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Inside Portland (Jul 8th, 2019)

Welcome to the special political takeover issue of Inside Portland. With the 2019 Legislative Session marked by fierce political divides, I thought it would be helpful to take a step back and look at larger political issues and trends that have taken shape in Oregon in recent decades. The newsletter will return as usual on Thursday. – Schuyler

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1. Nature helps out political analysts in Oregon. For a good rule of thumb on how ballots will play out, just look at the Cascade mountain range that runs roughly down the middle of the state. To the left, the densely populated Willamette Valley solidly supports Democrats. To the right is a sparsely populated region where voters support Republicans in near lock-step. While the political differences have existed for a while, some say the divide started rapidly growing in the 1990s, when spotted owl protections pitted environmentalists against timber workers.

There are exceptions to the rule. To the east of the Cascades, Bend has shifted to the left. It's been recognized for its centrist politics for the better part of a decade, and the current mayor is Democrat Sally Russell. To the west of the Cascades, Linn County is one notable exception in the Democratic region. Donald Trump easily took the county in 2016, and Barack Obama lost there by double-digit percentages in both 2008 and 2012. South of the Willamette Valley, but west of the Cascades, counties like Curry, Douglas, and Josephine vote solidly red, too. – NYT

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2. If you know two things about Oregon politics, it's probably the Cascade Divide and the PERS debt crisis. With at least $22 billion in debt and counting, concern for the program is shared by all politicians. Proposed solutions, not so much. Though PERS benefits have been scaled back, public employees in decades past have been able to accumulate massive pension plans. In some extreme cases, employees who worked for decades receive more than $50,000 per month. In May, state lawmakers passed a bill that essentially refinances the PERS debt—creating longer debt payment timelines and increasing the contribution requirements for public employees. While it did pass, some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said it isn't a permanent fix. – OPB

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3. By the Numbers: Population Differences by Region

4.2 million – That's how many people live in Oregon, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.

2 million – That's how roughly many people live in the Portland metro area (Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties). That doesn't include residents of Clark County, Washington, who are usually included in metro area statistics.

653,000 – That's how many people live within Portland city limits.

86.8 percent – That's the percentage of Oregonians that identify as white.

77.4 percent – While still overwhelmingly white, Portland's percentage of white residents is nearly 10 percent smaller.

4 – That's how many of Oregon's Congressional districts fall west of the Cascade Divide. Three of those districts include parts of the Portland metro area.

1 – That's how many districts fall east of the Cascade Divide.

773,718 – That's how many Oregonians live in the 19 counties that make up the one Congressional district east of the Cascade Divide. That number doesn't include a portion of Josephine County, which is split between the 2nd (Eastern Oregon) and 4th (Southern Oregon) districts. – U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

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4. Here in Portland, the divide is perhaps more pronounced between centrist Democrats and liberals, as exemplified by State Rep. Rob Nosse's primary challenge. Nosse's district runs roughly from the Woodstock neighborhood, up to I-84 and west to the Willamette. Many tie his primary challenge to his PERS vote, in which he joined the Democratic caucus in passing a reform bill that included some cuts to public employee pension benefits. His challenger is 23-year-old Paige Kreisman. She's earned an endorsement from Portland's chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is one of the reasons this race is being compared to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D-NY) successful primary challenge last year. – WILLAMETTE WEEK

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5. Portland's chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is itself a new phenomenon. Before the 2016 election, the chapter had just 15 dues-paying members. By November 2017, that number ballooned to 600, and today the group says more than 1,000 Portlanders have joined. Until Paige Kreisman's campaign began roughly a month ago, the group hadn't endorsed any political candidates, but it was very active in protest. They organize their own demonstrations and join up with other causes, including unionization protests at Burgerville and some antifascist events. – WILLAMETTE WEEK

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6. So how far removed are Portlander's values from the rest of the state? It depends on what issue we're talking about. A 2013 survey found that 43 percent of Portlanders self-identify as "very liberal on social issues," compared to just 13 percent throughout the rest of the state. But when it comes to specific issues, there's plenty of common ground. Public education, efforts to simplify the tax code, and environmental protections for air and water enjoy immense popularity throughout the state. – PORTLAND TRIBUNE

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7. While Portland has long been Democratic, it was one much more centrist. This, too, could have resulted from timber regulations around the turn of the 21st century. Portland was once an industrial timber town with a working class that voted Democrat—but only marginally so. – THE OREGONIAN/OREGONLIVE

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8. Two GOP walkouts this year seemed unusually divisive, but it's not an unprecedented move. In fact, Democrats have walked out more often in Oregon's history. However, the move is rare. Republicans walked out in 2007 to quash a tax bill. In 2001, Democrats walked out to protest a Republican plan to redraw Congressional districts without the governor's signature. In 1995, Democrats spent five days on the lam after Republicans refused to create an award named after a Democratic lawmaker. In 1971, Democrats walked out after Republicans killed a bill to lower the voting age to 18, though they returned in less than 24 hours. – STATESMAN JOURNAL

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9. When it comes to campaign finance law, Oregon is still the wild west. We're one of just five states that don't impose any restrictions on campaign donations. Back in the '90s, voters passed a measure that imposed strict limits on campaign dollars, but the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the measure conflicted with the state Constitution and overturned it. Lasting campaign finance reform may have a better chance in 2020. Lawmakers struck a deal last month to include a constitutional amendment on the ballot, though a bill to actually impose limits died in the Senate after passing through the House. – OPB

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10. That campaign finance reform amendment is one of several high-profile measures making their way to the ballot. In addition to campaign finance reform, lawmakers are also sending a tobacco and nicotine tax hike to the ballot. Ballots gathering signatures include a psilocybin measure, which would make it legal to use "shrooms" under supervision at a therapeutic facility. There's also an effort to amend Oregon's cannabis law, making it easier to open the stoner equivalent to bars—sometimes called "cannabis cafes." A proposed corporate tax hike to fund schools is already being cast by critics as a sales tax in disguise. – BALLOTPEDIA

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Schuyler Durham writes Inside Portland and Inside Finance. He’s a lifelong Portlander who got his start covering the local music scene, but later became enamored with the complexities of financial and political reporting. After three years in broadcast news, he's now diving back into the digital realm. You can keep up with his writing on Twitter at @SchuylerWriter or watch him goof around on Instagram at @bitterbuddha.

Editing team: Kim Lyons (Pittsburgh-based journalist and managing editor at Inside), David Stegon (senior editor at Inside, whose reporting experience includes cryptocurrency and technology), and Bobby Cherry (senior editor at Inside, who’s always on social media).

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