23 Feb

Linking urban, rural Oregon a Pearl of an idea

Among all the unfathomable aspects of the past week in Oregon, leading to Wednesday’s installation of a new governor, one seemed particularly striking.

With a Democratic governor badly wounded, Republicans did not lead the call for his finish. In fact, they seemed reluctant to see it happen.
Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, originally suggested he could not attend Kate Brown’s swearing-in. House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Prineville, mourned the “good working relationship” Republicans had with the departing John Kitzhaber, and McLane said the governor had deserved to make his own decision on leaving.

He expressed concern about Brown and “Portland’s left, or liberal, interests,” and warned, “Oregon needs to be served by folks who have all of our interests at heart, not simply who attends the best restaurants in the Pearl District.”

Disgruntlement from rural Oregon is understandable; at the moment, both U.S. senators, the governor, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general are all Portland Democrats, giving the state leadership about the same diversity as the Portland City Council.

Since 1987, every Oregon governor has had a Portland voting address.
But Kitzhaber, although currently a Portlander who chose to commute from Portland to Salem rather than live in the governor’s mansion, did represent Roseburg in the legislature for 16 years. He retained and cultivated timber connections, and an interest in fishing and belt buckles not universal in Northwest Portland. Republicans don’t see that connection with Brown, who lives in the inner eastside Portland area known to political consultants as the Kremlin.

But whatever the politics of Happy Hour in the Pearl, it’s a mistake to divide Oregonians into the people who grow food and the people who eat it.

Food, in fact, is becoming an increasingly important connective tendon across an Oregon urban-rural gap that’s been widening for 30 years. Portland’s food world, far from a dismissal of the rest of the state, actually looks outward toward it.

If Oregon’s elected leadership were as widely regionally sourced as Portland menus, rural Oregon might feel less alienated from developments in the state Capitol.

(Nor is this just a question of Portland, let alone the Pearl. In Bend, right next to McLane’s Prineville district, restaurant people would bridle at the idea that all of Oregon’s elevated Northwest cuisine is served within a fork’s throw of light rail.)

The Pearl may not be anybody’s idea of a direct pipeline to rural Oregon. But the Carman Ranch beef at Park Kitchen, the Draper Valley chicken at Irving Street Kitchen, the Oregon cheeses on the list at Bluehour and the Columbia Valley fruits marking each dessert chef’s nightly special all represent the kinds of interconnections useful in state government. The rising tide of Oregon wines, which hardly ever come from vineyards next door to gelato shops, reflect a whole additional set of ties to other parts of the state.

The links go back a long ways, symbolized by chef Greg Higgins, back when he was at the Heathman Hotel in the 1980s, establishing his own connections to farmers and listing the farms on his menu. (At his own restaurant, Higgins has become a national spokesman for farm-to-fork.) Now, diners in the Pearl and lots of other places expect their menus to include the arugula’s home address.

And restaurants, in Northwest Portland or elsewhere, are just a part of the connection. The explosion of farmer’s markets, not just dozens in the Portland area but all around the state, has provided a new visibility and even some income to people who don’t live inside Urban Growth Boundaries.

The prospect for this link are becoming only more promising. The projected James Beard Public Market on Portland’s riverfront, according to executive director Ron Paul, would create 200 jobs in Portland and 100 in rural Oregon. It’s not exactly a replacement for the timber industry, but it represents a powerful commonality of interest that should – but doesn’t always – connect the Pearl and Prineville.

Nobody thinks it’s the entire economic destiny of rural Oregon to pump produce to Portland. But there is an increasing connection across the state, built of Carlton pork belly and Bendistillery gin, that can be harder to find in the building where voters send legislators to try to work together.

It might even make more sense, as a statewide unifying event, if a legislative opening or governor’s swearing-in were marked less by speeches than by a dinner.

Maybe even a dinner in the Pearl.

As Rodney King didn’t quite say, can’t we all just order from the same menu?

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 2/18/15.

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