A Summit May Be Just What The Doctor Ordered…

Paul Evans

The 800-pound gorilla is the unannounced candidacy of Governor John Kitzhaber for an unprecedented fourth term in office. Whatever Kitzhaber decides to do, it is certain that his intentions will be the most talked about state issue at the Oregon Summit this year. And rightly so.

This weekend hundreds of Progressives from throughout Oregon will gather near Bend. The Oregon Summit has become a tradition for off-election year partisans. Candidates, wanna-be candidates, activists, lobbyists, and political junkies will break bread, drink some frosty adult beverages, and share opinions about things large as well as small. This year there may even be a few buried axes…

One thing is for sure: the Oregon Summit will be quite a time. Thanks to “Tail-gunner Ted” Cruz and his Tea Party allies there will be far more material to talk about than during past gatherings. His twenty-one hour non-filibuster filibuster alone would be worthy of a new drinking game.

Let’s be honest: we Democrats have a proud tradition of “family” feuds, but in the end we always figure it out because we want what’s best for our nation, state, and communities. That said, the fight that is brewing on Capitol Hill between the Traditionalists and the Tea Party folks in the US House of Representatives could make the 1948 “Dixiecrat” split look downright tame in comparison…

The nation is nervous and Progressives are frustrated. The Oregon Summit is the kind of “company barbecue” atmosphere that we just might need. The Democratic Party is struggling at the national level to defend the hard-won fight over the Affordable Care Act. We are on the right side of history – and perhaps even the best side of the polls.

Thousands of young people have been shut out of Head Start. Thousands more may be suffering from the impacts upon the WIC programs. Millions of veterans may be impacted in compensation benefits and health care access. And over 800,000 federal workers and their families are now without income.

This shutdown may well stall an already anemic economic recovery. Businesses will be directly and indirectly impacted by the services no longer provided. There is an "opportunity cost" inherent in any such government freeze and there will be a reckoning -- for somebody, somewhere, always pays the price.

Whatever may come, most of us are frustrated with the demonstrated intransigence of the GOP and eager to watch the stare-down play out. These things have a way of working themselves out, and given the stakes there may be at least a few different “games” being played. In situations like this I always like to watch John McCain and his sidekicks: Cruz may have made an even worse mistake than forcing a shutdown, he has taken attention away from The Maverick.

Ironically, Cruz did exactly what he said he would do. Somehow he convinced sufficient numbers of House Republicans to drink his Kool-Aid. Republicans have literally shutdown the US Government in a last-ditch effort to delay the full effects of the healthcare law. A few pundits suggest that Cruz was surprised he wasn’t able to delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but most people are recognizing the value of the spectacle to Cruz’s position within the Tea Party movement.

At some point, Republicans with significant numbers of federal employees and/or commerce related to federal activities may realize the cost of fueling Cruz’s ambitions. And that will be fun to watch.

For his part, President Obama appears to be uncharacteristically digging in his heels over this. Absent is the global view (and often the most logical) associated with the long-term impact of decisions. Many Progressives are frustrated with the endless negotiations and trade-offs that usually end up with a net loss for our issues. That said, as the “adult in the room” his burdens are heavier than the bomb-throwers and he has navigated the waters relatively well given the loss of the US House.

In this instance his resolute attitude has thrown the GOP into a bipolar episode demonstrating both manufactured outrage as well as total disbelief (Boehner and the Boys have come to depend upon playing Obama and have no “Plan B” when it isn’t working). Somebody forgot to remind the members of the Republican Caucus in the US House of Representatives that President Obama is now in his second term: he has no incentive to negotiate at this point.

In contrast to the dysfunction of DC, government in Oregon works well – perhaps too well. The Oregon State Legislature just finished a Special Session that almost everyone would just as soon forget. Everyone that is except the big winner: Governor Kitzhaber.

In private and public, Democrats especially are frustrated with the choices offered – and choices made. The Public Employment Retirement System (PERS) that has long been the trade-off for public employees when the State of Oregon was unable to increase salary rates has been restructured.

The Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) formulas once negotiated in good faith have now been readjusted through legislation. There were some other changes but the COLA piece appears to be the most troubling among public workers. Advertised as a necessity for adding resources to our schools, it ended up casting longtime allies as competitors in a zero-sum environment.

And there is real passion over the message sent through the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) legislation that now prohibits counties from enacting policies associated with protecting organic crop diversity. It turned out to be a very controversial bill with an unusual mix of advocates and opponents.

Whatever you may think of the fairness or the necessity of the legislative package that is now law, there is little denying the impact it made on relationships inside and outside the State Capitol.

The 800-pound gorilla is the unannounced candidacy of Governor John Kitzhaber for an unprecedented fourth term in office. Whatever Kitzhaber decides to do, it is certain that his intentions will be the most talked about state issue at the Oregon Summit this year. And rightly so.

The Governor's victory in Salem this week demonstrated an undeniable truth: there are no legitimate known alternatives. If you doubt this, ask yourself the following question: who else could have forced such a package through the Oregon Legislature? The answer is nobody: no other politician could have driven the Democrats in the House and the Senate to cut PERS for a second time in a year.

Like the outcome or not, the Special Session was an impressive demonstration of political will. It yielded Governor Kitzhaber a proven demonstration of his preparedness to push an agenda regardless of its impact upon traditional allies. No challenger can responsibly claim that Governor Kitzhaber deferred to the public unions on PERS. No challenger can responsibly claim that Governor Kitzhaber was unfriendly to corporate tax relief.

The package may prove harmful for certain and specific legislators from swing-districts, but the Governor now has a significant cross-party appeal that he may not have previously held. It was multidimensional chess.

After the successful Special Session Governor Kitzhaber went back to work on his top priority: Education. Just days afterward, he tapped his education policy advisor Ben Cannon to lead the higher education community. This past week is proof positive that John Kitzhaber is focused upon his priorities and willing to fight to make changes he believes necessary.

Although every Oregon Summit is unique, I suspect this year the spirit of the place and people will reflect the vision John Kitzhaber has for our state and the party.

This has not always been the case: many years the summit represented divergent visions for Oregon and the Progressive Cause. And it may be that way again. However, in stark contrast to national politics, Governor Kitzhaber and the Democrats in the Oregon House and Oregon Senate have a record of achievement.

Governor Kitzhaber in particular has pushed an agenda consistent with his campaign promises and done pretty much everything he said he would do. In an era where voters across the country are frustrated with the failure of government to govern: Oregon is an example of what can be done.

According to the media reports, Governor Kitzhaber has replaced most of the senior leadership within the state’s agencies with men and women committed to his vision. As Governor he has made Education his top priority and led its transformation from a shared local/state cooperative into a state driven enterprise.

Kitzhaber has also taken control of the state budgeting process facilitating a new approach to administration. These efforts have generated certainty over variables (such as PERS) associated with future exposed liabilities. For those paying attention, Governor Kitzhaber leads the State of Oregon in a way few of his predecessors did. In a state long-known for a tradition of independence within the statewide officers and the Legislature – Kitzhaber has sustained order.

And it is telling that since the beginning of his third term the party itself has been recast. On issues spanning the spectrum, the Democratic Party of 2013 is vastly different than the Democratic Party of 2009.

I remember the excitement of 2009. It was fun to hang out with friends and ferry inspired young people to the traditional straw poll. Many of us recognized the opportunities before us and believed the future was bright.

Few of us then could have imagined all that has happened since. I know the Oregon Summit will be a meaningful respite for all involved. For the faithful about to gather in Central Oregon celebrate: past achievements will likely guide future endeavors.

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