In mid-June, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and his staff, while driving from Portland to Hood River for a Saturday town hall meeting, were brainstorming ways to protect a federal jobs program that provided training for at-risk youth and fire protection for rural communities in Oregon.
He noted that Kentucky, like Oregon, housed some of these Civilian Conservation Center Job Corps sites and he wondered if Sen. Mitch McConnell might be persuaded to intervene and lobby the White House to restore funding for the program.
While the staff discussed possible strategies to get the Senate Majority Leader on board, Merkley pulled out his cell phone. When the person on the other end answered, Merkley said, "Mitch, this is Jeff Merkley."
Merkley outlined the issue, and the two men agreed to talk more on Monday. By the end of Wednesday, June 19, Merkley had sent out a news release headlined: "Trump Administration Will Keep CCCs Open."
The anecdote, which Merkley shared with the Pamplin editorial board last month, seems entirely at odds with the narrative coming out of Washington, D.C., these days.
After all, here is one of the most progressive members of the Senate, who was calling for President Trump's impeachment in January, direct-dialing the guy in charge of saving Trump's job.
In an era of extreme political polarization, how can two senators, so at odds over the impeachment process, work together?
The answer isn't new. Merkley and McConnell did what elected officials have always done — and are still doing: finding common concerns and working on solutions that match good policy with good politics.
The New York Times' Fixes column recently noted how a pair of Pennsylvania lawmakers — one, a Democrat, the other a Republican — teamed up to pass the country's first Clean Slate Law to help ex-offenders get jobs and housing.
The legislation, which will clear their state's database of the records of low-level crimes committed years ago, is just one example of how both parties are finding common ground on criminal justice reform, the Times reported.
Here in Oregon, we see promise for something similar on a different topic. As recently reported by Portland pollster Adam Davis, in a state where responses to questions often break decidedly urban/rural (or liberal/conservative, or blue/red), new detailed survey data finds that Oregonians have many of the same priorities, regardless of party or ZIP code.
They agree that there's an urgent need to address the related issues of poverty, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.
Of course, finding a common problem is easier than crafting a shared solution. But again, Oregon seems on the verge of doing so.
Many of those attending a housing conference at Portland State University earlier this month said the new statewide law, effectively eliminating single-family zoning in Oregon, is an excellent opportunity to provide the "missing middle" in the state's housing stock.
The concern is that there are not enough market-rate options between subsidized housing and McMansions. In response, House Bill 2001, passed earlier this year, requires that most cities allow a duplex on every lot, and up to four units on some lots within single-family zones.
Fans say the resulting smaller, more affordable units will ease the homeless crisis.
But not everyone is on the same page.
The Portland City Council is considering exceeding the state requirements to allow higher "residential infill" within its city limits. Meanwhile, some city officials in the state's two most affluent suburbs are talking openly about defying the state law (in West Linn) or limiting its effect with steep demolition fees (in Lake Oswego).
We understand that the end of single-family zoning will have a significant impact on neighborhoods, and that it is local elected officials who will field the inevitable complaints.
However, as seen in statewide surveys, there is broad agreement in Oregon that we need more affordable housing. We believe there are ways to comply with the law and address residents' concerns. It will, in some cases, require elected officials to seek some middle ground.
That kind of real estate may seem elusive in these days of political polarization, but if Jeff Merkley and Mitch McConnell can find it, so can community leaders in Oregon.
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