Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

What I learned in Washington, D.C.

June 25, 2018

Tags: lobbying, Congress, politics, Greg Walden, Jamie McCleod-Skinner, kindness, John Dellenback

This is a story from my long-past lobbying days. I'm telling it now because it has important implications for the current political season.

The story starts on a late April Monday in 1973, with a 6:00 AM phone call from Diane Meyer, then chair of the Rogue Group of the Sierra Club. Diane was calling at that ungodly hour with an urgent request: she wanted me to go to Washington on behalf of the Rogue Group and the Stop the Applegate Dam Committee. She and Isabel Sickels - a powerhouse in the local Democratic Party, later to become the first woman ever elected to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners - had managed to wangle a 5-minute slot for someone to testify against the dam at the ongoing Senate Appropriations Committee hearings, and they wanted me to be that someone. That was the good part. The bad part was that the slot was set for 11:00 AM the next day - 8:00 AM, Oregon time. I had just 26 hours to prepare everything and get to the other side of the continent, where I would face off with what is arguably the most important committee in the nation's capitol.

The next few hours were a whirlwind. I had to write testimony, put together a decent lobbying wardrobe (I went to Goodwill), cancel all my local activities, and prepare my family - which included a three-week-old infant - to do without me for a week (I'm still amazed at the equanimity with which my wife accepted that). Somehow it all got done, and at 5:00 that evening Diane and her then-husband drove me to the Medford airport, shoved a ticket and a couple of hundred dollars collected from local activists into my hand, and put me on the red-eye to Washington.

I had been feeling increasingly queasy during the day. I thought it was nerves, but it turned out to be the 24-hour flu; the diarrhea started almost as soon as I got on the airplane. I was met at Dulles by my assigned local handler, Brent Blackwelder, who took me to the Sierra Club office - where I threw up - and then almost immediately to the Appropriations Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill to give testimony. We walked in just as Bill Jess, testifying for the group supporting the dam, was referring to the fact that the Committee would be hearing for the first time from dam opposition as well. A few minutes later, I went on - jittery legs, tumbling stomach, lack of sleep, and all. It was not the most pleasant thing I have ever done. Or the best accomplished.

After that rocky start, the rest of the week went better. The nausea was gone by the next morning, and though I still felt weak, I plunged into the work - conferring with other anti-dam activists, strategizing with Blackwelder, and making my rounds in the Senate and House office buildings. By week's end I had been in the offices of nearly every member of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees - almost always talking with staff, although I had managed a 20-minute interview with Senator Mark Hatfield. That's normal for lobbyists in Washington. If you're a constituent, you can speak directly to your Representative or Senator; if you're not, except in very rare instances, you talk to staff. If you're lucky, staff will actually listen.

The very last thing I had scheduled for the week - 4:30 Friday afternoon - was a half-hour meeting with John Dellenback, my own Congressman (southern Oregon was then in Oregon's 4th District). Dellenback was a moderate Republican with a bald head and a penchant for bow ties; he had a reputation for independence, and had sponsored some important pieces of environmental legislation, among them the bill establishing the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area, but he was a strong and unwavering supporter of the Applegate Dam. I had no illusions that I could change his mind, and I knew he would have no illusions that he could change mine. It was shaping up to be a wasted half-hour, but it had to be done to complete the job I had been sent to do.

It had been an exhausting week, and I was bone-tired and still not fully recovered from the flu when I walked into Dellenback's office. He sized me up with a quick glance and smiled - a kind, sympathetic smile. "You look tired," he said. "Lobbying is tiring work. Would you like a cup of coffee?"

I said that I certainly would.

"Sit down and make yourself comfortable," said Dellenback. He conferred briefly with an aide, who left to get the coffee. The Congressman and I were alone. "Now," he said, "Let's talk about Oregon. After you've had your coffee, we can talk about the dam." And we reminisced about places we both loved, and people we knew in common - he was from Medford - and he asked me about my family, and when the coffee was gone he called the aide back in and we spent ten minutes going over the rationale for and against the dam, and, as expected, neither of us changed the other's mind. But it was an unexpectedly lovely half-hour. Kindness does that.

And now here we are, 45 years later, with a President who wants to be a dictator and a Congress where the Party in power seems to be doing all it can to make that happen. Much of what this President and the leadership of his Party are doing is in direct conflict with what I see as the best of America - the compassion, the egalitarianism, the concern for a sustainable democracy and a sustainable country, a country where air and water are clean, special places are protected, opportunities are equal, and prosperity is shared by everyone. My Congressman, Greg Walden, is a highly-placed member of that Party, and has been in the forefront of those supporting Donald Trump's destruction of the values I most cherish: one analysis I read had him voting with the President more than 98% of the time. I am anxious for, and am working for, Walden's defeat in November. But here's the thing: if I walked into Walden's Washington office tomorrow the same way I once walked into Dellenback's - exhausted, demoralized, and with both of us locked into opposing positions we knew the coming conversation wasn't going to change - I'm pretty sure I would still be offered a cup of coffee and a chance to talk about Oregon. Opposition doesn't preclude compassion, even opposition on hugely important matters, and Members of Congress rarely forget that their first duty is to the constituent standing directly before them. Walden may be ignoring the Second District and favoring his corporate donors - that certainly seems true from his votes - but if individual Second District citizens, no matter how low on the social totem pole they may stand or which party they may belong to, ask for assistance in dealing with a government-related problem, no matter how insignificant the problem may seem or what its character may be, chances are strong that that individual will get the requested help - or at least see it honored with a strong attempt.

That part of a Member of Congress's duties is called "constituent services," and all Members are good at it: they have to be, or they don't get re-elected. It's the primary job of a Congress Member's district offices. Work on pending legislation is a very minor part of district-office staff's duties; mostly they tackle the real, concrete problems of real, concrete people. Helping a veteran get his medical needs met; helping a small farmer find Federal assistance programs for the crops she wants to plant; helping a business owner find a government-backed loan in the field the business will be operating in. Often this assistance goes to projects Progressives find appalling - selling off Federal lands, for example - but often it doesn't. Usually it is politically neutral. Most of the time, the staff is primed to act as Dellenback did: to offer a cup of coffee and a kind word. Sometimes that's all they can do. Sometimes that's all that is necessary.

All of this has a great deal of bearing on how we, as Walden's opposition, should be conducting ourselves during this election. We can and should be attacking Walden's legislative record, his lack of open town-hall meetings, his cozying up to the Malheur occupiers and to Donald Trump. But we should not be interfering with the work of the district offices. That not only lacks the compassion we say we want to bring back to government, it is also politically deadly. If it is our fault that constituent services are not getting done, we have no ground to stand on to complain about those services. If we become the problem we are trying to solve, it can and will be held against us in November. It will also make the transition more difficult after November, should our candidate win. Current district-office staff has a great deal of experience and knowledge concerning district-specific problems and how they are best approached. That experience and knowledge will need to be tapped. It is not impossible that some of the staff members will be valuable enough, and apolitical enough, that they will be asked to stay on. How much they are willing to give may be largely determined by how well they are treated during the campaign. It is important to engage with district staff, to debate them, and to bring to their attention points we feel that Walden is ignoring. It is counterproductive to argue with them, to blame them for Walden's shortcomings, or to get in the way of the work they are currently doing - work which we will have to pick up if our side wins the election.

It is safe to say that no one wants to see Jamie McCleod-Skinner beat Greg Walden more than I do. I think it is doable, but it will be tough - and it will be even tougher if our tactics include purposefully disrupting the work of the district staff. Because when we do that, we are not just getting in their way. We are also getting in our own.

Here, hold my beer

June 7, 2018

Tags: rock climbing, Yosemite, being wrong, perfectionism, denial, Donald Trump, Congress

Five days ago - on June 2, 2018 - two rock climbers fell to their deaths from a pitch a thousand feet up the face of El Capitan, the 3000-foot-high granite wall that guards the entrance to Yosemite Valley. Most people may have skimmed right past that item, but as a former climber myself I tend to follow news like that, and this one grabbed my attention. Despite its impressive verticality - which draws climbers from all over the world - El Cap is really pretty safe. The standard routes all have fixed (more…)

Fructans and Me

March 24, 2018

Tags: fructans, food, food sensitivities, onions

I knew from the moment I took the first bite that I shouldn't eat that sandwich.

We were out with friends in a brewpub in a nearby town. The beer was good and the conversation was better. Because I have a food sensitivity, I looked the menu over carefully. (more…)

We are better people than this.

January 8, 2018

Tags: politics, people, compassion, courage, greed

We are not so poor in material goods that we cannot share with others, nor so poor in spirit that we will refuse to share.

We are not so shallow that we care only for wealth, nor so short-sighted that we will destroy the only Earth we have to obtain it.

We are not so fearful that we must build walls against immigrants, nor so intolerant that we will shut our doors against neighbors who are not exactly like the rest of us. (more…)

I'm Sticking with NoteWorthy Composer. Here's Why.

December 21, 2017

Tags: music, music notation software, Noteworthy Composer, MuseScore, Finale, Sibelius, Dorico

(NOTE: if you are a non-musician, you may safely ignore this post.)
(ADDITIONAL NOTE: Noteworthy did not pay me to write this.)

If you are a musician in today's world, you use music notation software. That is a given. You may still use staff paper and a pencil to write down your ideas, or even to compose whole pieces; but if you are going to share them with the world, the world will expect the scores you produce to be computer-engraved. From this it follows that, when musicians gather, sooner or later the conversation will always get around to (more…)

Of The People, By The People, and For The People

October 27, 2017

Tags: government, taxes, government workers

I am a former government worker.

That's not a confession, that's a point of pride. I was a librarian; I worked for a county library system. For eighteen years, I helped people find information they needed in a collection of books and journals and other documents which they owned but (more…)

Wake-Up Call

October 12, 2017

Tags: climate change, wildfire, hurricanes, externalities, wine

Are we awake yet?

As I write this, there are 22 wildfires raging
- that word is accurate - raging through California's Sonoma and Napa valleys and the eastern part of the Central Valley, along the base of the Sierra. At least 3500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. Thousands of people have been evacuated, including the entire city of Calistoga. Much of Santa Rosa is in rubble. The official death toll currently stands at 23, and authorities expect that to rise "significantly" when they are able to go into areas that are currently quite literally too hot to enter.

Two days ago, the smoke from those fires briefly reached my home in Oregon, 400 miles to the north, driving air pollution counts into the "unhealthy for sensitive groups" range for (more…)


September 5, 2017

Tags: wildfire, climate change, science methodology, objective truth, smoke, Oregon

As of last night, there were 1,194 wildfires burning in the United States, almost all of them in the West. Most of them are in the five states that form the western and northern border of the West: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Yosemite National Park is burning. Glacier National Park is burning. Crater Lake National Park is burning. The Columbia Gorge is burning. The Columbia Gorge fire was caused by some idiots playing with fireworks, but almost all the rest have been caused by lightning. Record heat and lack of rain have turned the western forests into a tinderbox. Thunderstorms have intensified in recent years. We are currently living with the result.

More than 100 of those 1,194 wildfires are within 80 miles of my home (more…)

Take One Consideration With Another

August 19, 2017

Tags: Gilbert & Sullivan, Steve Bannon, evil, Donald Trump, Quakers

When a felon's not engaged in his employment,
Or maturing his felonious little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man's.

When the coster's finished jumping on his mother,
How he loves to lie a-basking in the sun;
Ah, take one consideration with another,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

-- W. S. Gilbert
The Pirates of Penzance

So Steve Bannon is out of the White House. I should be cheering. After all, I've wanted him out from the moment he walked in. The choice of a major alt.right guru like Bannon as his chief strategist was among the first indications from Donald Trump that he had no intention (more…)

Love and Diarrhea

August 13, 2017

Tags: love, diarrhea, cats, George Fox, Quakers, miracles, hate

We have been dealing with a sick cat. Rosie, our Siamese-tortoiseshell mix, has been suffering from episodic diarrhea and vomiting for the last two weeks. All will be well for several days, and then she will go through eight to twelve hours of shooting from both ends. Usually in one of the carpeted areas of the house. Usually coming on too quickly for her to get to a litter box.

OK. We plan to take her to the vet tomorrow morning. But first, this story.

Saturday was one of her bad days. The messes on the carpet began appearing (more…)