Roseburg, where he worked as an emergency room physician before entering politics:
“The problem is rooted, at least in part, in the long-term economic challenges faced by many rural communities, and in a sense of isolation from the political power centers in the more urban parts of the state. Economic struggle and isolation have been the daily experience of many people in rural Oregon, and that preceded the pandemic by many years. Add to this the intersection of state mandates with a group of people who do not react well when ‘told what to do’ by someone from outside — and you have the formula for anger, frustration and division.”
Hughes also singled out Kitzhaber’s thought-provoking post on LinkedIn in which he asked: “Unbundling the complexity of the health care system starts with a question. Are we trying to ensure that everyone has access to health care? Or are we trying to ensure that everyone is healthy? This question is foundational because how we answer it defines the rest of the conversation.”
Confronting foundational questions requires a different, longer-term political mindset, Kitzhaber says. Hughes picks up the thought by pointing to K-12 school funding. “The legislature’s perennial school-budget debate revolves around whether a certain dollar amount is deemed adequate – not whether the money is being spent effectively and in the most essential long-term areas. When there are so many immediate needs, it is difficult to find the political fortitude for making long-term strategic investments.”
When meaningful conversations cross political dividing lines, solutions can gain wider support and political momentum.
Tackling complex issues, of which there are many, will require “re-establishing a shared identity” for the entire state, not sniping about “who’s right and who’s wrong”, Hughes says. “From political campaigns to legislative discussions, how can we insert the question of, ‘What should Oregon look like in eight or 10 years, and what concrete steps are necessary to get there?’”
The first step, according to Hughes, is to engage in “small conversations” like the one he had with Kitzhaber that can blossom into “big conversations”, “especially among Oregonians who put shared values ahead of politics”.
Talking alone won’t solve thorny problems, but talking can identify potential solutions that involve short-term, incremental and long-term steps. When meaningful conversations cross political dividing lines, solutions can gain wider support and political momentum.
Even though neither Hughes nor Kitzhaber mentioned the word, equity is important in big conversations and political solutions. Inequalities exist between urban and rural areas, within regions of the state and among population cohorts. Inequality, both real and perceived, is at the root of what divides Oregon and Oregonians. Zero-sum politics, as often as not, makes inequality worse.
Oregon has a tradition of enacting trailblazing political ideas such as publicly owned beaches, the Bottle Bill and land-use planning to preserve precious farmland. None of those legendary achievements were partisan victories. The victories sprung from big ideas that led to big conversations about long-term objectives.
Kitzhaber raised a foundational question about health care. Similar foundational questions could be raised about curbing greenhouse gas emissions, moving toward more individualized secondary education, coping with an aging population and expanding economic opportunity statewide.
As he has often in the past, Hughes address important issues for Oregonians – and Oregon political leaders – to consider as 2022 begins.