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Young Gun: Could an obscure 30-something progressive be the next top dog in Salem?



The list of Democrats potentially interested in Ted Kulongoski's office is growing longer. And it's reading like a who's who of Oregon politics.

Among the names being tossed around in the past several weeks and months is Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio, a 12-term U.S. Representative and one of the state's most powerful progressive voices in D.C.

Former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury is also mentioned as a candidate to succeed Kulongoski, who is prohibited from seeking a third term in next year's election. Perhaps most interestingly, Oregon political icon and former governor John Kitzhaber is said to be seriously weighing a run for an unprecedented third term.

Then there's Brian Clem, a 36-year-old Democrat with less than two terms in the state legislature (representing the Salem area) under his belt. If you followed the debate over the Metolius destination resorts in the last legislative session, you'll remember Clem as the guy who spearheaded the initiative to curtail the development of two proposed resorts that would total more than 3,000 homes in the area. But if you didn't, you probably haven't heard of him at all.

But that hasn't stopped Clem from launching an ambitious preliminary campaign, which he's billed as a "listening tour" around Oregon. Thanks to a loan from a family member, Clem already has a $500,000 war chest to jump start his campaign should he decide, as he says, to switch from "listening" to "running" - a decision he is expected to make within the next few days or weeks. If he does run, Clem will face an uphill battle against entrenched political interests, not all of which are keen on the idea of a 30-something state representative making a beeline for the governor's mansion. In the meantime though, Clem is amassing an increasingly impressive resume that might just suggest he's the best person for the job.

Clem stopped by The Source in mid-August to talk about some of his recent legislative accomplishments, including his successful work in the Metolius and a last-minute provision that could help the community preserve Skyline Forest in exchange for some limited low-impact development.

While Clem's interests are varied, his bread-and-butter issues have been education and land use, two areas of the state policy that have been under pressure for different reasons in recent years. It was the latter that earned him headlines in the past session when he helped to make the issue of Metolius destination resorts a statewide issue. With the backing of the governor and the state Department of Land Conservation and Development, Clem effectively pulled the rug out from under Jim Kean's Metolian Resort and the larger Ponderosa resort, while negotiating compromises that allowed for some limited development clustered on smaller pieces of property and a transfer of development rights outside the basin.

The legislative coup earned him friends in Central Oregon where conservationists and sportsmen strongly supported additional protections, but it also earned him the ire of some local politicians who saw it as more meddling in local affairs from Salem.

State Sen. Ted Ferrioli, an outspoken Republican from John Day, referred to the work around the resort ban, which was done in tandem with the governor's office the "suspension of democracy in Jefferson County."

Despite the rhetoric, the fight probably wasn't enough to put Clem on the political map on a statewide basis - and he knows it. It's the reason that he has started early and aggressively on a statewide campaign.

He also knows a thing or two about being an underdog. Raised by a single mother after his parents divorced at an early age, Clem and his brother were the first to attend college in their blue collar Coos Bay family. He shared a room with his brother to cut costs and funded his education on a mix of loans, grants and part time jobs. It was there that Clem first started to gravitate toward public service and advocacy. State funding cutbacks cost Clem most of his public financing for college. He saw a problem not just for himself but all other students of modest means. He ran for student body president, won and started advocating for better higher-ed funding.

"I got involved really in government only initially to talk about what would happen in Oregon if every person who was lower income couldn't go to college and only the rich could," he said.

It was in that role that he met OSU poli-sci professor and Oregon political commentator Bill Lunch, who taught Clem and also served as an early advisor to the budding politician.

Lunch said he was impressed immediately with Clem's dedication and political skill. At the time the university system was suffering from a real lack of institutional leadership in Salem. As a result, it lacked a strong advocate in the statehouse. Clem stepped into that vacuum as a student and filled the role impressively, said Lunch who at the time was meeting with Clem on an almost weekly basis.

"Obviously, this is all ancient history and can all be dismissed, but it does speak to his political skills," Lunch said.

With his boyish looks and wispy blond hair that is just beginning to thin across his forehead, Clem certainly doesn't cut the imposing figure of Kitzhaber, who is an almost Hemingway-like figure in state politics. But Clem's colleagues say he shouldn't be underestimated. His persistence and willingness to doggedly research and work long hours make him a formidable political foe.

Rep. Judy Stiegler, a first term Democratic House member from Bend, worked with Clem on both the Metolius resort and the bill related to Skyline Forest and said she was impressed with his intuitive political skill and his preparation.

"He knows his stuff and he makes sure he knows his stuff. He does his homework," she said.

But he also approaches his work with a zeal that not all politicians can muster. It's the kind of passion that can inspire others.

"When he gets into an issue it's Katy-bar-the-door and heaven help you. But you need people like that. You need people who believe in what they're doing and who know what they're talking about," Stiegler said.

And while Stiegler isn't offering any endorsements yet - nor is Clem seeking them - she said she could definitely support Clem as a candidate, depending on the field and the political circumstances.

At least outwardly he's not afraid to take on the big monied interests in politics, a stance that voters are increasingly looking for in their elected officials. Clem said he's not afraid of raising the stakes, even if it means getting run off the table by the tobacco or real estate lobby.

"I learned that doing this job is not worth it if all you care about is keeping this job," he said. "If you're not going to take a stand and fight for what you believe in, there's no point in doing this for $1,600 a month and time away from your family," Clem said.

At this point perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in Clem's way is, ironically, Brian Clem. He's made relatively clear that he won't pursue his exploratory bid if John Kitzhaber announces that he will run for governor, a move that could be seen as a gesture of deference or political expedience. (Recent news reports indicate that Kitzhaber could file as soon as today for a run.)

(Update: Former Governor John Kitzhaber officially filed his paperwork today, Wednesday, and announced that he will be seeking a third term. Read Jeff Mapes story in the Oregonian here. )

And if his time isn't yet arrived, Clem said he could live with that.

"I'm not addicted to holding a given title," Clem said. "I'm part of a team of progressive people in this state. They're everywhere. They're in community organizations; they're in office. And if it's the right time for me to lead the team and I'm hearing it is, I'll go forward. And if it's to be a lieutenant for John to help make sure he campaigns hard and gets elected... maybe that will be the right thing."

But don't expect him to sit in the background forever.

"I'm hearing from a lot of voters who are interested in new names and new people with new ideas and some recent accomplishments," Clem said.

And if that's the help wanted ad posted on the governor's office, then Clem is going to keep building his resume.

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