Democrats in Oregon are in charge and they need to govern to stop the string of failures

At the Capitol, Portland City Hall and elsewhere, progressives are jeopardizing their ability to advance Oregon causes

December 17, 2021 6:00 am
Oregon State Seal Capitol

June 1 is the deadline to apply for the Translation Advisory Council. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

It used to be that progressives were criticized for trying to do too much or move too fast. Now, the criticisms I hear are all about not getting things done or responding too slowly to the demands of the moment.

I’m not thinking of the Biden administration, still in its first year, but of the challenges that progressive Democrats in control of the Oregon Legislature, the governor’s office and our largest city have created for themselves over the past several years.

No matter who’s is in charge of government at any level, missteps make headlines, while corrections go largely unnoticed. But what we’re seeing now goes deeper than headlines. Failures have multiplied, with little acknowledgement from those in charge that fixes are overdue.

Some of these failures affect the basic responsibilities of government, from the routine (like keeping our streets safe) to the urgent (like getting relief checks out on time). Others are more about moving an agenda. Turning a “To Do” list into a “Done” list is the key to advancing progressive change.

But, at the state level, a new family leave program enacted in 2019 is struggling to get off the ground by late 2023 – an extended gestation period that The Oregonian calculates will cost young families close to half a billion dollars in the interim.

News of this delay followed last year’s long-running failure to deliver unemployment benefits to those who lost their jobs at the onset of the pandemic and more recent problems with landlord and renter relief. Help delayed hurts not only those who wait in frustration for what they’ve been promised but everyone on the front lines of public service, whose reputations suffer when their managers dither and fail to deliver.

Note to the Legislature after this week’s special session: You’re getting kudos for passing more relief budgets. Please make sure that the money you approved is delivered quickly and spent well. Audits will help, but they’ll tell you what went wrong in the past. Someone needs to make sure you’re getting it right this time.

Then, there’s Portland, where examples range from the troubling to the tragic. A year-old voter mandate to establish a new police oversight board is being shuffled through a maze of committees. Homelessness worsens while the city, county and Metro struggle to deploy one of the richest per capita budgets in the country for tackling that problem.

Voters will become increasingly cynical if they don’t see timely results in their own lives and communities.

We can’t blame hyper-partisanship for these failures. The state programs and goals I cited above were supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. And Portland has become a nominal one-party city, although it has its own set of challenges managing 50 shades of blue.

Even more concerning is that when problems arise, those in charge haven’t handled them well. The governor’s office responded only belatedly to the delay of the family leave program – with plans for a monthly oversight committee. On the same issue, a legislative leader didn’t so much as pass the buck as toss it aside: “We pass the laws and then we turn it over to the agencies to implement.” But there was no mention of the governor’s responsibility for getting the agencies to do their job.

And there was this response from Portland’s mayor, when asked to explain the year-long delay in standing up the new police oversight board: “We only have one chance to do this right.” No, you’ll have many chances to do it and redo it as needed, but you have to start somewhere.

Whatever the causes of the failures and delays, the effects are predictable.

One is a diminishing confidence in progressive agendas. If all we hear about are dollar amounts, whether the billions in pandemic relief secured last year or the millions approved for renters and landlords in this week’s special session, voters will become increasingly cynical if they don’t see timely results in their own lives and communities.

Another is the outsourcing of sensible politics to privately-organized groups, like People for Portland. Their advocacy, although criticized as the product of a “dark money” cabal, is focused on doing things that most Portlanders want done.

Still another effect will play out in next year’s gubernatorial election. I can’t imagine that any of the candidates will campaign on the competence of the current administration, even in the Democratic primary.

Among the Democrats, this could be a defining issue. We won’t see much difference in their policy agendas. But we should be watching for signs of who is willing to acknowledge past failures and can offer plausible plans for getting things done.

In the end, progressives will only do better by governing better.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.