Last Thursday morning, Sen. Jeff Merkley dropped by the Source offices—cowboy boots and all.
We were impressed.
During our endorsement interview last fall, when Sen. Merkley was campaigning for re-election, we were lukewarm about the senator and his knowledge about Bend and what issues are pertinent to the region. At that time, he spoke in our endorsement interview repeatedly about Central and Eastern Oregon, as if interchangeable, and when asked about what he has done specifically to represent issues here, talked about ranchers and prattled on about his work with the Postmaster General to keep open post offices in Antelope and Fort Rock. We weren't terribly impressed, although we did endorse him.
At the time, one of his campaign staff said that he would follow up with a visit after the election—and take the opportunity to talk and listen more to what issues we believe are important for Bend and Central Oregon.
We are impressed that he followed up.
And, more importantly, we were impressed by a slew of policies he is pushing, many with positive impacts on Central Oregon.
Six months into his second term and speaking with our editor Phil Busse in our conference room, Sen. Merkley was incredibly well informed and, in calm but determined terms, the talk ranged from affordable housing to forest management, and even when we discussed beer it was not in trite bro terms comparing stouts and IPAs, but an earnest discussion and understanding of the daily business and regulatory issues that the industry faces. Six months ago, along with Sen. Ron Wyden, he pushed back against an FDA rule that would have banned brewers from selling their spent grain as feed to cattle ranchers. That rule would have proven expensive to brewers, who would have needed to find more complicated means of disposing of the byproduct, and also would have added waste and cost to regional ranchers who can use the spent grain as feed for their cattle.
Unlike some of his fellow senators—oh, say, John Kerry—Merkley grew up in a blue collar household. His dad worked as a repairman for lumber mills and during our discussion Merkley referenced the post-World War II generation, talking about "positive cycle" that children in the '50s and '60s experienced, with expanding educational opportunities that were in a large part made possible by increased federal funding. Those decades are apt—if not opposite—comparisons to current struggles and downward spirals with educational opportunities.
Merkley was not only compassionate about those struggles and disparities, but he sits on the Banking and Housing Committee, and has been working to correct opportunities for students' grants and, later that morning, he spoke at Oregon State University–Cascades.
Merkley also spent last week on a statewide tour discussing food stamps. He has been one of the stronger voices speaking against proposed cuts to SNAP benefits, and expressed his understanding about the wide-reaching impacts that losing federal assistance for food costs can have, from nutritional concerns to widening economic gaps, a scenario that already is starkly playing out in Central Oregon where high school graduation rates are separated by roughly 20 percent between middle-plus class teenagers and those from working class families.
With fire season quickly approaching, Merkley also made certain to talk about forest management issues. Along with federal representatives from the state, he has been pushing to move federal funding for forest fire fighting into FEMA. He pointed out that there has been resistance from states in flood regions, but he has been steadily networking and lobbying for a change that would assure more stable funding to manage forest fires in the region.
Yes, six months after our tepid endorsement, we turn up the heat to a steady boil! Count us as duly impressed with Sen. Merkley, and his cowboy boots!