Road trip to Columbia and Clatsop--or how I got to spend Saturday freebasing grassroots campaigning

Carla Axtman

Last Saturday I was privileged to ride along on a long and energizing day of campaigning down Oregon Highway 30. The Merkley, Avakian and Witt campaigns traveled to 5 stops in Columbia and Clatsop Counties: Scappoose, St. Helens, Rainier, Astoria and Vernonia. The three organizations came together to hold a series of meetups and town halls on a gorgeous day in some of Oregon's most lovely and scenic areas.

The day began with Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian (who also happens to be my neighbor) graciously fetching me at my home so that we could carpool. We met up with his campaign manager Michael--and then we were off to our first stop of the day, the Scappoose Farmer's Market. As we joined the other two campaigns, I noticed that our large group seemed to outnumber the folks at the market--but not for long.

(More below--with pictures!)

As the market began to slowly fill with smatterings of shoppers, the three candidates set out to the various booths, chatting with the locals.

Merkley, Avakian and Brad Witt moved around the tiny area under the watchful eye of the NRSC tracker of the day: Sam. Its kind of tough to do video here—conversations are in small groups—not anything in the way of big speeches. He's a new tracker, says he just recently took the job. Apparently the previous fellow has been promoted to "field".

State Senator Betsy Johnson stopped by to welcome the candidates and say hello to her constituents, too. People here seem to really love her as there's a swell of greetings and waves as she steps into the market.

After about an hour of meeting and greeting folks--the groups piled back into the caravan, heading west to the Klondike restaurant in St. Helens.


(Photo above: Merkley, Avakian and Witt with the propietor of the Klondike. They had some KICK-ASS chocolate cake thing--if you go there, get it. Its well worth the calories, which have to be enormous)

This was another very fluid meeting, with the three candidates circulating among groups of attendees to hear their concerns and talk with them about how they can be addressed. Several are especially enamored of Witt. I overheard one woman say, "Even my staunch Republican mother votes for you!"

Sam the Tracker is here, too. Again, no good chances for video. He looks bored..but when I question him he says he's finding the whole thing rather interesting and engaging....

I spent a great deal of time here talking with a reporter from the Scappoose Spotllight newspaper. The reporter is disgusted with Willamette Week—"that guy is just trying to get another Pulitzer and using Betsy (Johnson) to do it." The reporter said that they'd dug extensively into the stuff that's being reported and there's nothing there. Another person mentioned to me about the good ol boys network in Columbia County that's been rife throughout the region for years..and how after years its all finally starting to dislodge. Both credit Johnson for some of that.

Back into the car--that cake acted like an appetizer. Damn. Now I'm starving.

Our third stop is Rainier--also a farmer's market. But this one is indoors, almost like a flea market. Again, the three candidates circulate. I'm struck at how open and accessible these people are to the public. Nobody has to write a check (although I saw several being collected from those who chose to give) to get an ear. I trail Merkley this time as he walks from booth to booth--people ask tough questions, frankly. "What are you going to do about health care costs? I'm on a fixed income and I need help." "What will you do to get us out of Iraq?" "I'm so mad at Gordon Smith--he's been in office too long. But why should I vote for you instead?"

Big questions for such a short time to be there.


(Above photos: Merkley with a vendor at the Rainier market. She raises her own alpacas for wool. She does all the processes herself, from shearing to preparing the wool, to spinning it into yarn, to knitting the pieces she sells. Beautiful stuff. She also has a brick and mortar shop in town)

By now my stomach is growling. Loudly. I buy an apple for forty cents. After eating it, I'm hungrier still. ARGH.

Merkley campaign is handing out buttons. People are putting them on and asking for extras. "Do you have any more yard signs, too?" Out goes the intern to the car to get more.

Across the street is a deli--run over quick and get a burger and a pop. Get back just in time to scarf the thing in the car as we head to Astoria.

As we drive into Astoria, there are anti-LNG signs everywhere. You almost can't drive a block without seeing one. Pulling up to the public library for the event, I notice a crowd outside. Some of the crowd is wearing the dark red anti-LNG shirts. Others are wearing pro-LNG shirts. Ut-oh.

We unloaded and went inside. This event was scheduled as a town-hall style meeting. I'm wondering if there's going to be a ruckus between the pro and anti LNG forces. As I prepare to set up my laptop in the back of the room, I overhear a woman ask if this is place to "hear Russ Walker" (Oregon GOP Vice-Chair and head of state chapter of Freedomworks). She's wearing a bejeweled, red/white/blue "McCain" broach. She's apparently friendly with the couple to whom she made the inquiry. They inform her that its Merkley, Avakian and Witt. She makes a face and sneers, "You're not voting for Merkley, are you?" They tell her that they don't know yet. They're here to listen.

Things get underway with Brad Witt introducing himself and then crediting Avakian and Merkley for helping him do the good work in the legislature that folks there give him credit for. Introduces Avakian--who talks about his role as Labor Commissioner (some folks look puzzled--I heard a few say they didn't realize that this was an elected position). Avakian then introduces Merkley.

Merkley makes a few short remarks about his time in the legislature, those successes and why he's running for Senate. Then he asks for questions from the audience.

I fully expected that there would be a long and extended discussion of the LNG issue. Not one person brought it up. Questions ranged broadly from national to local issues--from the ABM Treaty to undocumented workers to alternative energy and tax credits.

This crowd is quick with the applause. Each of the candidates has an opportunity to answer questions..they're generous with the time. More applause. A few cheers. The couple who came in to listen sit quietly in the back of the room--no applause..but some big smiles a few times. Nice.

Here's a photo of the event (that's Merkley, with Brad Witt on the left):


Great crowd. Filled up the room easily.

After the event the candidates lingered to talk with attendees, take photos, etc. Now we're late. Staffers are starting to look at their watches. Phone calls are being made. I get to ride with Merkley this leg so I can interview him (which I'll write up later in the week)--so we all rush out to the car. We're now almost 30 minutes behind schedule. Spotty cell service so its tough to get a hold of the Vernonia folks.

We arrive in Vernonia--pull up to City Hall. The mayor is here. She's all smiles. "Have you got more of those Merkley yard signs? I can distribute every one that you brought." Wow. There's a small group in front, waiting with the mayor. This is billed as a "main street walk" to give the candidates a chance to check out the town. Vernonia is tiny--3 blocks in the whole downtown, tops. Its lovely here--the trees are incredible. We begin the walk as the mayor and the rest of the group talk about their burg. We stop in front of a shop that has photos in the window of the devastating flooding in Vernonia last winter. The feds haven't been especially helpful in the recovery, they tell us. FEMA isn't so snappy.

We've now been at it nonstop for nine hours. Merkley has to go, so we all pile into the cars to head back. My feet hurt (wrong shoes). I'm tired, too. And dammit, I think I'm hungry again.

How do these guys do this all day, every day?

The Vernonia entourage thanks the candidates profusely for coming all the way out to their town. They don't get a lot of visits from campaigns, apparently. They really are grateful that these candidates took the time to come out there and listen to them.

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    That's all well and good Carla, but when is the Merkley campaign going to get out into the rural areas and get face to face with the voters.

    Just blue skying here, but maybe they could call it the "Hundred Town Tour" or something like that.......

    Just sayin'..........

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    when is the Merkley campaign going to get out into the rural areas and get face to face with the voters?

    Umm... did you read the post? That's exactly what it was about. Vernonia's pretty dern rural.

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    Thanks, Carla - this is a great description of a day on the campaign trail! Maybe "Sam" can provide the same for a day with Gordon Smith. Oh, wait...the Senator doesn't get out much.

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