“Does rural Oregon have a voice at the state policy table?” asks Anne Kubisch of The Ford Family Foundation.
“A narrow section does but not the many different constituencies in rural Oregon.”
Most of Oregon is rural. Yet within that vastness, differences abound.
“Each county is so different, so policy responses need to have some differentiation. What happens in Wheeler and Wasco counties is different from Deschutes,” says Kubisch, president of the Roseburg-based foundation.
So at the seat of state government in Salem, the question becomes not only “is the voice of rural Oregon heard” but which voice and when?
“Rural Oregon is heard. That is a true statement. Now is it understood? That
is an entirely different question,” says Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. “If you haven’t lived there, you won’t understand what’s being said.”
Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, a Scio Republican who lives across the state from Bentz, shares that view but phrases it differently.
“Many times the voice of rural Oregon is not heard,” she says. “There is a voice and I think many times liberal Oregonians don’t hear our voice and make assumptions. That’s a ‘bad’ on them. And sometimes rural Oregonians scream at them. That’s not better.”
Therein lies the disconnect between rural and urban, Republican and Democratic policymakers. Democratic legislators, who are centered in urban areas, believe they go out of their way to understand the needs and concerns of rural legislators, largely Republicans, who in turn believe the urban Democrats don’t go nearly far enough.
“I think this is a question for any perspective, that people are heard in the Capitol,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, says. “To make sure everyone has a voice, you have to do it intentionally.
“I think we do try to understand rural interests. I’ll be honest – I think there are legislators who make an effort to understand [but] some people are not good listeners.”
In discussing rural Oregonians and their legislators, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, says: “I really do think they have an outsized influence in the Capitol vis-à-vis the numbers. There is an outsized understanding of the problems rural Oregon has.”
Rural Republicans disagree.
“Democrats want to do whatever is good for Portland,” says Republican Sen. Brian Boquist, who lives in rural Polk County. “People have no idea what it’s like to be a rancher or a farmer or even a state employee in Burns or Lakeview.”
Republican Sen. Fred Girod, who lives along the North Santiam River east of Stayton, describes the Legis- lature’s urban-rural political split this way: “For them, it’s a green vote. For rural Oregon, it’s a matter of jobs and our lifestyle. They listen but they won’t modify their opinion.”
Rural residents feel left out
Such sentiments resonate throughout rural Oregon. Research indicates rural Oregonians — especially those living east of the Cascades — feel they aren’t heard and aren’t listened to. Those feel- ings create deep frustration.
“It creates problems that folks in one part of the state feel they have policies that are not in their best interests,” says John Horvick, vice president and political director of DHM Research in Portland.
One factor could be that research also indicates Oregonians pay closer attention to national issues, and often divide along those lines, than to state issues. Yet at the Oregon Capitol, most legislation passes on a bipartisan basis, although it’s the difficult issues that grab the headlines.
“To people who are in rural Oregon, they don’t feel they have a voice because that’s all they hear about is the conflict,” says political scientist Jim Moore of Pacific University in Forest Grove. “But they’re doing pretty well because the Democrats and Republicans are pretty close so there’s a rural voice on the major committees that are out there.
“It’s just when they want to push something, they’re never going to be able to beat the Willamette Valley and Portland-area voices. There are just too many of them.”
Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature and are close to gaining a supermajority.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, agrees with Moore that rural legislators have considerable influence by serving on powerful committees.
“I’m an urban legislator,” he says. “I’ve always felt I have an obligation to our state for representing the entire state. If I don’t have that attitude, I shouldn’t be in the Oregon Legislature.”
Lawmakers travel the state
At the behest of Courtney and others, key legislative committees — dealing with transportation, education, state budgets and other issues — sometimes hold public hearings throughout the state.
“You learn things that surprise you,” Courtney says. “I am fascinated by rural, small-town Oregon.”
In addition, many boards and commissions meet around the state. That sometimes leads to such ironies as the Oregon Transportation Commission meeting in decidedly non-urban John Day while discussing potential tolls on metropolitan Portland freeways.
At the Oregon Capitol, legislators who lead committee hearings are encouraged to make time for Oregonians who’ve traveled at least 100 miles to testify. Even then, the testimony might be limited to one to three minutes.
About two-thirds of Oregon legislators, including the majority of Democrats, live within 90 minutes of Salem. Many of their constituents can scurry
to the Capitol even when a hearing is scheduled on barely an hour’s notice. That opportunity eludes most people living along the coast or in Southern, Central or Eastern Oregon; although the Legislature is working on technology for allowing testimony from remote sites.
“We end up having policies given to us by many of the liberals,” says Tilla- mook County Commissioner Tim Josi,
a Democrat and former legislator. “It’s making it difficult for rural Oregon to be economically viable.”
Oregon’s size an issue
Each of the 60 Oregon House districts contains roughly the same population. Each of the 30 Senate districts comprises two adjacent House districts. To include the same number of people as urban districts, rural districts must be far larger geographically.
“People do not understand from downtown Portland the sheer size of Oregon,” Bentz says. Neither do they understand the variety within rural Oregon.
Sprenger, the Scio lawmaker, represents a district that lies a few miles off Interstate 5 in the Mid-Willamette Valley. It covers parts of Marion and Linn counties and includes 10 commu- nities. In contrast, Bentz lives close
to Idaho and represents the Legislature’s largest district. It covers six counties – Baker, Grant, Harney, Jefferson,
Malheur and Wheeler — and parts of five others — Clackamas, Deschutes, Lake, Marion and Wasco.
Bentz says he appreciates the efforts made by the Legislature to understand rural Oregon. Still, he says, the wide- open spaces of rural Oregon suffer from the “straitjacket of regulations” imposed by the state.
“One size does not fit all,” Bentz says. “The Portland shoe is about a size 2 and the Eastern Oregon foot is about a size 10. It’s not a good fit.”