Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Close Look: Town Hall meeting of State Senator Alan DeBoer

Senator Alan DeBoer seemed nice.  He was reasonable and moderate and empathetic.

There is a cost to that.  Some people will think him wishy-washy and two-faced.

Alan DeBoer
Senator Alan DeBoer had a Town Meeting in downtown Medford.  About 100 people showed up to participate.  Alan DeBoer is an elected State Senator representing a district consisting generally of Ashland, Phoenix, Talent, and Medford, Oregon.   He was elected to finish the term of Senator Alan Bates, who died unexpectedly and suddenly.  DeBoer had positioned himself in the special election last November as a bi-partisan, reasonable "good citizen" Republican.

Let me explain:  there are two major Republican paths. There is a great body of Tea Party type Republicans, and they are currently in ascendancy.  Their tone is anger and resentment and indignation.  They speak harshly of "bureaucrats", i.e. government employees.  They are against things:  abortion, transgender rights, taxes, talk of climate change, bike lanes, government waste, gun control, zoning, Democrats, and government anything.  

Then there is another kind of Republican, one that used to be quite prominent and which frequently won local and statewide office.  They are becoming rarer.   This is a civic-minded good government Republican, with Mark Hatfield, Tom McCall, and Bob Backwood being prominent former members.  They do not speak against government because they were part of it.  Their public presentations are about how to make government work, not how to block its malevolence.  Alan DeBoer had been Ashland Mayor and on the School Board. He was known as a civic benefactor, made possible by his success as owner of car dealerships locally.  He speaks mildly and earnestly.  He wants government to work well and efficiently.

He is--and wants to appear--open and reasonable, someone who sees the complexity of issues and what is possible.  That is his strength, and the source of his weakness.

The audience was mixed in ages.  There were a lot of seniors, plus a contingent of young people motivated by climate issues (stop global warming) and reproductive rights (protect Planned Parenthood.)   From applause generated by different questions and comments from the floor it was evident that 60-65% of the audience was Democratic or progressive or environmentalist.  About 35-40% represented Tea Party Republicanism, with questions that were angry in tone, spoke of "bureaucrats" with a sneer, and government as incompetent.  

DeBoer not affirm those Tea Party Republican questions, nor confront them.  He was polite to them but is clearly not one of them.  He did not mirror their language.   For a civic-minded Republican, government is not the enemy; it is a tool to do good, when done well.   

   ---He said climate change is a real threat and that we need to address it by reducing our use of fossil fuels.

   --He said multiple times we need single payer health care, Medicare for all.  Health insurers, he said, take 30% of the health care dollar, a waste.  He said linking health care to employment is bad for business and bad for the employee.

  --He said we needed a substantial rise in the gasoline tax and would have welcomed a 14 cent increase immediately, not the phased-in plan that was approved.

  --He said we need more and better mental health services, more pediatric psychiatric programs, more programs to help with the affordability of rent, smaller classroom sizes, fulfillment of our contractual obligations to teachers and other government employees in PERS, higher graduation rates from schools.   He agreed with and affirmed every question and comment that said there was a problem and a potential government solution.

Alan DeBoer might appear to have successfully inoculated himself from a challenge from a Democrat in a general election.  He is a "soft target", but not in the sense he is vulnerable.  He is soft in the sense that he accepts all question and comment as reasonable and well intended and a good idea and he would do whatever he could to make it happen.  The only people he clearly disagreed with would be Tea Party Republicans.  

But he created a vulnerability for himself.

DeBoer did not answer concisely.  His response to something about health care would drift into talk about  PERS, about local health care organizations, about taxes, about the construction of a legislative committee.  Answers were endless.   People became impatient and began interrupting with hostile outbursts.    "Aren't you going to answer her question?"   "You're avoiding the question!"  "He asked a yes or no question and you aren't telling us!"

The impatient interruptions reduced the overall impression of openness and accessibility.

Worse for him, the meandering opened up a line of vulnerability for DeBoer.  He demonstrates a kind of political incapacity that comes from seeing nuance, from attempting to be in the good graces of everyone, including his Republican colleagues.

He stressed how important it was that Oregon retain the 1.5% tax on health providers since this funded the Oregon match for a much bigger infusion of federal money to fund the Oregon Health Plan medicaid expansion.  Hospitals and other providers wanted the tax because it brought in more net money.  He said he voted against it, as one of the 10 Republicans who opposed it, but would have voted for it had his vote been necessary.  The tax is very important for Oregon, he said.  

Questions began arising from the floor asking why he voted against something he thought was essential.  He said he was hoping to gain long term credibility with other opponents, and besides, they didn't need my vote.

Democracy on a hot summer day
This clearly stuck in the minds of the audience as duplicitous or suspicious or hypocritical.  It positioned DeBoer as a game-player, not the earnest, sensible, balanced, bi-partisan person he intended.  

There were other instances.   He said he supported the gas tax increase of 14 cents because our roads and other infrastructure need it and because it would be good for the climate.  That is a perfectly reasonable position, one that can be justified by people of various political orientations.  We need roads.   But DeBoer went on to say casually that he now sort of opposes it and wishes he had not voted for any gas tax increase.  

There is more.  He spoke strongly about the need to address climate change but then admitted that he opposed all the various bills in the legislature to create a carbon tax or exchange.   He said we absolutely needed to do something about fixing PERS but said that the legislature didn't get around to it.  He said we needed an overhaul of our tax system, but nothing much was possible.  He said we needed to address the state's corporate tax policy but he thought a gross receipt tax idea was flawed.  He said we absolutely needed a single payer health system, but that he opposed it because it would "break the state."

There were always little things--or not so little--but they created a disconnect between what he said his goals were and what he actually supported or voted for.   He voted against stuff he liked, he didn't sell the things he supported, and he did nothing when he said doing something was essential.   Fortunately for him, only one TV station covered the event.
One TV station covered the event

He has excellent reason to be a disappointment to Tea Party Republicans.  His goals and attitudes are very different from theirs.   But he also presented himself in a way certain to be a disappointment to whatever body of civic-minded citizens exist who generally share his goals and attitudes.  He didn't sell what was possible; he described what did not happen but should have. He was not an advocate; he presented himself as a bystander. 

I do not expect a primary challenge to DeBoer.  Republicans locally are too disciplined and orderly for that, although in fact there could be sharp lines of distinction to be drawn by a Trump-supporting Republican candidate.   DeBoer is no fan of Trump, yet Republicans locally overwhelming supported Trump over Kaisich, a representative of that civic-minded Republican that DeBoer represent.

The Democratic opposition, if one emerges, could argue that DeBoer is a hypocrite and game player, voting against things he admits are important and failing to live up to his responsibility as that bi-partisan bridge to Republicans.   There is a strong Democratic registration edge in the senate district.  As a swing vote--a critical 18th vote in the state senate that would create the necessary super-majority needed to pass tax legislation--DeBoer is uniquely positioned to be an active bi-partisan consensus builder to make the very progress DeBoer says he supports.   But he presented himself as an inconsistent finagler, not a leader.

Possibly this is a one-off mistake, a bit of mistaken presentation at the end of a long, hot day  by a tired man with a demanding day job, and the presentation is reparable because it in fact does not represent reality.   But on the evening of July 25, DeBoer presented himself in a way I am confident he did not intend, as a weak, inconsistent, mushy, flip flopper, an idealist perfectionist unwilling to commit to any actionable idea.  This creates major damage to his brand as a can-do, practical bridge-building businessman.

People had found that brand appealing and a Democratic senate district elected him.  If he does not fill that brand then he leaves a big election opportunity for someone.  

But it may not matter.  Alan DeBoer is an unusually attractive candidate and perhaps he can make errors and get away with it, especially since his errors are those of seeming inoffensive rather than seeming hostile.   Democrats have a turnout problem.  DeBoer does not make people angry.  He may not stimulate turnout  I can easily imagine Democratic and Non-Affiliated voters simply thinking "Alan's OK, nothing to get riled up about."  

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