Remarks to Multnomah Democrats, Thursday, November 11, 2010

Legislators were invited to the Multnomah Democrats’ Central Committee meeting to talk about the election and the road ahead. The real meat of the discussion happened in the Q & A, but here are my opening remarks:


Multnomah Democrats – Dedicated to Making People’s Lives Better

I’m going to start out by talking a little bit about what that motto means to me.

We often lament how many people fail to vote for their own best interests, how if only everybody were to vote for their own well-being, we’d win every time. It’s true. But there is some basic psychology at play there that we cannot ignore.

Rich people identify with their class. They have no problem getting how to vote, and who to support based on what will keep them rich and make them richer.

Poor people don’t identify with their class… they want to leave it.

Nobody particularly likes the idea that they might need “services,” or might be part of a group described as “in need.” Whenever we describe our philosophy as one that believes in helping “those who are in need,” we limit our audience, because most people, regardless of their circumstances, think of that as somebody else.

But “making people’s lives better” works for me, you, rich, poor, middle class, it works for everybody. Because as Paul Wellstone said, “we all do better when we all do better.”

So, I have 3 main principles I expect to use to make decisions, and I hope that we will all focus on solving problems in the Legislature and beyond.

1. I ask of every decision: How will this make life better, and for whom? Will it make life worse for anyone? If so, whom, and in what way? The proverbial win/win is nice, but these are fundamental questions that have to be answered.

2. I have a relatively short list of priorities. I’ll expand on that in a moment.

3. I don’t make budget commitments out of context. I get asked almost every day to commit to save some program or to approach budgeting in a particular way. The problem is that this budget will require us to eliminate things that are good, that matter to good people. A commitment to one may directly imply leaving another out of the discussion. I believe the budget should be weighed in context, with full awareness of what we are keeping, what we are starting, and what we are leaving behind.


1. My community, my District, needs jobs, businesses and respect. I frankly do not care whether they come via private sector, public sector, public/private partnerships or public sector contracts with private businesses. We simply have to get people earning again.

2. Health care: The Federal health care bill has several openings for Oregon to take the lead nationally to make health care more efficient, affordable and accessible.

3. Environmental justice: Our environmental challenges do not fall equally on rich and poor, black, brown and white. We have to do more to address the availability of clean air and water in our communities. I’m thinking of my district, but many rural communities have challenges too.

4. Justice in our public safety and justice systems: It’s pretty well known that this is a high priority for me. I’ve submitted several bills to address what I see as major issues in our police and judicial interactions, issues that disproportionately affect minority communities as well as those with mental health challenges.

Finally, I want to say that the conditions we face now may be intractable, but they did not come out of the sky. Our challenges grow directly from decisions made by people. Those people may not be us in this room. But these challenges did not come as a force of nature or act of God. Human beings made these challenges and human beings can set us on a better course. That’s why I don’t throw up my hands in despair. I believe that we can work together to make things better.

But there has been a breakdown of trust. Our country was founded on compromise. Let me say that again: Our country was founded on compromise. Now there were some early hiccups, (does anybody remember the Alien and Sedition Acts?) but we’ve weathered these eras before, eras in which we’ve lost faith in the genius of compromise that formed our Constitution. Now, I have reason good reason to question compromise, as in the “3/5 compromise” that counted a slave as 3/5 of a person, but I also believe that our Constitution as originally adopted held in it the capacity to be repaired.

I am worried about our capacity to move forward when a major component of our government, an entire elected caucus of our Legislative bodies, has rejected compromise. This is a threat that we should take seriously.

It’s often said that a rising tide lifts all boats, and I actually believe that. It’s just that the folks who say it usually get the implications of that idea backward. Another way of saying it is “We all do well when we all do well.” In more practical terms, businesses hire when they need to, to meet demand, and they lay employees off when demand decreases.

But government doesn’t really see a decrease in demand, in fact, in hard times, people need government more. It applies to schools, to human services, and a lot of other vital functions.

Extreme income disparity is very bad for most of us. But what’s often missed is that it’s not that great for the people at the top either. Just because you’re doing better than I am doesn’t mean that you are doing well. When the whole economy works, it works for everyone. Plus, you can only really enjoy so many mansions before it just gets ridiculous. But seriously, the kind of disparities we’re seeing now have never been proven sustainable. We either fix this or we see a real breakdown that puts everyone at risk