Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." -- Touchstone
One of the refreshing surprises of the 2014 congressional elections was to see how so many of America's working classes and family farmers gave Congress a resounding mandate to protect the rich from starvation.
The tour guide at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, an energetic and enthusiastic woman of about Isaac's vintage, painted a sympathetic portrait of our 37th president. For example, she described the 1960 presidential election as a contest between a highly intelligent vice president seasoned with eight years in the administration, experienced in foreign policy, with a steady hand, against a naive and inexperienced playboy. She did reluctantly admit that John Kennedy was handsome and attractive, and Richard Nixon . . . "well, he had to work with what he had." The Nixon Library did have a remarkably fair and balanced depiction of Watergate and the events that led up to President Nixon resigning the office, installed after Mr. Nixon died to replace the exhibit that he had approved.
Three things struck me. One was when our guide, in talking about the famous people who had visited the Nixon Library, told us that Justice Brennan had visited the Library a year or two ago and was very impressed with it. Justice Brennan died in 1997. The second thing was when she mentioned that the British had burned the White House in World War II, conflating a war in which we were allies with a war 130 years earlier in which we weren't.
The third thing was one of the delicious ironies which is either a complete coincidence or the result of an Isaac-like humorist at work behind the scenes. On the bus to the Library, our group was shown a half-hour film about President Nixon, produced in the early 1990s with the President's cooperation. (He died in 1994.) The film had to discuss the Watergate scandal, which it did -- almost exactly 18-1/2 minutes after the film started. A coincidence? You be the judge.
I've sometimes wondered if the Congress of 1845 wasn't showing a bit of collective spirit when it set our national election day to be the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November - hence always on or between November 2 and November 8 - because the central day of that span, November 5, had been celebrated in England as a day of Thanksgiving since 1606 by reason of the discovery on November 5, 1605 of a plot to create hundreds of vacancies in the House of Lords by setting off a large gunpowder charge in the building's basement. Later known as Gunpowder Treason Day, it is now celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day. Standard historians say that Congress chose that week in November because it allowed enough time between Election Day and the date in December on which the presidential electors gather in the state capitols to cast their ballots, but I like to think that Congress was, in a sly way, fixing our election date to commemorate the day, 240 years earlier, on which the spiritual ancestors of the United States Senate were saved from a treasonous attempt to impose term limits.
This year's senate race presents an easy choice. The incumbent, Democrat Jeff Merkley, seeks a second term against a challenge from Republican Monica Wehby, a physician who is seeking her first elective office. First-term senators are rather like fourth sons of reigning monarchs: they bear imposing titles and get respect in public, but aren't expected to accomplish very much. It's sufficient for them to select one or two issues on which to seek the public's attention while they learn their way around the nation's capital.
Shortly after arriving in Washington, Senator Merkley found an issue: the financial crisis that hit in 2009 and its effect on Wall Street, the large banks, and the rest of America. He and Senator Carl Levin proposed an amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act to add the "Volcker Rule," a rule that would have barred traditional banks (i.e., banks that the federal government insures, including those that the feds think are too big to be allowed to fail) from engaging in certain risky investments. The bill to which the Merkley-Levin amendment was attached did not become law, but the text of their amendment was attached to another bill and in a slightly different form became law. (It's also noteworthy that this was known as the Merkley-Levin amendment and not as the Levin-Merkley amendment because Sen. Levin joined the Senate 30 years before Sen. Merkley did.) In several different ways since then, Sen. Merkley has continued to press for some fairness in the banking and tax system.
The Oregonian rightly rejected Dr. Wehby as a candidate -- she and her campaign both imploded and the race effectively ended weeks ago. The Whimperer called Sen. Merkley "smart, thoughtful, certainly well-intentioned [and] even right at times," but declined to endorse him either, apparently (as far as I can tell) because he sometimes disagrees with Senator Wyden and wants to raise the cap on Social Security income taxes to fund higher benefits for old people. The Oregonian correctly notes that in his first six years in the Senate Sen. Merkley has not solved any major problems. Neither have the other 99. He is off on the right track, however, and has earned a second term. You may, as I will, vote to re-elect Sen. Merkley.
The real puzzle this year is the Governor's race. John Kitzhaber, the incumbent Democrat, seeks a fourth term against Republican challenger Dennis Richardson, a six-term state representative from southern Oregon whose legislative experience has included extensive work on Oregon's budgets. Rep. Richardson started his campaign several years ago with an extensive outreach program (I landed on his mailing list for reasons I still haven't fathomed), and he's run a competent campaign since then. Where he has fallen short is on policy: when pressed in debate he retreats to platitudes instead of specifics, and he's awkwardly navigating the narrow and sometimes negative space between the social policy views of the conservatives who nominated him and the moderates whose votes he needs to win. On policy grounds I would favor Governor Kitzhaber for a fourth term, albeit with serious reservations about his expensive lapses on Cover Oregon and the Columbia River Crossing.
To quote Ian Fleming, however: "But, but, but, and again but!" The stream of revelations about the contracts of the Governor's fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, with entities that seek favors from the State of Oregon concerns me. I have the same worries that I would have about our nation's energy policy if (say) Michelle Obama accepted a seat on the board of Exxon. That tips the scale for me against voting for Dr. Kitzhaber. The Pamplin newspapers also concluded that neither major party candidate in the Governor's race deserves support. They recommended that Democrats write in Ted Wheeler and Republicans write in Allen Alley.
I don't plan to write in a non-candidate; the governorship should be reserved for people foolish enough to want to serve. I intend to cast my vote, with some hesitation, for Chris Henry of the Oregon Progressive Party. If you feel as I do about Gov. Kitzhaber and Rep. Richardson, I recommend a vote for the minor party candidate with whom you are most closely aligned. For Tea Party conservatives, that's likely Aaron Auer of the Constitution Party. More traditional conservatives can vote for Libertarian Paul Grad. Those to the left of Isaac have Jason Levin of the Pacific Green Party available on the ballot.
Somewhere in America -- very likely in quite a few somewheres in America -- researchers are poring through old newspapers and pre-Google reports to uncover all the statements they can find that leading Democrats made in 1980 about Ronald Reagan's age being a reason not to elect him as President. Mr. Reagan was 69 years and 349 days old when he took the oath of office in 1981, the oldest man ever to be sworn in for a first term. (The only person older than that to be sworn in as President was Mr. Reagan himself, when he was sworn in for his second term four years later.)
Why the research? The leading Democratic contender is Hillary Clinton. If elected in 2016, she will be 69 years and 86 days old when she is sworn in on January 20, 2017, making her the second-oldest person ever to be sworn in for a first term as President, an issue her shadow campaign is keenly conscious of but doesn't want to discuss.
More interestingly, at age 69 she is almost certain to be older than the Republican nominee. It used to be common for the Republican presidential candidate to be younger than the Democratic candidate -- Franklin Roosevelt was younger than Herbert Hoover (1932) but older than his other three opponents -- but it's been a rarity since then. Thomas E. Dewey (1948) was much younger than Harry Truman, Barry Goldwater (1964) was a few months younger than Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush (2004) was two and a half years younger than John Kerry, but these are exceptions. In the 13 presidential elections since the birth of Barack Obama, the Democrat has been younger than the Republican in 11 of them.
The Democrats' age problem in 2016 isn't going to be that Mrs. Clinton is 69 years old; it will be that she'll likely be 15 years older than her opponent unless the Republicans nominate Jeb Bush, who is only 5 years younger than Mrs. Clinton. I see an opening for a young Republican who wants to run on a platform of change and who isn't tied to the Tea Party - a conservative reformer. Whether the GOP can get its act together sufficiently to find, nominate, and not destroy such a candidate is another question entirely.
The sense that I'm getting from my political friends, except a few of the diehards, is that Oregon's senate race is over. Barring any flagrant fouls, Senator Merkley will defeat Monica Wehby handily.
The far more interesting race, and so far underappreciated, is the gubernatorial campaign between John Kitzhaber and Dennis Richardson. My Democratic friends have lumped the two races together, often talking about the Wehby and Richardson campaigns as if they are the same. They aren't, and I advise against overconfidence. Here are the important differences between the campaigns and the candidates.
First, Dr. Wehby came to this race with no political experience and no name familiarity. By contrast, starting several years ago Representative Richardson meticulously built his mailing list across the state and brought himself to the attention of Oregonians outside of southern Oregon who hadn't yet heard of him.
Second, Dr. Wehby's platform has followed more closely to the tea party ideology than has Mr. Richardson's. Her approach will attract voters in eastern Oregon and parts of Southern Oregon, but is going to fail in Washington and Clackamas Counties, the two battlegrounds that statewide candidates need to capture. Mr. Richardson is not so easily categorized.
Third, Dr. Wehby is running against an incumbent who has made no significant errors. His record in his one term in the Senate is thin, but this is the case for most first-term senators, who don't spealk until their elders speak to them first. She hasn't advanced any compelling reason for Oregon voters to believe that she would be more effective in her first term than Senator Merkley will be in his second.
Mr. Richardson has a more interesting opponent, a physician seeking a fourth term as governor, one of whose major programs was to implement universal health care in Oregon. The Cover Oregon failure needs no retelling here. Its importance is that Mr. Richardson has the advantage of running against an incumbent opponent who tied himself to a specific program and then couldn't implement it on time and on budget. The crash of the Columbia River Crossing, though less tied to the governor, doesn't do Governor Kitzhaber any favors either.
The election is seven weeks away, and a lot can happen in that time. I don't know that Dennis Richardson will defeat Governor Kitzhaber, but I'm confident in saying that the Democrats who treat his campaign and Monica Wehby's as being the same are underestimating him.
I'm underwhelmed by the foofaraw about the indictment of Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, on charges of abusing the power of his office. As I understand the story, the charge stems from an incident last year when the Travis County district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested for driving while intoxicated. She breath-tested at four times the legal limit, was uncooperative with the arresting officers, pled guilty, served a short jail sentence, was fined $4,000, and had her driver's license suspended. Governor Perry said at the time that she should resign and threatened to veto the state measure that financed her office if she would not resign. As it happened, she did not resign -- she continued to draw her salary while jailed -- and returned to her desk when released.
She evidently got busy when she returned to her desk, because it was her office that presented and obtained the indictment of Governor Perry for attempting to use the veto power of his office to pressure her to resign hers, giving the Perry-Lehmberg war the character of a highbrow version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
My Democratic friends, many of whom are chortling at the indictment of Governor Perry, might consider these alternative points of view of the P. and L. statements:
1. Governor Perry rightly opposed having a convicted drunk driver as the district attorney, and tried to get her to resign using a legitimate power of his office.
2 Governor Perry rightly opposed having a convicted drunk driver as the district attorney, but it was unjust of him to threaten to cut her department's budget to persuade her to resign.
3. Governor Perry wrongly opposed having a convicted drunk driver as the district attorney, and should have done nothing to encourage Ms. Lehmberg to resign. Being a convicted drunk driver should not disqualify someone from prosecuting other drunk drivers.
I agree with the first view: Mr. Perry tried to persuade someone unfit for her office to resign, and she is now using the power of her office to try to get revenge. Whether Mr. Perry is fit for higher office is a question for another day, but the indictment doesn't make him less fit for his current office than Rosemary Lehmberg's guilty plea and conviction make her for hers.
As Congress often inadvertently provides comic relief to the public, and comes in for a full meed of satire and derision, it's remarkable to see two conservative Congressional candidates brave enough to advertise their campaigns by doing stand-up political comedy. This unusual event (the promoters say it's the first time ever that candidates have tried to raise funds by being intentionally funny) happens tomorrow evening at Harvey's Comedy Club, under the name of Standup for the Constitution. James Buchal (Republican candidate for the Third District, running against Earl Blumenauer, shown in this video) and Jason Yates (Republican candidate for the First District, running against Suzanne Bonamici). I don't know Rep. Bonamici's sense of humor, but Rep. Blumenauer's ability to be self-deprecatory might give Mr. Buchal some challenges to equal; some years ago when Rep. Blumenauer was on the ballot three times in one year he cheerfully used the slogan "Vote Earl, Vote Often."
A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court held, in a case called Hobby Lobby after one of the parties, that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA, pronouced "Riff-ra") prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from requiring three closely-held corporations to purchase health insurance for their employees that covered methods of contraception that violated the sincerely-held religious beliefs of their owners. HHS already allowed religious corporations to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage against the principles of the relevant religion, and the court found that HHS could easily allow for-profit businesses owned by religions persons to similarly opt out. Corporations, the court said, are "persons" protected by RFRA. Here is the first money quote from the opinion:
As we will show, Congress provided protection for people like the Hahns and Greens by employing a familiar legal fiction: It included corporations within RFRA's definition of "persons." But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people. For example, extending Fourth Amendment protection to corporations protects the privacy interests of employees and others associated with the company. Protecting corporations from government seizure of their property without just compensation protects all those who have a stake in the corporations' financial well-being. And protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies.
In holding that Conestoga, as a "secular, for-profit corporation," lacks RFRA protection, the Third Circuit wrote as follows:
"General business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion. They do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously-motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors." 724 F. 3d, at 385 (emphasis added).
All of this is true - but quite beside the point. Corporations, "separate and apart from" the human beings who own, run, and are employed by them, cannot do anything at all.
The court is saying that Hobby Lobby and the other two businesses do not have religious freedom rights of their own; their right to religious freedom is merely derivative of the rights of their shareholders, officers, and employees.
Now for the second money quote from the court's opinion:
Finally, HHS contends that Congress could not have wanted RFRA to apply to for-profit corporations because it is difficult as a practical matter to ascertain the sincere "beliefs" of a corporation. HHS goes so far as to raise the specter of "divisive, polarizing proxy battles over the religious identity of large, publicly traded corporations such as IBM or General Electric."
These cases, however, do not involve publicly traded corporations, and it seems unlikely that the sort of corporate giants to which HHS refers will often assert RFRA claims. HHS has not pointed to any example of a publicly traded corporation asserting RFRA rights, and numerous practical restraints would likely prevent that from occurring. For example, the idea that unrelated shareholders - including institutional investors with their own set of stakeholders - would agree to run a corporation under the same religious beliefs seems improbable.
Now recall to mind the Citizens United case from 2010. In that case the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment, and specifically the provision that protects the right to speak freely, prohibits the government from limiting the amount of money that corporations and labor unions can spend on independent political advertising. (The ruling did not strike down limits on corporate and union contributions to campaigns and candidates.) Put another way, in 2010 the Supreme Court held that corporations and unions, both large and small, could form and express opinions about political candidates that the First Amendment's free speech provision would protect. Now, in 2014, the Supreme Court has held that only closely-held corporations with a handful of shareholders can form opinions about religion. That is, according to the Supreme Court any corporation can form an opinion about Jeff Merkley or Monica Wehby that the First Amendment protects, but only a closely-held corporation can form a protected opinion about the strictures of Leviticus. The court's retreated, in a small way, from its statement in Citizens United that the First Amendment grants the right to corporations and unions to spend what they like to support or oppose candidates independently of the views of their shareholders and members. I don't think the majority meant to say that, but say it they did.
New Jersey has achieved an unexpected level of political scandal, the result of an incident in which officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency, blocked several lanes leading from Fort Lee, New Jersey to tollbooths at the George Washington Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River to connect New Jersey to the north end of Manhattan. (The bridge is the north end of the New Jersey Turnpike, but is operated by the Port Authority.)
It has transpired that aides to Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, told the Port Authority to block the lanes in order to create traffic snarls in Fort Lee and punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing Governor Christie's re-election bid. Still unknown to the public is whether Governor Christie (a) proposed the plan, (b) approved the plan when his aides thought it up, or (c) did not know about it in advance, but was pleasantly surprised after the fact by how well it worked.
This scandal includes many of the elements that scandalologists love to study: hundreds of e-mails, a second-rate explanation (the lanes were blocked, the governor's aides said, for a traffic study that the Port Authority didn't know about), a pugnacious press conference, a few fired aides, and a legislative investigation. But the scandal is significant for another reason: it may hint at New Jersey's emergence into the realm of cleaner politics.
Why? Consider this. In all the kerfluffle over the governor's aides ordering the Port Authority to block the lanes, no one's suggested that they did anything illegal. This scandal lacks any suggestion of money, sex, drugs, corruption, organized crime, violence, or graft. It's actually a scandal that would fit well with Portland's laid-back character, the only difference being that here we block lanes with concrete barriers and leafy trees instead of with orange plastic cones. And when our government blocks traffic lanes, they stay blocked.