Oregon Needs Its Own Bernie Sanders

By Matt Witt of Talent, Oregon. Matt Witt is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Talent in rural Southern Oregon. His writing has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Medford Mail Tribune, and many other publications. He directs TheWorkSite.org, an online resource for grassroots organizing. His nature photography may be seen at MattWittPhotography.com.

Oregon needs its own Bernie Sanders-type candidates to run in the upcoming Democratic primaries for governor and U.S. senator.

Serious primary challengers could keep Kate Brown and Ron Wyden from taking Democratic voters for granted and moving right to please corporate campaign contributors. And who knows, maybe candidates committed to bold action on Democratic issues might even win!

For example, a credible challenger to Brown could point out that states and cities in the rest of the country are responding to the national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and ask why our Democratic governor failed to help even bring the issue to a vote in this year’s session of our Democratic legislature. Debates would require Brown to commit whether she will lead on this issue next year.

As governor, Brown could have used her position to crisscross the state campaigning for a raise for the working poor that would boost our economy by putting more purchasing power in their pockets. Instead, she parroted the corporate line, publicly worrying that making companies like Walmart and McDonald’s pay struggling workers a living wage could “harshly impact our currently growing economic recovery.”

A knowledgeable primary challenger could also shine a light on Brown’s failure to take a strong stand for action on climate change by opposing the two fracked liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals and pipelines proposed for Oregon by out-of-state companies.

The impacts of the LNG projects near Astoria and Coos Bay include creating the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, driving up energy prices, destroying existing jobs, creating huge new public safety hazards in a major earthquake and tsunami zone, trampling landowners’ property rights, and polluting hundreds of waterways.

When Ted Kulongoski was governor, he helped stop a previous version of these projects by committing to go to federal court to challenge federal rubberstamping of required permits. Kate Brown could do the same and could ensure that state agencies fully consider all the impacts that should lead to denial of state permits as well.

Brown also could be using her position to publicly call for investment in solar, energy efficiency, and other opportunities to create thousands of clean energy jobs instead. But pleas from a broad grassroots coalition to stand up to potential campaign contributors on climate and clean energy issues have gone unheeded.

Meanwhile, a significant challenger to Ron Wyden could ask why he was repeatedly identified by the N.Y. Times this year as “among the leaders pushing for the trade authority” needed to enact the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. That’s a massive trade deal championed by corporate lobbyists to make it easier to drive down worker, consumer, and environmental protections in the U.S. and around the world. Wyden frequently got an earful from constituents about his support for this special interest deal, as well as for the LNG project, but back in D.C. he wasn’t listening.

Politicians like Brown and Wyden feel free to carry big corporations’ water on issues like these because they expect no credible opposition in the Democratic primaries and they figure that Democratic voters have nowhere else to go in the general election.

That’s what N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo thought too in 2014, until a well-respected professor took him on in the Democratic primary and won more than a third of the vote, even though she was outspent by almost 40 to 1. Since then, a chastened Cuomo has reversed course to take a number of actions to “repair his ties to his party’s left wing,” according to the N.Y Times, including banning fracking for natural gas and, just recently, raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 an hour while calling for that raise for all low-wage workers in the state.

In 2016, we need challengers like that to pin down Kate Brown and Ron Wyden on issues like economic justice, climate change, race, immigration, and more. Candidates with the right skills and standing in Oregon who focus on issues and not personal attacks could inspire young and disaffected voters who otherwise are likely to just stay home. True primaries – instead of coronations – could make it more likely that we have real debates and real accountability from the Democrats we elect.

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