Merkley praises Oregon lawmakers, blasts feds, at Gateway meeting

The Gateway Area Business Association was the latest platform for Jeff Merkley to pitch his desire to be the Democratic nominee in the US Senate race this fall. See what he told the group …

Gateway Keystone Kop Brad Sanchez of Realty Brokers presents the traveling, coveted Rubber Chicken Trophy to “the gals” at Pacific Northwest Title, Laura Steinke and Molly Malone.

Story by Watford Reed; photos by David F. Ashton
House Speaker Jeff Merkley took another step in his campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate on January 10, by blasting President Bush’s policy on money, healthcare, and “big business” at the year’s first meeting of the Gateway Area Business Association (GABA).

Alan Sanchez, GABA’s President, introduced the Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Merkley, by giving his curriculum vitae: “He’s been a GABA member and supporter for many years. In addition to being House Speaker, he represents our District 47. Jeff has served in the Oregon Legislature since 1998.

“He was president of the Portland World Affairs Council. He was director of Habitat for Humanity in Portland. He received his Bachelor’s in International Relations from Stanford University, and then went on to the Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations at Princeton. He served as a Presidential Fellow in Washington, DC, and worked for the office of the Secretary of Defense and the General Accounting Office.

“Jeff is a graduate of the David Douglas School District and he and his wife, Mary, and their children, are advocates for the Gateway area.”

Oregon House Speaker, Jeff Merkley, addresses members of the Gateway Area Business Association.

Merkley on the Oregon Legislature
“I’m glad to see the Keystone Kops are active in Gateway again,” Merkley began. “The Fun-O-Rama is a great part of the community. About the ‘Rubber Chicken’ — I’ve had the chance to eat a lot of rubber chicken dinners lately, but I haven’t seen one given as an award!

“We’ve had a state legislature in deadlock for many years. But this was a year of change. We moved forward this year on many fronts. We increased Head Start legibility funding from 50% to 75% funding. We made sure high schools and colleges got more funding.

“We made a lot of progress. But we have a long way to go. Our state’s economy will thrive, or not thrive, based on the quality of our educational system.

“We dived into the issues health care, environmental issues, and finance issues. I personally championed closing down ‘payday loan sharking’, charging rates of up to 500% a year. We estimated they made 100,000 loans a year. That stripped money out of our economy – taking money away from people who buy at our local businesses.

“I also championed fiscal accountability for the state in the form of a ‘Rainy Day Fund’; capitalizing it with 8% of the State’s revenues. This strengthens our State, and raises our bond rating.

“We set up a group pharmaceutical buying program. We had to fight the federal framework to do it. We now have the best bulk purchasing plan in the nation.

“We have had the most productive session in years. I’ve brought a problem- solving attitude to the legislature. I’m a policy guy. 80% of those on the right and left agree on most topics. When we bring members back to the center, we bring together people from different parties: It works. I insisted that majority committee leaders work with minority party members.”

At the meeting, Merkley outlines why he’s decided to leave the Oregon Legislature and run for the Democratic nomination to become a US Senator, a seat now held by Senator Gordon Smith.

Merkley campaigns
Asking for questions, a campaign supporter asked Merkley to talk about his bid the Democratic nomination to become a US Senator.

Speaking to about 60 members of at the GABA meeting, Merkley declared “Our nation has gone so far off track in the last few years. We have young children and we’re concerned about the future. My wife and I agree that we never saw such financial malfeasance (as the Bush administration has shown).

“The national debt has doubled in the last few years,” he explained, adding “we are now $9 trillion in debt.”

One reason, he said, is that America is paying billions of dollars for oil from overseas.

He also said more Americans are living without health insurance now than in the past seven years.

“If you don’t like the way things are going,” he said, “help send me to Washington DC.”

Without mentioning the President by name, he said, “Changing American policy is never easy but it is not impossible. Elect people who will fight for oil companies and drug companies.”  He declared that the United States Senate is “in a state of paralysis” because there are 49 Republicans, and 49 Democratic senators and two independents.

Asked about the need to overhaul health plans, Merkley said many small businesses “are saying that they can’t afford health plans” and may be forced out of business.  “And the country is at a competitive disadvantage in the world because of the cost of health care,” he went on.

Returning to his own record in the legislature, the speaker said he has been asked him how he accomplished so much.

It was because “we need to get people away from partisanship,” he said.  He declared that he has done “what people said couldn’t be done.”

If he is elected as a US Senator, Merkley says it will “send a message” that the state, and country, wants change.

Questions and answers
Q Kevin Minkoff, CPA: “The topics of the federal budget, dependence on foreign oil, the greenhouse effect, and healthcare are important to everyone. How are you going to change the system? Oil and health care are backed by big money! How will you change the system so those issues can be addressed and success can be accomplished?”

A Merkley: “Let’s not be under the illusion that changing public policy is easy. When citizens send a movement forward – when they send a different set of senators to Washington – it signals that it’s time for a change. In the Great Depression, we changed leadership and changed things from being a downward spiral to an upward spiral.

“We want to make the change. If we win this race, and take this senate seat, it will send a message.”

Asked about the special session for the Oregon State Legislature called last fall, Merkley says “An ’emergency’ is in the eye of the beholder”.

Q East PDX News: “While we think having annual sessions in the Oregon Legislature may be a good idea, the state’s constitution says it is to be held biannually. A State senator has sued because an ’emergency’ session was scheduled months ago. Why not change the constitution instead of going against it?”

A Merkley: “An ’emergency’ is in the eye of the beholder. If you are in an Oregon town that has suffered storm damage, such as Vernonia, it is an emergency. And, we’re dealing with the failure of the federal government to fulfill its promise to pay timber counties for money they formerly got from timber-cutting, and the need for better care for foster children.  More state police are also needed to intercept trucks bearing drugs from the south.

“Essentially, that is the gist of the situation. We have, in the past, called two or three special sessions during a biennium. The goal [of this special session] is to do it in a planned way and get [the work of the State] done. This is a different approach.  I’m not at all convinced that the citizens in the state will vote for annual sessions.

“Here’s another element: In the past, we met for six months. Then, during the 18 months we were off, members of all of the committees were scrambled; they had, essentially, to start over. This year, we’ve kept the committee members all the same. We asked them to spend the time in February working on issues for the next sessions.

“And here’s one more element: I’ve done things in the legislature that people said couldn’t be done. They said incumbents can’t be beat; we did. They said we couldn’t get bills past with a one-vote majority; we did. On the national level, we need to come together in this way.”

Q An Association member: “When will SE Powell Blvd. will see some improvement? Since the “Mt. Hood Freeway” was scrapped, improvements to this main highway between I-205 and Gresham have been at a standstill.”

A Merkley: “The City of Portland needs to step up and take care of its roads.” When it was pointed out SE Powell Blvd. is a State highway, Merkley backpedaled, and stated that the system for funding highway projects was very complex, and he’d look into the situation.

Merkley drew applause when he criticized “poor leaders” for overlooking “the east part of town, including Gateway. Portland leaders think the city ends at Mount Tabor; there is not much the state can do to make Portland give a fair share to east Portland.”

David F. Ashton contributed to this article.

© 2008 East Portland News Service

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