Real Change, Rural Change

By Tim Raphael of Portland, Oregon. Tim is a long-time Oregon environmental advocate, who now works for renewable fuels company Pacific Ethanol. Previously, Tim contributed Energy independence, reducing emissions, and bridging the urban/rural divide

Senator-Elect Jeff Merkley’s post-election tour through Oregon this week should include towns like Baker City, Lakeview and Myrtle Creek, places where his campaign fell flat. While his “change” message clearly was well-aligned with the economic realities facing Oregonians, it is also true that many of those most in need of change –rural communities with the highest poverty rates in the state—were unmoved.

Senator Gordon Smith won seven of the 10 poorest counties in Oregon on Election Day, and Merkley garnered less than 30% of the vote in six of those seven counties—Baker, Klamath, Lake, Malheur, Sherman and Wheeler. Passed by during Oregon’s tech boom (Lake County’s median family income of about $29,000 is barely half of Washington County’s), these are communities where one in five people lives in poverty.

As part of the Democratic majority in Congress, Merkley has an opportunity to reduce this disparity and broaden his appeal. Why? Because the rural parts of Oregon where Merkley fared worst are poised to benefit most from his focus on policies to combat global warming and attract investment in clean energy technology and production to Oregon.

One under-told story during the campaign was Merkley’s leadership as Speaker of the Oregon House in passing the state’s first Renewable Fuels Standard and Renewable Electricity Standard. There is a strong argument to be made that these policies have been the most successful rural economic development stimuli ever created in Oregon. By ensuring a stable market for ethanol and biodiesel produced in Oregon, the Renewable Fuels Standard in the last 18 months has resulted in $500 million in capital investment in rural communities that need it most. Pacific Ethanol’s production plant in Boardman alone created more than 200 construction jobs and 40 full time operating jobs that pay more than $40,000 per year. From Clatskanie to Klamath Falls, new biofuel processing plants are creating badly needed jobs and local tax revenue for schools and public services.

The Renewable Electricity Standard is also contributing to the rural economic renaissance. Oregon is home to nearly 900 megawatts of wind operating capacity, and the state recently announced site approval for the world’s largest wind farm, the Shepherd Flat project that will be located in Gilliam and Morrow Counties.

But we’ve barely scratched the surface. Oregon and Washington can attract 63,000 new jobs in renewable fuels production, solar manufacturing, wind power development, green building design, sustainable bioenergy and smart-grid technologies, according to a recently released study by Clean Edge, a leading clean energy research firm.

Rural Oregon’s wealth of renewable resources—sun, wind, agricultural crops, and forest biomass—make it an ideal investment magnet. However, the study is also clear that new state and federal policy is needed to attract further investment in clean energy industries. Putting a price on carbon to limit global warming, deploying clean energy workforce development strategies and providing effective clean energy tax credits are just a few of the strategies that will require heavy legislative lifting.

Senator Merkley’s challenge and opportunity is to turn skeptical rural Oregonians into clean energy advocates. Success will brighten both the economic vitality of places like Lakeview and an urban Democrat’s political future. Merkley has a chance to begin the conversation in person in rural Oregon this week.

  • George Seldes (unverified)

    Oh boy! Now we get to tax Oregonians who don't have health care to give business energy tax credit subsidies to Snake River Ethanol so they can import corn from the midwest and coal from Wyoming to launder that coal into ethanol in Nyssa while producing more greenhouse gases than ever!

  • (Show?)

    I don't think the low incomes and poverty levels are limited to just the rural areas. I just think in metro areas we're more likely to have a sizable population with very high incomes that keep our numbers high.

    For instance, Gresham's median household income in 2006 was about $45,000, family median income $52,000. Yet 17% of our city's population is below the poverty level. And with the influx of lower income households from Portland into Gresham, the poverty level is sure to go up. I'm just waiting for the U.S. Census to release 2007's numbers.

    I think it's an issue across the state that has to be addressed. And when doing so, the solutions need to be locally targeted - what would work in Portland, Salem, Eugene, or Gresham won't necessarily work in Baker City, Lakeview and Myrtle Creek.

  • George Seldes (unverified)

    Speaking of the biofuels fantasy, here's the latest on the company that was going to be the first out the door with cellulosic ethanol: They're bankrupt and they say that it's a pipedream.

  • Tim Raphael (unverified)

    Thanks Jenni, My point was not that poverty is limited to rural areas...rather, that Merkley has an opportunity to improve on his anemic support there. Tim

  • Jack Lorts (unverified)

    I think the point here is as much political as environmental or economic development. Merkley did not fare well in several of the least populated counties in the state (sorry to say one of which was Wheeler). Jeff's emphasis on renewable energy should be a catalyst for welcoming him into the rural counties, especially here in eastern Oregon.

    If half of success is simply "showing up," Merkley can learn from his colleague Senator Ron Wyden, who annually visits every single county in the state, including here in Wheeler County where a total of only something over 800 total votes were cast, a smaller number than in most precincts in metro Portland.

    But the way to reach rural voters is to show up. That's why Wyden carries the eastern Oregon counties handily every election cycle. Senator-elect Merkley will, I'm sure, be trying to do likewise. And "being there" is the Washington equivalent of "showing-up". There is a world of good to be done by Merkley becoming a fixture in the Washington firmament.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Tim of Portland writes, "Senator-Elect Jeff Merkley’s post-election tour through Oregon this week should include towns like Baker City, Lakeview and Myrtle Creek, places where his campaign fell flat. While his “change” message clearly was well-aligned with the economic realities facing Oregonians, it is also true that many of those most in need of change –rural communities with the highest poverty rates in the state—were unmoved."

    Tim, you just don't get it. It takes the entire State to elect a Senator. You urban folks didn't elect Merkley by yourselves. It is true that Smith got more votes than Merkley on what is for the most part Smith's home turf. But within those votes, as has been reported here at Blue Oregon, is true that the rural votes for Merkley were higher than any prior opponent for Smith. Without that higher vote in rural areas, Smith would have won, and Merkley would have lost. In my County, Smith won 64% of the vote. He needed 75% to win. Without the votes for Merkley from places like Prineville, Baker City, Mitchell, Hines, and Moro - Merkley would have lost.

    Has Merkley ever ignored rural Oregon? No. Smith campaigned like he did, but Smith told many lies in his campaign.

    Who was the first elected official in Oregon to attend a Rural Caucus event? Merkley in 2005. Between Smith and Merkley, who had been to Prineville for meetings open to the public the most between 2004 and election day in 2008? Merkley twice, Smith once. Even as I am writing this, I turn around and see that Merkley is on the TV news, being in Bend talking to people about what he would like to do for rural Oregon.

    Tim, I get that renewable energy will happen in rural Oregon, not urban Oregon. I get it that we will have more wind power, more solar power, and more bio-mass than urban Oregon could ever pull off. I get it that Merkley has a role to play.

    But Tim, what you don't get is that Merkley doesn't need a lecture about this. In fact, in my first conversation with Jeff Merkley over 3 years ago, this was the major focus of our conversation. And, we also talked about those other things that urban people don't know about or think about. Access to health care in rural areas, the inequality in educational offerings due to distance issues, the need for strengthened State wide infrastructure, etc. Merkley spent a great deal of his youth living in rural Oregon, the Roseburg area to be exact, and I think he actually knows more about rural issues than you.

    These sorts of lectures may elevate you to a perceived higher platform, but they are completely irrevelant to rural Oregon. Merkley has already been here, and is way ahead of you on delivering not only for rural Oregon, but for all of Oregon.

  • Tim Raphael (unverified)

    Steve, My purpose was not to lecture Merkley. It was simply to point out that he has a record and a policy agenda that can serve him well in broadening his appeal in rural parts of the state. I think you're selling him short to think of 26-28% of the vote as some sort of high water mark. I agree with Jack (and you) that it starts with showing up. There is no substitute for face time. After the heat of the campaign it's a good time to reintroduce himself.

  • Sal Peralta (unverified)

    Tim, do you have a link to the full report of the Clean Edge study?

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    So, poor whites in Mississippi voted for Wallace over Bobby Kennedy because they thought he was more likely to bring them relief?

    Two of the highest correlates with income are intelligence and education. How about stupid, uneducated people vote for stupid, uneducated policies and their proponents?

    I agree this "valley controls the State" pattern that's so often seen in Oregon politics is disturbing and unsightly. Same prob., though from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC. If there's one thing the last election showed, it is that State boundaries no longer have any political reality, and largely act to give small, population concentrated areas control over large areas of geography. The House map gives a true picture of the shape of various politico-geographic areas. Look at it next to the State map for President and you can see how misleading thinking in terms of "this state voted that way" thinking is.

    Take two very familiar examples of state that just voted very blue, Oregon and Illinois. 4/5 of both states, by area, would rather be a part of the surrounding red country. It will only get worse as migration to cities continues. Another argument for parliamentary democracy, and another argument for Cascadia.

    Maybe I've missed the point, but if you force a rancher from Pendleton to live in a medical grow commune on Hawthorne, he probably wouldn't much like it. Why should he like the House run like that? Or two people trying to find common ground that just shouldn't be married. Sometimes it's just better to live apart. Why should we all be prisoners of a few oligarchs in the 19th century and the way they thought the maps looked pretty? As the first comment and others suggest, we don't make policy based on the lines, why vote that way?

    Right; in a country where redistricting is a mortal trauma. Anyway, I say we can't make each other happy, directly. A good start would be parting ways, which would make everyone happy. And before you say the rest of the state coulnd't make it, consider the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Same prob; ostensibly as dumb for Slovenia to go independent. But they did, they struggle horribly, but they don't regret the split, and people there are finally engaged in their government.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)


    Then I am beside myself in attempting to understand why you even wrote this. Do you think that Merkley is so ignorant that he doesn't understand, "that he has a record and a policy agenda that can serve him well in broadening his appeal in rural parts of the state."? If not Merkley, then who are you talking to?

    I for one don't sell Merkley short - its the Democratic Party that ignores rural Oregon. I believe that like Wyden, Merkley will be able to win over 50% of the vote in my County in the next election cycle - not because of anything you said, but because Merkley will keep one promise to rural Oregon that you seem not to know of --

    Merkley, like Wyden, has promised to visit every Oregon County at least once per year. In other words, he will be here.

    I have been to several of Wyden's visits to Crook County. The visits get good play in the otherwise Repubicant (they can't get anything right) newspaper here in Prineville. Problems get solved on the spot. Views are exchanged. People who come to the meeting get to understand how Wyden thinks through issues, and generally people agree with his thinking.

    Unlike Wyden, Merkley is from rural Oregon, and that gives him a vast head start in understanding the complexities of this large State.

  • Stacy6 (unverified)

    Steve, I think Tim wrote this piece as information for readers like me. I'm a Portland resident, and frankly I did not pay a whole lot of attention to Merkley's campaign. It was never in question that I would vote for him. I found Tim's article to be informative and positive. It makes me glad to know that Merkley spent so much time in the rest of the state and will give rural Oregon the same attention and care that the urban areas receive.

    It seems to me like you're going out of your way to attack Tim here. Rather than "lecturing" Merkley, Tim was praising him: congratulating him on his vision and strategy. It also looks like you're working to perpetuate the "uppity, ignorant city folks looking down on the hard-working rural folks" divide. Like many people living in an urban area, I grew up in rural Oregon and I resent being stereotyped based on my current address.

  • Tim Raphael (unverified)

    Sal, Here's the link...sorry I still have not figured out how to make a proper hotlink!?!

  • Eric Parker (unverified)

    Sounds like the Ecozealot's green agenda will now be going full bore and force feeding everyone thier diatribe wheather we want it or not. Change is good, but do we have to force it onto others so suddenly? Dem God Merkley should heed well the advice of not forcing too much of the Ecozealot agenda onto the skeptical, and scared, rural Oregonians.

  • Clackamas (unverified)

    I always love how Oregon's forests get touted as the next big thing in biofuels. As if we don't already have a mess in Western Oregon over excessive logging and the effect on salmon and clean water, and a mess in Eastern Oregon from high grade logging (targeting the biggest, most fire resistant trees and leaving the little stuff behind).

    How about we manage our forests for fish, wildlife, clean water, and recreation, then harvest only the resources we have left over after those demands are met? Biofuels ought to be about priority #173 on the list of things our forests should be managed for.

    And Ecozealot? Well gosh. If thinking our public resources ought to be managed for the greatest public benefit, for today and for future generations, and not simply trashed to make a quick buck makes me a Ecozealot, where can I get the t-shirt?

  • (Show?)

    Tim, thanks for the thoughtful post, and for giving us the benefit of your experience.

    It's worth mentioning that I heard Senator-elect Merkley discuss cellulosic ethanol last week on NPR within the context of a broader discussion about Oregon's positioning to benefit from investment in geothermal, tide, wave, wind, and solar.

    I haven't had a chance to digest the full report you referenced above, but based on what I've read so far, I think that policy-makers would do well to take a look. It seems to do a good job of describing Oregon and Washington's current energy portfolio, and offers a fairly even-handed assessment of the challenges and opportunities we face as we look towards investing in these areas.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Zarathustra sez: A good start would be parting ways, which would make everyone happy. And before you say the rest of the state coulnd't make it, consider the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Same prob; ostensibly as dumb for Slovenia to go independent. But they did, they struggle horribly, but they don't regret the split, and people there are finally engaged in their government.

    Yo Zarathustra, the country that split was called CzechoSOLVAKIA, not CzechoSLOVENIA. Slovenia was the northernmost part of the former Yugoslavia.

  • (Show?)

    we're in that part of the campaign where those who won (or, rather, whose candidates won) begin the "What [name of relevant elected official] needs to do is..." phase. so this is "What Merkley should do is..." and it goes along with the bazillion "What Obama should do is..." (although in Obama's case, i'm seeing more of "must" or "needs to" rather than "should").

    obviously these articles should be "what i'm going to do is...". not only will Obama and Merkley (and all the rest) do what they believe is the best thing to do, we have the best chance to influence their actions not thru words but actions. the change that Obama has spoken of so eloquently (and Merkley, less eloquent but equally committed) does not begin "up" at their level but "down" at ours.

  • (Show?)

    Steve Bucknum wrote that DPO ignores rural Oregon. This despite the fact that it has an active rural caucus led in part by Steve. A major part of the problem is that DPO lacked enough money to mount a generic media campaign designed to tout the advances made for the people of Oregon by the 2007 legislative session.

    The worst part of that particular problem is that the leadership lacks the vision necessary to raise the money necessary to pay for radio and newspaper advertising in rural areas. This despite the urging of Steve Bucknum and others, the least of whom is yours truly as a member of the DPO Campaign Committee (until I realized that resistance was futile).

    A major reason for Merkley's success in picking up votes in rural Oregon is that he had the money and he spent it on a media campaign that did tout the benefits voted in by Democratic legislative majorities. Had he been aided for months in advance by DPO financed ad campaigns, he would have picked up more votes.

  • Amiel Handelsman (unverified)

    Tim and Sal,

    I've now read the Clean Edge report twice, and agree that it provides a well-grounded perspective on our region's strengths in the clean tech arena. Sometimes we think of clean energy as a "cluster." This report demonstrates that even within this cluster, the Northwest has strengths like solar manufacturing and green building design that are worth investing in because they have the best potential for job creation over the long-term. The 2007 session moved us forward in big ways. Still, there is opportunity for even greater public and private investment, workforce development and hundreds of new conversations between key stakeholders to pool knowledge and meld strategy.

    Thanks for this excellent discussion.


  • Amiel Handelsman (unverified)

    Another valuable report is one the Center for American Progress did a couple months ago called the "Green Economic Recovery Program." Here is a link to an analysis of the impact on Oregon of federal investment: Impact on Oregon

  • Amiel Handelsman (unverified)

    Here's the correct link:

    Impact on Oregon

  • LT (unverified)

    Lee, I tend to agree with you, except for one thing: showing up and showing concern don't cost money. Steve talks about the times Merkley has come to Central Oregon, even before he was running for statewide office.

    And another thing. Loved this line:

    "This despite the urging of Steve Bucknum and others, the least of whom is yours truly as a member of the DPO Campaign Committee (until I realized that resistance was futile)."

    Anyone who thinks the legislative successes mean no one downstate is angry about how some legislative races were ignored ("Adamson lost anyway, how much FP money went to that race?" would be one example).

    Getting rid of the idea that all political wisdom resides with consultants in Portland would help the situation. Now that we have members of the legislative majority who come from diverse geographic areas, perhaps that can change.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Real change in rural Oregon will happen when new people move there. And they will move there when economic opportunity makes it possible. The culture of rural Oregon stinks. It's stuck in ignorance and poverty,a low regard for education and for public services of any sort. Heck, they won't even pay for police protection out there. Forget libraries. Rural Oregon is stuck in dead-ender culture. Growing up in that environment I spent my youth dreaming of the day when I could leave it. I loved the beautiful country but hated the culture of narrowness, ignorance of every sort, and bigotry towards anything or anyone that is not white or straight. Look at their voting patterns. It tells the whole story of why they remain in poverty and ignorance.

  • Oceanlake (unverified)

    Not real sure about this, but I've a couple of ideas about how to get along with people, maybe even persuade them or allow them to persuade you.

    Act, listen, and speak nicely and politely.

    Find out what they want to do and don't want to do, and

    what they do and don't want done to them.

    Figure out with them what you do and don't want to do together.

  • RichW (unverified)

    How about high-speed rail like they have in France where people could live in Portland "suburbs" like John Day or Prineville and commute to Portland in about an hour. This would bring new people into rural areas.

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