30 Apr

Oregon tries to bring Congress to the craft beer keg

In a House of Representatives with more division than a math textbook, where he himself can be among the most partisan warriors, Peter DeFazio has found a subject of bipartisan support:

Beer.

Anyone watching this Congress would drink to that.

In 2007, the Springfield Democrat joined with Hood River Republican Greg Walden to start the Small Brewers Caucus, dedicated to supporting craft brewing. Now the caucus has 143 members, with heavy representation from both parties, and a live legislative agenda.

Unlike a lot of Capitol factions, it also has a strong philosophical core.

“Life is too short for bad beer,” declares DeFazio. “Why would you drink that stuff?”

Clearly, DeFazio, a longtime home brewer, has an element of self-interest here. But he’s also speaking for a yeasty Oregon constituency.
Oregon just became the first state to have craft beer top 20 percent of its beer consumption, highest in the country. (The national average is closer to 6.5 percent.) The state’s ever-rising number of craft breweries claim a $2.8 billion impact on the state’s economy, creating 29,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

“Directly and indirectly” is a kind of squishy number, the kind of statistic that holds up best after a couple of pitchers – the Oregon Brewers Guild claims direct employment of 7,900 – but taken literally, 29,000 would suggest that Oregon now has about as many jobs from beer as from timber.

It also explains why Oregon, like Colorado, has its entire House delegation in the Small Brewers Caucus, with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden leading a Senate Small Brewers Caucus.

Earlier this month, DeFazio visited the national Craft Brewers Conference, which drew 11,500 people to Portland. Typically, he gives a keynote address at the event; this year congressional scheduling prevented that, but DeFazio came to mingle and marvel at the new beers and new products, such as a dog leash equipped with a beer bottle opener – presumably for the benefit of the walker, not the dog.

Besides issues of taste – not always predominant on Capitol Hill – support of craft beer carries another theme for DeFazio, an international trade hard-liner. Unlike craft beers, major mainstream U.S. brewers – the ones that advertise on national sports events and sponsor Spring Break parties – are now all foreign owned. Anheuser-Busch belongs to the Belgian-Brazilian InBev, Miller is now owned by SABMiller (South African Breweries), which has also acquired Coors.

“Every time you buy one of those beers,” warns DeFazio, sounding as if he’s shuddering at the thought, “you’re adding to the U.S. trade deficit.”
To support the craft beer industry, the Small Brewers Caucus has introduced the Small BREW Act, the Small Brewers Reinvesting and Expanding Workforce Act. It would reduce the per-barrel excise tax on brewers of up to 2 million barrels, presumably freeing up revenues for the development and production of more IPAs.

Last month, the Colorado-based Brewers Association, representing craft brewers, sponsored a Hill Climb to lobby for the bill. Brewers visited more than 100 congressional offices and finished the day with a press event featuring presentations from five breweries, including Deschutes Brewery of Bend.

The Small BREW Act faces competing legislation, the BEER Act (the Brewers Excise and Economic Relief Act). It’s supported by the Beer Institute, dominated by the largest brewers and importers, and would sharply cut excise taxes for brewers of all sizes. Most Oregon members aren’t co-sponsoring the BEER Act, but congresspeople from Wisconsin and Missouri are.

Larger brewers have been getting more defensive about craft brewers, an attitude reflected in Budweiser’s famous Super Bowl ad deriding “Pumpkin Peach Ale.” The ad was intended to produce snickering around the country, but some Oregon beer enthusiasts might have wondered where to get a pint.

With the current Congress, of course, nobody expects either bill to go anywhere soon. DeFazio sees the Small BREW Act’s best chance as being not a stand-alone bill but part of a larger tax overhaul. Congress hasn’t managed anything like that in years, but Ways and Means chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., insists he’s working on it.

DeFazio points out that Ryan’s tax thinking is based on “dynamic scoring,” the faith that cutting taxes raises revenue and that budget projections should be figured that way.

And what should be more dynamically scored than beer?

Craft beer, as DeFazio and the rest of the delegation realize, is now more than a hobby around here. It’s a rising part of our economy, and deserves government support and encouragement.

In Congress, it’s been a discouraging year.

It would be nice to have a happy hour.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 4/29/15.

30 Apr

It should be a minimum wage, not a minimal wage

Two things about the minimum wage should have a maximum impact on how we think about it.

First, it’s not a starter wage for young kids, something they will swiftly shoot past as they’re promoted to become executives. The average hamburger flipper is now 29 years old, with a high school education, and the minimum wage looks an awful lot like what she’ll be earning for the foreseeable future.

And at 29, she’s not a high school kid working after algebra class. She probably has other people depending on her. On minimum wage, who pays for that?

That gets to the second thing we know about the minimum wage: We pay for it.

Studies show that half of all Americans earning the minimum wage or close to it also qualify for government low-income benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid or the Earned Income Tax Credit. That means that all of us, including employers who pay more than the minimum wage, subsidize the companies who pay at the lowest level.

That’s not how the free market is supposed to work.

Minimum wages are rising around the country, as states and cities look at the realities of workers’ lives. Oregon should take a look at what its minimum costs workers – and all of us.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV 4/25/15.

27 Apr

In presidential politics, Oregon now just a ripple on the cash flow

The 2016 presidential campaign arrived in Portland last week – at least if you were a Republican with $1,250 to spend to say hello.

Invited to something at that price, most Portlanders might be less interested in what was being said than what was being served.

In the first appearance of a likely 2016 presidential candidate around here – some other areas have been seeing them since about 2011 – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush brought his campaign here Tuesday. He attended a reception with tickets priced at $1,250, and then went on to a dinner priced at $12,500.
For that, you might really wonder what was being served.

The first 2016 candidate to appear in Portland did not, of course, say anything in public, or even to a reporter. One attendee did praise Bush’s private comments to Jeff Mapes of The Oregonian, explaining, “He sees the nuances and sees that these are hard issues.”

That’s got to be worth $12,500.

But if the first sign of 2016 in Portland didn’t put a candidate on public display, it did give us a clear vision of the campaign. With the encouragement of the Supreme Court and technology, this clash of red America and blue America is going to be all about green.
Especially around here, and in most other neighborhoods.
4
The 2016 campaign looks so expensive there may not be enough money in circulation to pay for it. The Koch brothers have already declared their intention to spend $900 million on next year’s politics, and billionaires and even humble millionaires on all sides are loosening up their check-writing fingers.

Laying down a marker – and also giving out some – Jeb Bush reportedly aimed to raise $100 million by March 31, a year and a half before next November’s election. In 2008, the last year anybody took public funding and spending limits seriously, the Federal Elections Committee projected a $126 million limit for a candidate’s entire primary and general election campaign.

This time, some campaigns will spend that before we actually get to 2016.

As voters have noticed, candidates from both parties surf the tidal wave of money. Publicly funded, spending-limited campaigns became extinct in 2008, when Barack Obama realized how much more money he could raise on his own. Efforts to elect Hillary Clinton next year reportedly expect to go deep into the billion-dollar range, an amount unlikely to be raised in tens and twenties.

Pretty much all campaign funding limits, of course, were thrown out by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision. Independent expenditure Super-PACs can now collect unlimited amounts from donors, including corporations, and one generous billionaire can keep a presidential candidate afloat. Bush, in fact, was raising money in Portland not for his official campaign but for his super-PAC, Right to Rise – which the Associated Press reported last week will play the main role in his entire campaign.

By the rules, super PACs are required not to coordinate with candidates. It seems Bush can legally appear at his Super PAC’s money-raising events because he is not yet officially running.

And last week’s Portland contributors may have gotten off easy. A Wall Street fund-raising event for Bush in February carried a $100,000 price tag, and according to the International Business Times, a Miami breakfast with the candidate earlier this year had a $250,000 entry fee.

You wonder what was served there.

But when Bush continued on to New York after Portland for more fund-raising, he also included a public event at a school. Here, he just took the money and ran.

In the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney stopped here three times, all for closed fund-raising events. That year, President Obama visited Portland for one afternoon and two fundraising events, with one priced at $30,000 – although the other was at least open to the press.

In presidential campaigns, Oregon isn’t an electorate, we’re an ATM.

Admittedly, we’re a relatively small state, and have voted Democratic for president consistently since 1988. But we’re about the same size as South Carolina, which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1988, and Iowa, which has varied only once in that time – and in both places, voters can’t go to the supermarket without being accosted by a presidential candidate explaining how his grandfather fueled his love of America.

Maybe we don’t want that, especially not during basketball season. Maybe in a race built on astounding amounts of money, you’d rather be a spot in the cash flow than on the campaign trail.

But some day in Portland, you’d like to see a presidential candidate at a food cart.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/26/15.

24 Apr

Over three decades, a different Oregon for civil liberties

In the beginning of 1993, when David Fidanque became state director of the Oregon ACLU, he didn’t have to look hard for things to do.

Oregon had just defeated, in a struggle drawing international attention, a ballot measure declaring the state officially opposed to homosexuality. In the rest of the decade, Oregon voters would face more anti-gay statewide measures from the Oregon Citizens Alliance, and more than 40 similar local ballot measures. Many of them passed, if sometimes not by enough; a Gresham measure won a big majority, but fell short of the 60 percent needed for a charter amendment.

It wasn’t what you’d call a resounding victory, but as Fidanque recalls, “We had to take what we could get that year.”

Last month, when Fidanque retired – toasted by current and past governors at the annual ACLU banquet – it was in an Oregon where same-sex marriage is now legal. As he puts it, looking back, “It’s astonishing that the nation is now on the cusp of being a gay-marriage nation.”

The OCA – or anyone else living in Oregon in 1993 – might have had trouble believing it.

As ACLU state director, and as Eugene director for a decade before, Fidanque has worked on rights issues from adult bookstores in the 1980s to the no-fly list today, lobbying the legislature, recruiting and working with attorney volunteers, becoming a national ACLU presence. Partly due to his efforts, Oregonians no longer face property forfeiture without a criminal conviction, and Oregon police no longer use stop-everybody roadblocks to check for drunken drivers.

(Full disclosure: Long ago, in a galaxy far away, David Fidanque and I went to high school together, although neither of us go back for Homecoming.)

Over three decades, he’s worked with, and argued with, a parade of state leaders, a list topped by Gov. Barbara Roberts, who “always felt civil liberties issues in her heart and her gut.”

From early in his time, “I give (Gov. Vic) Atiyeh a lot of credit. He would always meet with us even when he disagreed. There were governors who didn’t have the time to meet when they knew they couldn’t say yes.”

Not always voluntarily, Fidanque has spent much of his efforts on gay rights issues. It took 16 years from the first introduction of a hate crimes bill for the legislature to pass one, in 1989. Even then, he remembers, House Speaker Vera Katz didn’t want then bill to come to the floor, because it didn’t have a locked-down majority.

But it was, Fidanque says, “one of the rare occasions when members actually listened to the debate,” and it won a narrow victory with some unpredicted conservative Republican votes.

Twenty years later, when the debate had gotten to same-sex marriage, it took another adjustment. Focus groups run by Portland pollster Lisa Grove in 2010 and 2011, he noted, pointed the case in a different direction.

“We thought of it as a civil rights moment,” Fidanque recalled, “but when swing voters were asked what’s important to you, it was all about love and commitment.

“We were talking right past people, telling them gay couples were different, that they didn’t care about love but about their legal rights.”

In 2012, for the first time, supporters of same-sex marriage won state elections, in four contests from Maryland to Washington. This time, the argument was a little different: “It was talking to people’s hearts.”
Other conversations have been tougher.

“Why has so much changed on discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Fidanque wonders, “but so little changed on discrimination based on race?”

Racial issues – about African Americans, Hispanics and increasingly Muslims – have been a persistent Oregon ACLU theme, from police profiling for traffic stops to disproportionate school suspensions.

About the difference between gay issues and racial issues, “My gut feeling is that it’s similar to Vietnam and the draft. It’s about class. There are LGBT people in rich families, in middle-class families.”

To Fidanque, it’s a different situation in a society, and a state, where racial groups are often largely separate – in different neighborhoods, in different schools, sometimes in different classrooms within schools.

“Part of what, for those of us in the majority culture, makes it so easy to live in Oregon, to love Oregon, makes it so hard for people of color. It’s not something that will go away in a generation, the way we’ve been victorious on same-sex marriage.”

On the other hand, the issue does remind us how much can change over a generation.

Or over a career.

This column appeared in The Oregonian, 4/22/15.

21 Apr

On higher ed, Oregon legislature always means well

You couldn’t really say that this session of the Oregon legislature has been ignoring higher education. Legislators have been having policy debates, discussing efficiency strategies and developing a bill to protect the regional universities from the last round of policy debates and efficiency strategies.

It’s just paying for it all that’s a complication.

So you can’t say legislators can’t identify with Oregon’s college students, who have the same problem.

House higher education committee chairman Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, and vice-chair Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, are pursuing a bill to expand the use of on-line open-source textbooks. This could be a considerable benefit, since the typical chemistry or art history textbook price is now deep into three figures, an amount enough to interest a pawnbroker.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, has a useful bill to protect the regional universities from the strains of system reorganization, guaranteeing shared services support for the next several years, providing at least a temporary lifeboat in the stormy seas of every-university-for-itself.

The legislature is proceeding steadily on a Higher Education Coordinating Commission plan to base university funding on degrees granted rather than enrollment. The idea is to encourage universities to move students to graduation, and that’s hard to argue with, unless maybe you’re the NCAA.

But in the long tradition of Oregon higher education policy, this is one more example of carefully rearranging too little money. When last seen, Oregon was 47th in the country in its per capita support of higher education, and once again tries to restructure its way out of a financial dead end.

Before the session, Oregon’s seven public university presidents calculated that the universities would need $750 million to get back to the level of state support before the recession, an objective that higher ed has had particular problems reaching. It’s a shimmering goal, although the universities now enroll 20,000 more students than they did in 2007.

With a small boost by the Ways and Means co-chairmen over the original governor’s budget, the state now has its universities on its 2015-2017 books for $670 million.

“We are not in a position to make a game-changing investment in education,” said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, House Ways and Means co-chair, last week. “Given that framework, we still must do everything we can to bring community colleges and universities along.”

Still, the budget noise around the Capitol, coming out of all party caucuses, is about the need to increase the $7.255 billion budget for K-12.

“Higher ed doesn’t have the lobbying to compete with K-12,” notes Whisnant. “Higher ed is like mental health. We come in each session and say it deserves the spending it needs, but it never gets it.”

One persistent argument behind this condition is that universities, and community colleges, can always raise tuition, an option not available to prisons and middle schools. This spring, higher education has again been exercising this option.

Portland State plans to raise its tuition by 4 percent and the University of Oregon by 3.7 percent, and both board meetings were marked by demonstrations by students against the increases. Oregon State is increasing by 7.6 percent, although that’s part of a long-term project to match tuition more closely to credits taken. Oregon Institute of Technology is seeking a raise of 5 percent, and Southern Oregon by almost 5 percent, which could be a complication for a university that’s had enrollment issues.

College tuition will, of course, rise regularly. But once again in Oregon, it’s rising notably faster than the inflation rate, making access just a bit more daunting.

With little unassigned money floating around the Capitol, and the kicker looming ever closer, a quick sizable infusion seems unlikely. The only loose change floating around might appear in the May budget forecast, with 40 percent already pledged to K-12, and less loud enthusiasm for funding classes for people very close to paying taxes themselves.

Last week in higher education, the University of Oregon announced a new president stressing his fund-raising skills, another sign of UO’s understandable conclusion that in building the university it wants, or even clinging to its Association of American Universities membership, it’s on its own. At the Capitol, it was Oregon State Day, when students swarmed the halls to tell legislators what it’s like to try to pay for college in a post-floppy disk era.
“Hope springs eternal until the session is over,” suggested Oregon State president Ed Ray. “You meet some wonderful young students, maybe that makes you think a little more creatively.”

Maybe you can come up with the price of a chemistry textbook.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/19/15.

17 Apr

Merkley still wants a Senate that works, and it’s still off in the distance

It took Jeff Merkley almost four years to get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to move on changing the Senate’s filibuster rules for confirming nominations.

Then last month, Reid, now minority leader, announced he would retire from the Senate, and cited the change as one of his signature achievements.

“Ever since we did that, he’s been very pleased with the outcome,” said Merkley about Reid last week, as the Oregon senator was on his way to a town meeting in La Pine. “I think it’s something he will be remembered for.”

After the change, which cut back filibusters on executive branch nominations and judicial picks below the Supreme Court, a river of assistant secretaries and judges flowed through the Senate –and they might as well, since Congress wasn’t producing anything else.

Now, a year and a half after the rule change, the prospects for President Obama’s nominees seem worse than ever. With Republicans in control of the Senate, it doesn’t even take a filibuster to block a nomination; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., can just refuse to bring it up for a vote.

The nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general is now in its sixth month awaiting a vote, longer than it took for the previous eight nominees for the job put together, despite Lynch having an apparent Senate majority for confirmation. In a new twist, McConnell is now holding Lynch hostage for Democratic cooperation on a human trafficking bill – which all sides support, but is now hung up on abortion language having virtually nothing to do with the point of the bill, or with Loretta Lynch.

It’s a classic example of a Senate tied up in double sailor knots, and a dysfunction being felt throughout the process. “People don’t want to be nominated,” points out Merkley, “if it mean they’re going to be held without consideration for months or even a year.”

You might as well avoid going through the FBI investigation and just go on making money.

For actual legislation – remember when Congress used to do legislation? – Merkley says the change in party control of the Senate doesn’t actually make much difference. “It doesn’t change things as much as you might think,” he insists. “In reality, we didn’t have the (60) votes (to break a filibuster), and if we passed something, the House was ready to block it.”

But the House has nothing to do with nominations, and with Merkley’s rule change, the Senate was processing them steadily. Now we’re back at roadblock, and Merkley is again looking for a way.

“I’m having lots of introductory meetings, looking for Republican partners,” he relates, notably half-hour meetings with new members. “Many of them,” he says optimistically, “especially the ones with experience in state legislatures, want to see the Senate work.

“My hope is to find some traction.”

Of course in the Senate these days, traction is as rare as a rejected campaign contribution.

Still, there’s been no Republican effort to repeal Merkley’s rule changes – which are, after all, a convenience to the majority. Merkley reports that two Republican senators, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mike Lee of Utah, have actually expressed interest in expanding the reforms to ban filibusters on Supreme Court nominations – a change that Merkley opposes.

“The threat of the filibuster,” he says, “encourages presidents not to name Supreme Court justices from ideological extremes” – although he would require a “talking filibuster,” meaning that opponents of a vote would have to stay on the Senate floor orating to prevent it.

Expanding the reform is unlikely, but it does point to what could be the biggest Senate explosion of this Congress – if Obama gets to nominate a replacement justice to a Supreme Court with one member in her eighties and three in their late seventies. Even without the Senate’s current partisan paralysis, the situation would be challenging; the last Democratic president to send a Supreme Court nomination to a Republican Senate was Grover Cleveland in 1895.

Besides the change of rules, and the more significant change in party control, Senate Democrats face another change with Reid’s announcement that he won’t run for re-election after being Democratic leader since 2005. The job is headed for Charles Schumer of New York, whose close connections to Wall Street might seem to pose an issue for Merkley, one of the Democratic caucus’s prominent progressives.

He says no.

“I’m extremely supportive of Senator Schumer,” says Merkley. Should he become a majority leader, he will work hard to make the Senate a functioning body again.”

Because if the Senate doesn’t work , it doesn’t matter who controls it.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 4/15/15.

“I’m extremely supportive of Senator Schumer,” says Merkley. Should he become a majority leader, he will work hard to make the Senate a functioning body again.”
Because if the Senate doesn’t work , it doesn’t matter who controls it.

11 Apr

Other states’ infrastructure efforts leave Oregon by the side of the road

Just like Oregon, the Washington legislature is having an argument over raising its gas tax.

Except Washington’s legislators are arguing about how they plan to raise it.

Last month, the Washington state Senate, with a Republican majority, voted to increase its state gas by 11.7 cents over three years. The Senate then voted, by a much larger margin, for a $15 billion list of infrastructure improvements – not including a Columbia River Crossing, which will apparently wait until the current bridge falls into the river – to be paid for by the gas tax.

That part is always more popular.

The Washington legislature, and the GOP-controlled Senate in particular, is still in an argument with Gov. Jay Inslee, who wants a carbon use tax. But after its last long session, when the Washington legislature couldn’t pass any kind of transportation package, it does now seem to be out in front of the Oregon legislature, where there is currently nothing in committee or maybe in consideration on a transportation package.

There are various possible explanations for Washington being ahead of Oregon on transportation, but we can probably dismiss any theory about Washington’s roads and bridges being in worse shape than ours. In parts of Oregon, we seem to be making a determined bid to reach Third World status.

Any time now, our idea of a transportation package might consist of buying everyone a burro.

Moreover, facing a national infrastructure situation that makes crossing bridges an adventure not experienced since trolls lived beneath them – and a Congress too frozen in its own gridlock to think about traffic gridlock – a convoy of states is moving to increase their own gas taxes and try to stay in motion.

Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah just signed a bill to raise his state’s gas taxes five cents a gallon, with Iowa’s rate going up 10 cents on March 1. South Dakota’s increase of 6 cents over three years began April 1, joining recent increases by Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Virginia and four other states.

At the moment, the Michigan legislature has passed an increase that needs to go before voters May 5. The Georgia House and North Carolina Senate have both passed gas tax increases, and the idea is up before other legislatures.
An intriguing aspect of the trend is that all these legislatures are controlled by Republicans. Apparently, a distaste for vanishing into potholes, or for listening for a bridge to creak as you cross, is not necessarily a partisan issue.

There are, of course, common themes to this widespread upsurge. Gas tax revenues are dwindling, due to virtually all cars getting better mileage, hybrids using much less gas and electric cars not using any. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping roads from resembling amusement park rides, and sometimes even expanding them or building new ones – isn’t disappearing.

A further challenge to states’ transportation policy is the fading of the feds. Facing the same shrinking gas tax trends, the federal highway trust fund is scheduled to run out in May. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and large numbers of congressmen have sworn blood oaths not to increase any taxes in any circumstances. The Obama administration hasn’t even proposed a gas tax increase, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, insists he’s thinking about other ways to strengthen the highway trust fund, but hasn’t quite figured it out yet.

In Oregon, of course, the situation has been complicated by this session’s extension of the “clean fuels” program, lowering their carbon level and raising the price by an undetermined amount. Republicans swore that if the program were extended, they would refuse any support for a gas tax increase. At least one Republican vote would be needed in the House, and possibly in the Senate.

Right now, at 49.5 cents a gallon, Oregon’s gas tax is just about at the national average (48.5 cents), and well below Washington (55.9) and California (63.8).

Explaining to The Atlantic last week why Republican state legislatures were so much readier to raise the gas tax than Republican congressmen, Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policies pointed out that they didn’t have much choice: Legislatures had to balance state budgets, and “They can raise the gas tax, they can raise a different tax, or they can cut spending on education and other parts of the budget and spend that money on roads and bridges instead.

“Because you can only let your infrastructure get so bad before you have to find a way to deal with it.”

Or you can start buying burros.

NOTE: This column appeared inn The Oregonian, 4/8/15.

07 Apr

James Beard Public Market could be Portland’s home championship

The NCAA basketball tournament, with its Final Four this weekend, isn’t generally a big local story around here. It’s been a while since either Portland State or the University of Portland have been involved, and even with Oregon qualifying and early round games at the Moda Center, the tournament finals don’t generally offer us home-town rooting.

But every spring, we do get that opportunity.

Last month, the annual announcement of the James Beard Award finalists gave Portland a direct rooting interest. The Best Chef in the Northwest nominees included Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, from Ox in Northeast Portland, and Justin Woodward of Southeast Portland’s Castagna, while the iconic Karen Brooks of Portland Monthly contends for the prestigious Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award.

And unlike sports titles, Portland actually wins James Beard awards. Chefs such as Greg Higgins, Vitaly Paley and Naomi Pomeroy have won the Northwest title, and Gabriel Rucker has been named the best young chef in the whole country. Last year, Andy Ricker of Pok Pok, Portland’s Thai gift to Brooklyn and now Los Angeles, won a Beard award for a food article.

Every spring, in terms of awards, Portland’s brand is more braising than brackets. It’s what we get more national attention for, and what drives a growing part of our economy.

So it makes sense for us to expand our food – and James Beard – identity. That identity is now in line to be bolstered by the James Beard public market on the Willamette riverfront, displaying our rising prominence in food and drink.
If not always a superstar in hoops, certainly in hops.

The public market, gaining momentum for more than a decade, is reaching take-off stage, with a location set at the downtown end of the Morrison Bridge. A few weeks ago, the City Council approved a zoning change to allow buildings as high as 250 feet to be built over the market wings at the bridgehead, dramatically changing the financing outlook. Along with various forms of federal financing, the project is bidding for $10 million in lottery-backed bonds from the state, with a campaign to culminate in Market Day at the Capitol June 22.

Shortly, the Norwegian design firm Snohetta, designers of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at New York’s World Trade Center, will begin an eight-week effort to develop concepts for the market. A process that began in 2000 now has the goal of actually opening the market in 2018.

The James Beard market would bring together multiple national and Oregon food themes: the farmer’s market explosion, posing the question of why people wouldn’t want to buy from farmers daily, instead of once a week; the boom in eating locally, written in restaurant menus that now give the biographies of carrots; Portland’s rising prominence in the national food firmament; the prospect of a downtown crosscurrent of food stands, restaurants, bakeries and cafes. It’s another opportunity to demonstrate the powerful links between urban and rural Oregon; Ron Paul, executive director of the market effort, estimates that it would create 200 jobs in Portland and 100 in rural Oregon.

The market, says Paul, would help “develop the kind of vibrant food culture that we deserve,” a goal that Portland has been steadily – you could say “dramatically” – approaching.

It would also give Portland a high-profile display window both nationally and on the Willamette. We can’t keep putting all the responsibility on Rudolph’s red nose, and the constantly changing neon lettering around it.

Pike Place market has become a national symbol for Seattle, a mandatory photo shot for tourist brochures and network TV coverage of Seahawks and Mariners games. The Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, a more recent development, has become a major attraction even for people not looking to catch a boat to Sausalito.

To Paul, the James Beard Market will be different from either. Unlike Pike Place, it will be entirely a food market, leaving the souvenir/craft trade to Saturday Market down the street. Unlike Ferry Terminal, with weekly farmer’s markets, James Beard will have a permanent produce presence
.
After a first century as a timber offshoot, Portland’s prominence now is as a repeated James Beard Award contender, a place that imports chefs and exports pinot noirs and offbeat Thai chicken wing concepts. This identity is a big part of what now draws visitors, who need something to do between lunch and dinner.

And if Portland ever does have a basketball triumph, the James Beard market would be a great place to celebrate.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/5/15.