29 Sep

Does Monica Wehby really want to run for Senate?

Recently, a Kansas newspaper reported that Paul Davis, Democratic candidate for governor, had been caught in the ‘90s in a police raid on a strip club, and had been found in a back room with a topless dancer. Davis said he’d been brought there by his boss, and it was a case of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and his situation does indeed seem a vivid example of that phrase.

Also this month, the web site of Mary Burke, Democratic nominee for governor of Wisconsin, was purged of jobs language apparently lifted from candidates who had run for governor of other states. Those candidates had all used her campaign consultant, whom she removed from her campaign, along with the jobs language.

Last week, Gov. Paul LePage of Maine seemed to overthrow all plans for campaign debates when he said he didn’t want to appear on the same stage with the Democratic candidate, Rep. Michael Michaud. LePage said he’d be willing to debate independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

The campaign trail is lined with pitfalls, stories your campaign doesn’t want to see in the headlines, developments that produce indignant statements that of course voters don’t care about such things. Any one of them can be a complication when voters try to envision the candidate in office, making major decisions and being escorted by motorcycle police.

But in a nation of statewide candidates, it seems only one has achieved the complete trifecta: embarrassing revelations, plagiarized positions and debate refusals. Monica Wehby, come on down.

The Oregon GOP Senate candidate’s difficulties began at the end of the primary campaign with the revelation, apparently a surprise to the people who urged her into the race, that she had three times been the subject of police calls for domestic disturbance. This may not be comparable to being discovered in the back room of a strip club, and may not be a disqualification from the Senate – it certainly wouldn’t disqualify her from the NFL – but it’s an awkward thing to pop up.

It may not have helped that Wehby’s immediate reaction was to blame the Merkley campaign staff, although there was no evidence that they had called the cops.

Then observers noted a curious familiarity in policy language on Wehby’s campaign web site. Her plans on health care in particular, repeatedly cited as reflecting her special insights into the issue as a pediatric neurosurgeon, turned out to be lifted intact from the medical authority Karl Rove. Once again, the campaign’s response may not have been ideal, with a campaign spokesman sniffing, “Dr. Wehby is too busy performing brain surgery on sick children to respond, sorry.”

Actually, she wasn’t.

It took a while for the Wehby campaign to reach the proper position in such cases, blaming a departed campaign staff member – although uncooperatively, the former staffer has been insisting it wasn’t his fault.

The Senate campaign has provided lots of things to discuss in campaign debates, except so far it seems there will be only one – in Medford, several hundred miles from most of the Oregon electorate. Friday, Wehby definitively refused a Portland TV debate, a standard element of an Oregon Senate or governor’s race campaign.

Typically, challengers – especially challengers trailing in the polls – are eager for debates, suggesting holding them on a weekly basis, or in every part of the state, or on every issue that can be drawn out of a hat. Incumbents and frontrunners – usually a redundancy – show a modest reluctance on debates, although this being Oregon, they generally agree to several.

Wehby’s agreeing to only one debate, on Medford TV, displays a shyness unusual among challengers, usually so eager for TV time that they’ll leap to appear on surveillance cameras. Wehby, however, has shown this diffidence before, declining the only televised debate, on KGW-TV, in the Republican primary campaign.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been turned down by a major-race candidate,” said KGW Executive News Director Rick Jacobs at the time. “I can’t remember the last time it’s happened.”

As of Friday, he’s seen it happen twice.

In various ways, Wehby’s campaign has been on what you might call a bumpy path. But the experience so far raises a whole other question:

If you don’t want to debate, don’t want to be on television, don’t want to offer your own proposals and don’t want people looking into your life, what’s the point of running for Senate at all?

Can it be that much fun just raising money?

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 9/28/14.

29 Sep

On Oregon’s revenue issue, “some day” might be next session

ASHLAND – Compared with a lot of recent legislative sessions, the one that’s starting next January looks fairly calm. Unlike many of Salem’s 21st century gatherings, the economy seems stable, meaning that state programs aren’t huddling together in a leaking lifeboat, wondering who’s going to be the next splash.

Of course, points out Ways and Means co-chairman Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, there are clouds. State revenues are scraping up against the level of the kicker, and the state having to mail back $300 million to taxpayers. The huge expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare has been impressive, but will cost some money. At some point the state Supreme Court will rule on the PERS reforms, which could put the state in a hole – although more in 2017-19 than in 2015-2017.

And there’s one other thing.

“We’re in danger of losing a generation,” warns Buckley, “unless we address early education and student debt.”

Because as things stand in Oregon’s education system, we’re losing kids coming and going.
Gov. John Kitzhaber has made a priority of early education and causing kids to appear at kindergarten ready to learn. It’s an understandable goal for a state with a deplorable high school graduation rate, and the knowledge that students need to be reading by third grade.

In addition, starting next year, the state is supposed to be paying for full-year kindergarten.

Then there’s Oregon’s universities, chronically underfunded, taking the worst hits in all the century’s recession-blasted legislative sessions because after all, they could always raise tuition. The situation produces both sticker shock discouragement for students at the outset and higher student debt at the finish – and too many who don’t finish.

“We’ve got K-12 back pretty much to where it was before the recession,” says Buckley. “If we can do that for higher ed,” it will be crucial.

“If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to get it done.”

Then there’s stabilizing of Oregon’s K-12 funding, to try to make Oregon’s school budget outcomes a bit less of a suspense movie.

Once again, we’re back to the great white whale of Oregon government, a revenue package that would put a foundation under the state school system, from finger painting to physics majors. It make take a lot of the excitement out of legislative sessions – and special sessions – but it might actually produce a state better prepared for the current century.

Kitzhaber has been pursuing the goal in a path going around the legislature, with lengthy negotiations between interest groups to send a measure directly to the ballot. Oregonians are still waiting to see the white smoke of an agreement rising from those talks, but Buckley, talking with other members of the joint Ways and Means Committee, thinks the next legislature might devise its own trip to the ballot.

“We’re doing everything we can do,” says Buckley. “We need the voters’ help. It would need to be on the ballot in 2016.”

Buckley, like everyone else in the Oregon political world, doesn’t see a sales tax. What he envisions is something like closing loopholes, reconsidering the state’s tiny corporate tax revenues and maybe some more from what he calls sin taxes.

Together, as a goal, the elements of the package would be offered to voters as a way to stabilize and strengthen education. And, notes Buckley, “In every voter survey, that’s what they say they want to do.”

Of course, that’s what Oregon politicians say they want to do, too, but there are reasons it hasn’t happened over the decades. It hasn’t been doable in the hard times, when it seemed to take all the state’s efforts just to keep the schools open – even for just about the shortest school year in the country – and it hasn’t worked in the brief better times, when the state seemed too bathed in relief to think any bigger.

Besides, a reality of large classes, larger tuition increases and fewer options at every level just began to seem normal – or at least Oregon normal.

Finding a workable proposal will be tough for either a legislature or a governor’s task force. The 2016 vote might bring out an electorate relatively favorable to a revenue measure, if it’s the right measure and if the Legislature’s PERS changes don’t get thrown out by the court.

We’re at a point of some economic stability, and when it seems inescapable that our economic future runs through our schools. It’s hard to see a better time to take on the challenge.

Of course, there’s always never.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 9/24/14.