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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

What I learned in Washington, D.C.

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.
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