Ben Westlund: Now I know better

T.A. Barnhart

Ben Westlund for Oregon State TreasurerOn February 15, 2006, I wrote the following here in BlueOregon:

My reaction to Westlund's message and candidacy? Who the hell does he think he is? This guy did not just show up one day and discover that other politicians self-identified as Republicans were doing bad stuff in Salem. He won office at a time when some of the wingnuttiest Rs were gutting the Kitz-Katz process of bridging partisan divides. He got his chance at the state Senate because far-right activists torpedoed the candidacy of Neil Bryant. Where was he on partisanship then? Why did he not bail on the Betsy Close regime? Why did he tolerate two terms of Minnis-Scott? This guy has benefited plenty from partisan politics, and now he's, what, rising above it? Instead of working to take charge of a party run amok, he takes off to do his own thing — and positions himself as the One True Oregonian, to boot.

I doubt, should I spend the next 100 years writing, I will ever write anything more vile and humiliating. Who the hell does Ben Westlund think he is? Who the hell did I think I was? Why did I write that? Two reasons, but the major one: I had no idea what I was talking about.

I did not know Ben Westlund.

Since that rancid bit of blogosity appeared, I have had two opportuinities to meet and spend some time with Ben. The first was at Drinking Liberally a few months ago; damn, the man tells great stories. He's warm and has a way that just seems to bring people in. The second opportunity was tonight, at the December Central Committee Meeting of the Multnomah County Dems, my new political home. He came to speak about running for State Treasurer and some of the experiences that led him to become a Democrat. I can say now that I know Ben Westlund, even if just a little bit. And I can say this about him, now that, unlike previously, I do have some basis for my words.

Ben Westlund is a man of courage, and he is a gracious person. After he spoke to us, I could not wait to get home and write this (I literally could not wait; I wrote my draft on the bus). He can tell his own story, of how he dealt with cancer and hate mail for doing the write thing on SB1000; his courage comes through in his record in Salem and beyond. His graciousness I'll describe at the end of this post. But back to my original question: Why did I write that piece?

One of the great temptations of blogging is to shoot off your (digital) mouth. Of course, like most bloggers, I believe it is other people who are doing that. The above post (and not it alone) is proof sufficient that I am not immune to the lure of saying whatever the hell I feel like saying, regardless of how stupid or repugnant my words.

The temptation is compounded at a site like BlueOregon. People read BlueOregon, People Who Matter. The staffs of People Who Matter read BlueOregon — they read me! People I meet at various functions not only have read me in BO, they remember me. Holy crap, it's as if I am a Person Who Matters, too. And if what I write gets read by Them — if They pay attention to my words — then, by god, should I not weigh in on Important and Weighty Matters with My Truth?

Sweet Jesus, no. I should, as my sainted mother would never say, shut the fuck up.

There are enough idiots filling the blogs with useless or ugly or harmful words that don't merit reading. There's no need for me to add my own steamin', stinkin' pile. I have words worth writing and worth reading, but rarely are they written when I am trying to be Important. I'm not that kind of writer; I only embarrass myself when I leave behind what I do well, which is a kind of philosophic-empathic look at the human experience, and usually limited to my singular perspective. When I tried to call Ben out on his attempt to bridge the partisan divide, I was channelling Bill O'Reilly. I was not writing from my heart, much less my head. As Al Franken would say, I was pulling those words straight out of my butt.

So of course they stank.

Ben Westlund is a quality human being, and I hope I have even more opportunity to speak with him. After tonight, that may be possible. Here's what Ben did for me, and how I know first-hand of his graciousness.

RelentlessHe wears several wristbands, the yellow Livestrong, of course, as a cancer survivor. He has a rainbow band for support of people of all orientations and a green one; I wear a bright red band (now faded with wear) that says "Relentless!" for the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society. I asked Ben, before the meeting, if I could give him one (I always carry several) to go with his collection. I told him of my dad and brother being leukemia survivors, but instead of keeping it, he handed it back to me.

"After I speak," he said, "raise your hand during the question period and say again about leukemia and then ask me to wear it. That's how you do these things."

Ben was happy to wear the LLS band — he had me place it on his wrist when I did give it to him later — but he knew the gift could have a greater impact and helped me to make it so. He gave me a moment's spotlight for an issue he knew was incredibly important to me, and he spoke further about the need to care for children (I told the Dems how leukemia kills more children than any other disease) — and he expressed, yet again, his anger at the harm caused to children in Oregon by the tobacco companies last month. And he wore the red "Relentless!" wristband to demonstrate his understanding of what this means to me.

The great thing about being human, even about writing in a blog, is that we have chances to make amends. I hope my apology to Ben, and my personal testimony to his demonstrated character, does that. I guess the proof will be in what I write from here.

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    I knew very little about Westlund until I had the chance to go to lunch with him at the 2006 Rebooting Democracy event. It was Westlund and Rob Brading and about a dozen of us all eating lunch at this little Mexican restaurant near (in?) Welches.

    It was a great time and I learned a lot about him. He'd quite impressive, and you're right about him being able to tell a great story.

  • LT (unverified)

    I was not a Westlund fan to begin with--given that he defeated a friend and hero of mine to be elected to the legislature the first time.

    However, that all changed with what was probably the 5th special session when he was being interviewed on OPB and said something so intelligent, so refreshing, cutting through all the hot air at the capitol that I purposely drove past the capitol (I live in Salem and was driving home from a tiring workday), found a parking place, walked up to his office and left a thank you note for the remark on the receptionist desk outside his office.

    It is things like that remark and the class act red bracelet story TA tells that make me a Ben fan. AND made me grimace whenever Ted K. made the "running against 2 Republicans" crack lumping Westlund and Saxton together. Which had a lot to do with why I didn't become impressed with the Ted K. re-election campaign until a speech he gave in Sept. to State Central Comm.

    Memo to current and future candidates. A class act candidate like Ben Westlund is worth several politicians of the smart-aleck kind, no matter what their beliefs of party labels. I would vote for Ben Westlund for just about anything.

  • MythBuster (unverified)

    Ask Westlund about his (various) position(s) on abortion.

    This was revealed quite sufficiently during his quest to be Governor last time. He's not (been) an adequate supporter of abortion rights in Oregon. He's been quite content to parlay a woman's ability to make decisions regarding medical procedures in order to gain votes.

    In order to stay "polite," I'll simply say he's "flexible" on the issue. If his position as "evolved" to recognize the basic humanity of female members of the species, then it would be nice if he'd issue a press release to document it.

    It (abortion) may not seem relevant to a "race" for Treasurer, but it IS if it's merely a steppingstone for his (likely) next run for Governor.

    A blog that covered this issue, during the campaign where Westlund could have thrown the race to Ron Saxton, is no longer online, but a few comments (here here) remain available.

    Kulongoski (VERY likely) owes his current term to Westlund's decision to drop out of the race. This is probably why he has endorsed Westlund despite any opposition and effectively cleared the path to a "state-wide office." They made a deal, and this is the payoff. Westlund cannot, in my opinion, be trusted.

    He's no Wayne Morse. Morse switched party affiliations due to a national crisis. Westlund stuck his finger in the air and figured which way the winds were blowing. He's an opportunist of the most contemptible kind, and I will not vote for him for ANY office.

  • JHL (unverified)

    Mythbuster, Planned Parenthood and Oregon NARAL seem to disagree with you; they both issued Westlund 100% ratings.

    Even as a Republican, Westlund broke party lines to sponsor contraceptive parity legislation (finally passed last session!) and Plan B access.

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    First of all, BRAVO to T.A. for the mia culpa. I can't overstate how much I respect the willingness to correct a past error in as public a way as the error was committed. It's something that I've always strived to do myself.

    Secondly, LT's comment reminded me that many, many Democratic partisans in the blogosphere were pinning the "still a Republican" label on Westlund. Governor K didn't do or say anything that substantial portions of the choir weren't eager to echo.

    What all this underscores in my mind (I've been a Westlund fan since he went Indie) is that progressives are every bit as vulnerable to filtering reality through partisan lenses as our counterparts on the Right are. The Dem primary race for Smith's Senate seat seems to further underscore that fact, IMHO.

  • naschkatze (unverified)

    Since abortion is a topic here and because you never have any open threads, Blue Oregon, I hope it will not be too off-topic to bring up another "life" issue here. New Jersey is going to be the first state to reinstate the ban on capital punishment. What are the chances of Oregon following suit? Is anything in the works? Who would be good state legislators to contact about this? I live in Central Oregon so I think it would be a waste of time to contact mine. Thanks to anyone with answers.

  • TA Rocks (unverified)

    I continue to be blown away by TA's commentary on BlueOregon. TA, like a lot of us on BlueOregon, is passionate about issues, people, and politics. But unlike some who post here, he isn't unshakably convinced of the purity of his views.

    I don't know you, TA, but I love you. I hope your whole open mind thing catches on at this site.

    p.s. I like Ben a lot, but I'm glad he's running for Treasurer before he asks Democrats to trust him as Governor, Sec. of State, etc.

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    MythBuster your wrong. However, I understand why you believe what you believe about Ben because I felt the same way until I got to know Ben. Quote:

    "Westlund stuck his finger in the air and figured which way the winds were blowing. He's an opportunist of the most contemptible kind, and I will not vote for him for ANY office."
    I would submit that Ben stuck his finger in the air and felt which way the wind was blowing in the Republican Party and then realized his values are more aligned with the Democratic Party. I suggest you get to know Ben and look at his body of work in the legislature. A wise man once said:
    "They will never remember what you said but they will always remember the way you made them feel"
    I suggest you get to know Ben then let us know how you feel about him.

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    Count me among those who were properly suspicious for a while, but I've found his views to be genuine and his process to be honest, even if I don't agree with him on some things. That goes a long way.

    And beyond that, as mentioned he's one of the most entertaining politicians in Oregon. I think he'll make a fine Treasurer.

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    So he's a really nice guy to drink with and he'll wear your bracelets. That doesn't make him a good choice for treasurer.

    Is he still pushing his regressive sales tax proposal?

    That was just last year, wasn't it? Has he changed his mind?

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    TA, thanks for being willing to publicly change your mind. Westlund is generally charismatic, thoughtful, and willing to take on some tough issues. And he's become a lock-step supporter of most of the Democratic issues, from Measure 49 to getting a 100% rating on OLCV's recent scorecard.

    But I still have significant misgivings about supporting someone who

  • JTT (unverified)

    What a refreshing diary TA. I think I may have prejudged you based on previous "rants". I have been a less frequent BO reader of late due in large part to the shrillness and bitter tone of the partisanship that has taken over lately. It's nice to see a little reconciliation every once in a while, and I for one am thankful.

    I was way skeptical of Ben at first having read his Measure 36 voters pamplet statement, but after seeing and speaking with him (and hearing his mea culpa on that)...I've found him to be genuine and a good progressive. I'm glad he made the "transition" to the Democratic Party and am eager to watch his political career progress.

  • Jonathan Manton (unverified)

    I can't help but take this opportunity to tell the story of how I first came to know and start believing in Ben.

    Towards of the end of the 2005 Legislative Session, after months of bitter and IMO disheartening partisan gamesmanship by both D's and R's, the legislature was preparing to vote on the civil unions bill. Ben, a Republican at the time, invited the Senate Democratic staffers to a meeting. It was an unprecedented invitation, both because it crossed party lines and because it was offered from a Senator to staffers. As one of the D staffers, I didn't quite know what to expect.

    At the meeting Ben spoke with clarity, conviction and courage. He let us know that the upcoming vote was not an easy one for many Senators whose districts were highly divided on the bill. (Incidentally, he didn't mention that he, himself, was the target of a recall effort taking place in his district due to his support of it.)

    Ben made it clear that to him, this is a moral issue. We don't control with whom we fall in love and that discriminating against gay and lesbian couples is simply wrong. Ben looked each of us in the eye and asked that we stand with him, that we do all that we could with any of our bosses who may be wavering. He promised to not play partisan games, to stand firmly against the pressure being applied to him by his Republican caucus, and he asked us for our help because real Oregonians needed it.

    I left the meeting a bit in awe. (I remember at first feeling a bit worried actually, after all I'd just seen a real leader demonstrating a rare ability to bring people together and that real leader had an R behind his name.)

    It was the first step in what turned out to be a long walk with Ben. I didn't come to believe in him easily. But as I got to know more and more about the man, the more and more I came to see that his heart and head are truly in the right place. Plus, he LEADS.

    I ended up choosing to walk through some fire for him, just as many others have. And knowing what I know now, having learned directly of his positions and attitudes on a whole host of issues, I'd do it again without hesitation.

    Go Ben!

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    I don't know that much about Westlund at this point, but I have to say that Manton's story above probably tells me more than I could ever learn otherwise. It is downright dangerous for people in many areas to actually support the LGBT community in any way, much less in equality, particularly without judging. For Westlund to have done that, and actually reach across to do it, tells me a heck of alot about his character. I am extremely impressed.

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    Sorry - failed to close my href comment earlier. As noted, Ben seems to be smart, talented, and brave on some issues. But his history, despite his support of Measure 49, leadership on SB 1000, and 100% rating from OLCV for the 2007 session, bothers me.

    Here's what he wrote in support of Measure 36, in 2004:

    Recently, I have had long meaningful discussions about Measure 36, the constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.

    More importantly however is my own strong personal beliefs about how important it is to our culture and society that we hold on and reinforce this very important institution we know as marriage. Study after study and psychiatrist and psychologist alike point to the value and the importance of children having both a mother and a father as role models.

    Of all our cultural institutions, few are more important and more worth protecting than marriage.

    I've never been satisfied with his answer to why he parroted the whole "gay parents are bad for children" fearmongering. And the equation of marriage as being about parenting. Measure 36 NOT about who gets to parent a kid. It was about discrimination against gays, period.

  • JHL (unverified)

    Yeah... I remember that story. Michael White from the Defense of Marriage Coalition had perverted the results of a Michael Yogman study (and falsely attributed them to respected Yale researcher Dr. Kyle Pruett). When Westlund discovered this, he called Dr. Pruett and apologized for his support of Measure 36.

    Evan, may I ask who you voted for in the 2004 presidential election?

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    I still don't buy that supporting discrimination is OK if someone published some study saying discrimination was good. For example, if someone published a study saying same-race parents were better for the children, would it be OK for Westlund to support a ban against mixed-race marriages?

    Westlund should have been smart enough to call BRO or HRC and get the facts, and brave enough to stand up against discrimination, period.

    On the environment, his record is also very mixed, except for the past two years.

    Westlund, as recently as 2005, had a failing 42% environment score, and voted for bills such HB 5135, which included a provision would have prohibited DEQ from adopting rules aimed at implementing clean car emissions standards to promote healthy air and to combat global warming, and a provision would have eliminated funding for the Governor's Willamette River cleanup, endangering all those who fish, swim, or boat on the Willamette.

    In 2003, he got a 0% rating on OLCV's scorecard (0 for 23 bills), in 1999, 13%, and in 1997, 13%.

    And the 2004 (and for that matter, 2008) Presidential elections are a diversion from Westlund, though I understand your point.

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    I voted against M36, but I have to disagree with characterizing Westlund's then statement as "gay parents are bad for children." That's not what he said.

    Look, I'm as hetero as anyone on the planet. But I'm also a single parent and have been for quite a few years now. Two daughters to be exact, although one has flown the coop and is winging her way through early adulthood. And I'm here to tell you that as a long-time single parent of two girls I am KEENLY aware of just how inadequate I am as a father to the task of providing everything that a healthy, functional mother and father can provide.

    Stating bluntly that a two-parent, mother and father family is ideal does NOT mean that two-parent gay or single parent families are therefore bad. In my case, even though I'm handicapped by only being just one man, I know that I provided the better environment for my daughters. And my in-laws agreed because they backed me on custody.

    Now maybe Westlund explicitly said something about gay parents which I'm not aware of. But what was quoted above simply does not constitution "gay parents are bad for children."

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    Westlund's statement based his support for 36 on "the importance of children having both a mother and a father as role models".

    How, exactly, does an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman have anything to do with parenting? Don't some people get married and not have children? Don't some people have children and not get married?

    Marriage and parenthood aren't intrinsically related. Westlund's reason for supporting the measure was bogus in the first place.

  • JTT (unverified)

    Geez, I'm sorry I brought it up in the first place. I thought the fact that a politician did a mea culpa was huge-not to mention the fact that he turns around and is a chief advocate for civil unions...I mean, how often do you see that? Really. We are all human after all...(irony intended). I'm not afraid to admit that I make mistakes sometimes and I think that is what TA's post was all about. I'm disappointed that some feel the big tent isn't so big after all.

    re: HB 5135 Huh, it looks like Sens. Brown and Courtney voted for it too. And they’re Democrats, right? Since it was a budget bill, do you think there might have been a deal worked out with the Governor’s office ahead of time for a line item veto? P.S. I hate all ”scorecards” because they tell a completely incomplete story and are only put together for fluff mail and hit pieces.

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    I'm disappointed that some feel the big tent isn't so big after all.

    There's a difference between actually getting underneath the tent and just using it as an address.

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    Westlund's statement based his support for 36 on "the importance of children having both a mother and a father as role models".

    Based on my experiences, and only on my experiences, I happen to agree with that statement. Although I'm not at all sure it's the same thing... I have always had an unusually high EQ and I personally have zero doubt that my capacity to nurture is inferior to most of the mom's, both gay and straight, that I've known. I think it's the rarest of rare men, gay or straight, who can nurture on par with a mother. I'm dead serious about that.

    And again... being less than a utopian ideal parenting package does NOT equal "bad for children."

    If you're going to pin a tail on the donkey then the onus is on you to make damn sure it's actually a donkey's tail first.

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    Myth, you should have paid attention to what i said about writing. what do you actually know about Westlund? about his true motives? what conversations he & Ted had? or have you forgotten that he endorsed Ted during the campaign and worked to get him re-elected? this is no quid pro quo; it's what colleagues and friends do in politics: they help each other win important battles.

    like many formers Republicans, Westlund did not so much switch parties as discover his old party had disappeared on him. many people have forgotten that Oregon Republicans used to be some of the most liberal politicians in America. Tom McCall? Republican. Packwood, although he had an ignominious end to his Senate career, was always ranked as one of the strongest supporters of women in Congress. much of Hatfield's record looks like a Dems -- and ofter to the left of Democrat Scoop Jackson.

    now if you want to say Westlund is re-inventing history when he tells of him move out of the Republican party, go ahead. if you actually know what you're talking about. i prefer, having learned the hard way, not to blather on about those things on which i am ignortant.

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    " I have always had an unusually high EQ and I personally have zero doubt that my capacity to nurture is inferior to most of the mom's, both gay and straight, that I've known. I think it's the rarest of rare men, gay or straight, who can nurture on par with a mother. I'm dead serious about that."

    It's just you, then. There has been plenty of research, particularly lately, to debunk any notion that male/female partnerships are intrinsically advantageous. There IS a difference between one and two parent households, but that's a manpower issue, not a gender issue.

    Great that Ben has come around mostly, but that argument was pure canard.

  • LT (unverified)

    Darrellplant, you refer to SB 382. I believe it should have had a full open public discussion.

    In 1985, there were members of the Democratic State Central Comm. who opposed a tax reform measure making its way through the legislature which at least in spirit was something like SB 382. It inflamed passions, and some of us who stood with the legislators who supported the tax reform were called "not real Democrats" because we were supposed to have agreed with a majority vote at the end of one meeting and not thought for ourselves.

    Little did we know that those were the good old days of open, sometimes raucous debate and that in the early 21st century there would be a problem of legislation or issues just not being debated in public.

    And Jonathan, thank you for the definition of leadership. It was the first step in what turned out to be a long walk with Ben. I didn't come to believe in him easily. But as I got to know more and more about the man, the more and more I came to see that his heart and head are truly in the right place. Plus, he LEADS.

    I ended up choosing to walk through some fire for him, just as many others have. And knowing what I know now, having learned directly of his positions and attitudes on a whole host of issues, I'd do it again without hesitation.

    It fits with another definition of leadership I saw once on what turned out to be an FFA Leadership shirt. I typed it out in a large font and it hangs on the wall of this room. "Leadership is not about taking sides, it is about bringing sides together".

    Both definitions are what I would consider good yardsticks in measuring which primary (or general election) candidates would be the best to vote for.

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    Kevin, I said that the statement about what makes for good parenting has nothing to do with whether a couple could get married or not. You seem to be under the impression that the only reason for marriage is to have children. Westlund was supporting a measure that defined marriage, not parenthood. It would have prevented same-sex couples from getting married, but nothing about it would have stopped anyone from becoming a parent.

    Westlund's argument about parenting had nothing to do with the purpose of the bill.

    LT, if by "tax reform" you mean shifting even more of the burden onto the poor in this state, then I'm sorry if your feeling were hurt more than 20 years ago, but I really don't care how it was killed. There was a long discussion here of the sales tax last year when Westlund made his proposal, and every time I asked anyone to point to an example of the "progressive" or "fair" sales tax system that kept getting bandied about, people just talked about how it could possibly, maybe be done if the tax fairy would just visit us in the night.

    But there aren't any examples out there because it's impossible to build a sales or use tax system that has a broad enough base to maintain steady income levels without taxing the things that people need to buy to live. The more you exempt essential items to make it less regressive, the more susceptible it is to variations in discretionary spending, and the more the volatility of the income from the sales tax matches that of an income tax. That's relatively simple mathematics.

    Yes, I know most every other state and most governments around the world has a sales tax or something of the sort. I know that "Governing" magazine doesn't think much of the adequacy of the state revenue system. Maintaining a steady revenue stream from the taxpayers isn't the primary purpose of state government. Government's there to provide services to the people, and it needs to develop a fair and adequate revenue plan to provide those services.

  • Dylan (unverified)

    I've had a similar conversion regarding Westlund. I had the chance to hear him speak last year and approached him afterwards to ask him a question that had been nagging at me for some time. I asked him, "How is it that I have known since I was 14 that I was a Democrat and you just figured it out in your fifties? Why should I, a lifelong liberal, trust you?" His initial response was a laugh of disgust followed by him calling me a "fucking liberal."

    He then proceeded to explain that it was a fair question and did his best to explain why he changed his mind. His answer wasn't great but his demeanor and the subtext of his answer was very good. I may be way off, but my reading of Ben Westlund is that he initially got involved in politics because he thought it would be fun and a good way to get his ego stroked. He didn't know a great deal about public policy or what it meant to be a Republican, just that as a rural Christian he had better be a Republican. I think most Republicans enter politics with a similar mindset.

    But something is different about Westlund from other Republicans. As he observed the process, he realized that the beliefs he had been told to believe were not good for Oregon. He was one of those rare individuals who in middle-age are mature and wise enough to still question their long held beliefs. He took his job as a legislator seriously and actually grew as a human being. Westlund doesn't explain it quite like that, but that's my take on him and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him because of it.

    Thank you TA for your piece.

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    Senator Westlund also gave the single best defense of Measure 50 that I heard. It might have passed, had his points been part of the Healthy Kids campaign.

  • LT (unverified)

    "But something is different about Westlund from other Republicans. As he observed the process, he realized that the beliefs he had been told to believe were not good for Oregon. "

    Once upon a time, Dylan (may have been in a galaxy far far away, but some of us still remember) there were Republicans like Tom McCall, Clay Myers, Norma Paulus, Nancy Ryles, Mary Alice Ford who believed in doing what was best for Oregon.

    But they would no more be welcome in the current GOP than any Democratic office holder or volunteer.

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    Well said, LT. That reality underscores that the problem isn't the GOP. It's the ideology of greed and national/global hegemony that are what distinguish even a Mark Hatfield from a Gordon Smith.

    I think it behooves progressives to keep our eye on the ball and not allow ourselves to get sidetracked by party politics.

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    I think it behooves progressives to keep our eye on the ball and not allow ourselves to get sidetracked by party politics.

    Are moderates ever wrong? When people on the left said Joe Lieberman was untrustworthy and was a horrible choice for VP in 2000, people said we were purists. When he spearheaded the Senate campaign for the Iraq war, his buddies followed him. When he ran for president in 2004 magazines like The New Republic tried to jump-start Joementum. In 2006, people like Bill Clinton were more than happy to give him cover during the primaries, and he was promised leadership positions even after losing the primary. So now he's endorsing Republican candidates for president.

    But progressives are still the purists.

    <h2>THe GOP may not have people like Paulus representing it any more, but I don't think she or Hatfield have strayed far from the party in their endorsements.</h2>

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