"I don’t think there’s a city in the country that’s better positioned to move forward for a green, sustainable, global future. From everything from the food that we eat and agricultural policy to harnessing technology to creative arts and the nuts and bolts of infrastructure construction, I think the elements are here."
There is probably no political figure more synonymous with Portland than Earl Blumenauer. With his decades-long record of public service that includes stints as a state legislator, Multnomah County commissioner, and city councilor, Blumenauer emphasized sustainability and livability issues that have helped develop the Portland metropolitan region’s current reputation as a model for 21st century cities. Blumenauer filled Ron Wyden’s vacated House seat in 1996, a year that saw welfare reform passed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (and which also saw Madonna setting a Guinness record for most costume changes in the film Evita.) While Blumenauer has capably represented Oregon’s 3rd Congressional district for the better part of the last two decades, his influence in the House has ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the Democratic Party. An ally of Nancy Pelosi’s, Blumenauer would occasionally fill the Speaker’s Chair during the brief Democratic majority of 2007-2010. With the Democrats in their current minority position, Blumenauer’s brand of pragmatic progressivism has taken a backseat to Tea Party obstructionism and intransigence that have been the hallmarks of the Boehner-led House. Now as we head into the 2012 election year- with Newt Gingrich a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and Madonna set to play the half-time show at next month’s Super Bowl, Blumenauer must perhaps feel that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Congressman recently sat down to discuss the current situation in Washington, why he approves of Congress’s low disapproval rating, and what he sees in store for Portland’s future.
Due to your long public service career at the state legislature, County commissioner, Portland city council, and House of Representatives, you would certainly be able to provide a unique perspective regarding the future for the Portland metro area. However, as you are a Congressman, it probably makes most sense to start there, with the 112th Congress now halfway over. So… good times, right? Halfway through- what is your take on the 112th Congress at the one-year mark?
Well, it’s the antithesis of what we had in the 111th Congress. It was interesting, in the 110th Congress you had Democrats in control but still having to contend with the Bush administration, some positive things occurred but we were bumped up against roadblocks. The 111th Congress, the last one, I think will be viewed as one of the most productive Congresses in decades. Health care, environmental protection, the House actually passed climate legislation. From Lily Ledbetter to stuff [Blumenauer and Greg Walden] worked on, the Mt. Hood Wilderness legislation, hate crimes… just a series of legislation. The floodgates opened. [The 112th Congress] has been a bizarre series of self-inflicted deadlines and potential meltdowns. Somebody described it as the “Indiana Jones” Congress where, you know, here’s the government shutdown crisis- oops, well we dodged that bullet. Here’s another boulder rolling down the hill which was the debt ceiling crisis. Artificial, completely contrived, but when we play that game there is real consequences, and we saw that. This last month, I felt like we were coming back and forth pretty much every other day trying to figure out extending unemployment, extending the payroll tax breaks. Wait a minute. This was absolutely small ball. The payroll tax extension was sub-optimal, you know. It was a compromise that was accepted a year ago in lieu of the Making Work Pay tax credit that actually provided more benefit to middle income and lower income Americans. While we have to extend the payroll tax credit to everyone who earned wages, so the benefits spread to people who really didn’t need it, at not an insignificant cost. And then it’s kind of risky taking the social security payroll tax as a funding mechanism. Because that’s always been the source of the social security trust fund, it’s kind of a very direct cause-and-effect: you pay it in, you get it out. You start monkeying around with that- how do you turn it off? It would’ve been a $119 billion hit to the economy at a time when the recovery is, shall we say, still weak. So it’s been bizarre. About two hundred times this Congress has voted to weaken or eliminate environmental protections. And it’s been a lot of defense. The good news is that the message, I think, is getting out to the American public that these people are not your friends.
I think that message is pretty clear. Recently, something caught my eye- I get flooded with information all the time, and maybe you are aware of this as well- but the current approval of Congress is five percent.
It’s essentially margin of error. It’s single digits, and there’s going to become a time when the approval rating gets down to essentially margin of error. But there are two statistics I found that are more troublesome if I were a Republican. The Republican approval rating is the lowest that it’s ever been recorded, at twenty percent. And the Democratic brand, let’s not kid ourselves, is not particularly robust but it’s significantly higher. And there’s increasing awareness on part of the public that the things that drive them crazy about Congress are primarily the result of Republican tactics: shutting down the Senate, extremists in the House. So more people blame Republicans for this. Now, there are things that the President has done that don’t exactly fill me with joy. I wish in some cases he had taken a stronger line. I argued at the beginning of this Congress against the deal they made with the Republicans to extend all the tax cuts for two years, and only the things we cared about for one year. I didn’t think we could afford all those tax cuts, frankly, and not just for the top one or two percent. And you ended up on things that really made a difference for the economy and for working men and women like unemployment, like the payroll tax- at least make it co-terminus on the tax cuts. And, frankly, we didn’t get any deal on funding the government or the debt ceiling, which I thought should’ve been a part of it. But, be that as that may, most people recognize that the President has at least been reaching out to the Republicans; some people may suggest that he has gone a little further than they would’ve liked, but it’s not that he hasn’t tried. The public understands that at some level. So, going in to this second session, the Republican brand is damaged, they’re divided between themselves and between Republicans in the House and the Senate. And I think there’s an opportunity to make a little progress. But failing that, I think the stage is set for duking this out in November in a way that brings us forward.
Going back to the abysmal approval ratings of Congress. From your individual perspective, with your long career as a public servant, and on your way up it seems that being a federal representative in Congress would be the pinnacle of that progression. So here you are as a member of this deliberative body- which is part of our representative democracy- yet you are part of this body with such an abysmally low rating. How does it feel for you to be a member of a body with such an abysmally low rating?
Well, I’m one that agrees with the abysmal rating. Congress has earned it.
So if you were asked that question…
I don’t approve. My family doesn’t approve. The people I work with are frustrated and working hard to change it. The American people are aware of it. Congress has failed in its responsibilities to responsibly deal with the basics. Like the debt ceiling. Excuse me, this is paying for bills all ready incurred. It made no difference on the national debt. What it did, by raising the doubt, it actually affected our credit-worthiness, and probably ended up costing the taxpayer. Plus, all the skirmishing on things that we don’t do. The nonsense about not funding the budget even at these reduced levels means that agencies are on a very short leash- they can’t plan, they can’t function on items that people care about. The routine business are complicated and cost more. It’s outrageous.
Continuing on that theme, we could have a discussion about what the number one political story this past year has been, but to go with Time magazine they picked The Protestor as the Person of the Year. What are your thoughts about the Occupy Movement and did you go down to the Occupy Portland camps and make a presence there or check it out at all?
I monitored it. I think it’s important for… I thought it was important for people to kind of craft out what they were doing and ought not to be politicized. That may not be the majority opinion, but I think having people find their voice and focus on hopefully the things that will change the landscape is important. There are nuts and bolts that I hope… one of the constants throughout my work in the political process- before I was an elected official- I spent a year and a half of my life working on lowering the voting age in Oregon and nationally. I sponsored legislation in the Oregon House of Representatives that was successful in terms of government disclosure ethics. We actually had, for two years, campaign spending limitations in Oregon- that was my bill. At the city and county we worked really hard on the citizen infrastructure for people to be part of the planning process, the transportation process, bikes and streetcars.
What works in Oregon, I think, is that people have been engaged and empowered to be a part of the discussion. One of my top priorities for this Congress, and something that I think we can do is change agricultural policy- you know, for people who eat- and international justice, and the environment, to financial regulations. I hope people find their voice and focus on some things that will make a difference. There’s an election right now under way in Oregon. In 27 days, there’s somebody elected to Congress in a special election. I hope people who are frustrated by the direction of Congress- look, this matters. And this is something that as a few limited people can help change the balance. In this era of the Internet, social networking, there are very influential people that don’t have publishing presses. You know, a kid with a lighter last year set off this amazing chain of events that we’re calling the Arab Spring. And this may not seem directly related, but I think it is- this Gong Show that is the Republican nominating process for President, and how it’s up and down… It is activists that have really kind of taken control of the process in a way that doesn’t yield a coherent result yet, but they’re making their presence felt. So I am hopeful that amidst all of this turmoil and appropriate crankiness, that it can be translated. I love the fact that Verizon… isn’t it interesting though that what was kind of a hoot was that some of the 99-percenters seized on this [Bank of America] charge. And, you know, people were switching out to credit unions and community banks from some of the big financial banks. Well, that’s cool. And then Verizon, with their little- and it wasn’t totally irrational, you know, this one-time only payment- but it only took 24 hours before it blew up in their face and they had to reverse. I think it’s a signal that consumers have some power. And it’s why I start this year actually more optimistic than most people would expect. And the question again- How can you put up with this? How can you fly back there and deal with them? How can you stand to listen to it?- and on and on. Well, what’s happening is, I think, kind of an awakening here and part of it is people identifying with the 99%, part of it would be, you know, scattered protests, part of it is consumers who aren’t going to put up with something, and I hope it translates into elections for the city council, for the legislature, for Congress, for people to push back on the efforts to manipulate the elections process even though there are unprecedented efforts to make it harder to vote. And the gerrymandering that is going on, where the ability for politicians to pick the voters versus the voters pick the politicians, has developed to a high art… There’s a pushback going on.
Probably more of an answer than you wanted, but I see it as this effort and I see it in every community I go to. These folks send me to, as you know, some place every month. I’ve been to Ohio and- whoa, that was interesting. The bloody nose Kasich got- the election in Ohio. In one year, we’ve had three governors pull off upsets in Florida, Wisconsin, and in Ohio. Today, Kasich has his metaphorical bloody nose and people are energized. [Wisconsin Gov.] Walker is facing a recall, and I’ve been in Wisconsin and the energy there is unbelievable. And Rick Scott is the least popular governor in America, and everybody who is getting ready for the Republican primary in Florida- nobody wants his endorsement! Isn’t this fascinating? But it is, I think, a challenge to have everybody focused on things that will make a difference this year and not so much on process and debating points. Which is hard, because people more on the progressive side of the equation care about process and debate is kind of what we do, and because we have such a rich political tradition and a variety of opinions and priorities, it’s kind of a balancing act to make sure that you’re able to feel like people are heard and points of view are expressed without short-circuiting it, but not allowing that to dominate and not getting around to doing the job.
You had mentioned the efforts in Oregon and how people are engaged and involved, and perhaps that’s a good segue to look at what’s in store for this region. I know that your perspective is probably a bit more different than say the mayor’s or Jeff Cogen’s because you’re kind of at the upper level with the federal perspective, but you’ve had quite an influence on the development of the Portland metro region with your emphasis on alternative modes of transportation, smart growth, you started the livable cities caucus, which Portland has developed and become a recognized model for around the world, actually, with lots of stories written from Europe about how Portland could be the 21st century model city. But at the same time, what I’m thinking when I’m trying to see what’s in store for this region, Metro has its population forecasts and there are supposed to be millions of people living in this area, the size of Houston as the comparable city by mid-century. What are all these people going to do in this city? What are going to be the driving factors? I don’t know if you could address that from your individual perspective, or from the larger perspective about what you see in Portland that can be applied to other cities and other areas?
I care deeply about day-to-day activities here. In part, I spent twenty-five years of my career in state and local politics, and a lot of it was in the weeds. I spent two years negotiating a realignment between the city and the county on a functional consolidation that enabled the county to survive and the city to thrive. I care about that stuff. And you’re right, in terms of building the first light rail line and growing the light rail system, the land use, the practices of sustainability are important. But it’s also important for the national perspective because we are, actually, a model and a lot of the work I’m doing nationally- we use the lessons and the example that’s here. I’m hopeful that we do a better job of helping people understand what our strengths and accomplishments are. Health care- if everybody practiced medicine that way it’s practiced in metropolitan Portland, there would be no Medicare funding crisis and we’d get sick less often, get well faster, and live longer. We worked real hard to get into the health care reform some incentives that reward rather than penalize us here, because we get far less reimbursement money than other parts of the country, so actually that short-changes us. How do we build in the Oregon model. So, that’s part of our future. We have perhaps- not perhaps- we have the best governor in American to help lead with health care reform. John has been working on this- I’ve been having conversations with him about this for 25 years. He gets it, he has a vision, and the [Obama] administration wants to work with him. You know, we just got the third largest grant to any state for what we’ve done with kids being enrolled.
We have created sub-industries. You know, people laugh about the cycling, but there are over a thousand people who work here, it’s over a $100-million a year business, and it has contributed significantly to our livability. We are the emerging wind energy capitol. We’ve got big players here, we’ve got lots of men and women who work for big, international companies like Ibedrola and Vestas. BPA across the street is like a big headquarters corporation, and it’s an amazing facility for the Northwest. I was at a party on New Year’s Eve with a couple who was going to Australia and Singapore dealing with some of the engineering advances that we have done in water. We have people who make things here: Esco, Precision Cast Parts. I mean, these create a lot of value. We even have this little fledgling national streetcar movement. There are two dozen cities that are either operating streetcars now or they’re moving forward. And, oh- we’ve got a company manufacturing streetcars in the United States for the first time in 58 years. We have the preeminent contractor that does work all over the country, but has done our light rail and streetcar work in Stacey & Witbeck. They’re not headquartered here, but more of their employees are here than anywhere else in the country. We’ve got people helping other cities. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but our strengths have the potential for creating more wealth and jobs here while they make a difference around the country. And around the world. And there’s a reason why younger people with college educations move here.
There’s a reason, but I would also perhaps suggest that there are a lot of people who would hear what you just said and say, “So what, I don’t see it.” These people may have college degrees and got laid off and can’t find work and where are these jobs? Portland has a reputation as a livable city, but for some it is very difficult to make a living in this city. There are a lot of people being squeezed and pushed to the margins, especially further east you go in the county, they would listen to everything you say and respond “I’m not seeing it.”
Well, first of all we’re not immune to the national forces. I mean, there was a lot of wealth that disappeared due to these Wall Street jockeys and plummeting home values. No mistake. But actually within the metro urban growth boundary, the unemployment rate is lower than the national average. A lot of the reason why the unemployment rates for the metro area look higher is because it includes Vancouver. But if you look just within the Portland urban growth boundary, they are substantially lower. Not a huge amount, but it’s not insignificant. Part of what’s going to be important is that the things we are talking about here that will have the most impact is if we as a community get our act together and we have national policies that work. If we have a national Farm Bill that rewarded people who eat and produce food, there’s a lot of value to be created. If the federal government was putting money into water pollution efforts rather than cutting it- that’s a lot of jobs, whether it’s people who are putting in the trenches or whether it’s people who are designing and engineering it.
There is no question that the focus needs to continue outside the [Portland central city] core. It’s actually been moving, you know when we started it- and this is a conversation that we need to have: How did we get to where we are. A lot of people take it for granted, you know, they don’t know the struggles that led to light rail, street car, that went to an urban growth boundary. Thirty years ago, we were bribing people to buy homes in Irvington. Thirty years ago, you could’ve bought a whole block along Alberta for $75,000. Hawthorne- you know, Hawthorne used to be second-hand stores and porn shops. What’s happening in Montavilla. I love what’s happening in Montavilla, in terms of what’s happening with the shops, the restaurants, the homes around it. St. John’s… It needs to continue. I mean, we’ve got huge problems between I-205 and Multnomah Falls. Parkrose, David Douglas, Reynolds school districts are amazingly diverse and that’s a challenge. And there is not much in the way of an industrial base, so it all falls on homeowners. I think the discussion that is taking place now in Lents- there’s this big Lents Park, okay, there’s a renewal district there. How do you engage the community there? The whole Lents-Foster-Holgate area was chopped up by the 205 freeway without having any attention to what it did to a potential… It was just concrete pillars, cul-de-sac streets. Moved out thousands of people. Well now we got light rail, we got a renewal district- it’s their turn. And I’m looking forward to hearing from the community and the city, but what are our priorities? If we move in a slightly different direction with water, transportation, energy there’s a federal partnership, I think, that could be working with them.
You’re touching a button with me that I plan on spending some time this year working with folks because I think there’s a lot of people who don’t understand “the path we didn’t take.” I was there in the Oregon legislature when we passed Senate Bill 100 and people running around here enjoying Portlandia have no idea what took place. They assume… We would’ve had no wine industry. All those rolling hills would’ve been farmettes and subdivisions. And we have a multi-million dollar industry, tourism- and the environmental protection would’ve been gone. So I’m going to be spending time this year on the path not taken- “how did we get here”- and then your question, how do we get people to focus on where we’re going?
All right, one final question. Portland, ten years from now, best case scenario- what do you see?
This is our decade of decision. This is when we are going to learn the lessons of what we’ve done right. We’ve got to focus on the areas that deserve their turn in line. And then we capitalize on the strengths. We have to make sure there are job opportunities, and just because we are a percent or two below the national unemployment within the urban growth boundary, the region suffers and it’s not acceptable. Even though we don’t have vast, empty subdivisions like Phoenix or Las Vegas- I was just stunned. How long is it going to take for them to recover? I mean, it’s just nuts! But the fact is, we’ve got our work cut out for us. I want us to build on our strengths, everything from health care to the environment to the creativity. All of these thoughtful, smart and talented younger people who have moved here and who have stayed even though it’s not always the easiest, I think provides a foundation as the economy picks up and when the federal government comes to its senses, I don’t think there’s a city in the country that’s better positioned to move forward for a green, sustainable, global future. From everything from the food that we eat and agricultural policy to harnessing technology to creative arts and the nuts and bolts of infrastructure construction, I think the elements are here. And I’m just hopeful that we build the citizen infrastructure and capitalize on our strengths. That I think we can do.