Politics descended on Seaside as Republican gubernatorial primary hopeful Jeff Smith swung through to meet local party leaders. Smith, who grew up in a cattle ranch in Elgin — “a couple miles outside of La Grande” in Eastern Oregon — is one of nine Republicans seeking to unseat Gov. Kate Brown. He’s making his first bid for public office.
“Barack Obama demolished Sen. McCain in Oregon,” Smith said in a visit to the Seaside Signal office. “After that I started analyzing Oregon politics. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for about 10 years. I think I’ve got a thinking man’s strategy to how to approach politics in Oregon.”
The answer: You have to be competitive in Multnomah County, home to 1 out of every 5 registered voters in the state.
“You have to be willing to listen to people who have a different way of doing things than the people in the eastern part of the state, or many people out here, too,” Smith said. “You have to look for things people really are willing to build common ground on.”
Fighting special interests, ending homelessness, battling the drug epidemic, reducing government waste and skyrocketing health care costs are among those issues. “Everybody’s suffering from the high costs of medical care,” Smith said.
Unfortunately, he acknowledged, some issues have no common ground.
On gun control: “I don’t think that’s a winning issue for me,” he said.
Marijuana: “I don’t think there’s any common ground to be had with the way marijuana laws are now.”
Endangered species: “You can’t find anybody in Eastern Oregon who doesn’t have a strong viewpoint about wolves. And the people in Multnomah County have the completely opposite view. There’s no middle ground on that.”
Smith recognizes that a Republican has not held the governor’s office in Oregon in three decades.
“I’m going to try to persuade people to jump on my strategy: you have to listen to people in Multnomah County,” he said. “To win, you have to suck some of those people onto your platform. You have to find things people are concerned about and that we have common ground about. Guns are not one of them. Wolves are not one of them.”
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s term does not come due for two more years. But during Senate recess, the Democrat came to Seaside in February for a town hall at the Bob Chisholm Community Center.
Like GOP gubernatorial hopeful Smith, the cost of health care is at the top of Merkley’s to-do list.
But so are no-go discussion topics like rights for immigrants raised in this country known as “Dreamers,” environmental protections and gun control. And while both sides may agree on cutting health care costs, it’s unlikely conversation would lead to similar paths to accomplish that.
As Merkley spoke, members of the crowd held up signs that read “AGREE” or “DISAGREE.”
In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting of 17 children at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, frustration boiled over.
When a proposal to ban assault weapons came up, the audience showed near-unanimous agreement. “Please do more,” begged one audience member.
Opposition to EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s environmental deregulation policy and a plea for immigrants also united the senator and constituents.
Despite the consensus within the community center, the elephant in the room was definitely outside the room.
“I do hear tremendous organizing energy around the country from people who say we’re way off track right now,” Merkley said. “I really want to see a majority of the House and Senate to stop bad policy and to start the path moving forward.”
There is a yin and yang in American politics, Merkley said. “If Trump is the yin, I’m hoping there’s a whole lot of ‘yang’ coming.”
The path ahead
Parade? No parade? Wall? No wall? Kneel? Not to kneel?
We’re going to have to confront some of those “unbridgeable” topics before we find resolution.
Sometimes it feels like a Civil War has already begun. Not just Democrat versus GOP or Eastern Oregon pitted against Multnomah County, but right here, in the Safeway parking lot where the Prius with the “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker sits parked next to a pickup truck with the Confederate flag displayed in the back of the cab.
The question now: Who is going to blink first?
R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.