An alarming account of how a 2-year-old broke a political logjam in Oregon

Sometimes, it takes just a little down time to remind officials what’s important, how to check the impulse to fight

January 18, 2022 5:45 am

Little known fact: my son, at age 2, played a role in ending an exceedingly long and ugly battle over the state budget during the June 2002 special session of the Oregon Legislature.

This was the third special session that year and up to that point was one of the longest in Oregon’s history. The sessions had been called by Gov. John Kitzhaber to address an ever-deepening fiscal hole created by the 2001 recession. Each special session that year had been protracted and ugly and this one, in the middle of summer, was the worst.

Lawmakers had withdrawn into seemingly intractable partisan positions. Neither side was listening let alone talking to the other. Instead, there were daily press conferences, with each group touting their solutions and then retreating to their offices, steaming over the other side’s lack of sensibility.

So how did my 2-year-old end this deadlock?

First, some backstory.

In 2002, I was in my seventh year as a statehouse reporter. I started my career just after then-Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich put out his “Contract with America” and declared that Republicans were in a “war” not against poverty or crime or environmental catastrophe, but against Democrats. Democrats, he told anyone within earshot, were not just opponents, but enemies.

His rhetoric landed on CSPAN and the front pages of newspapers, driving a stake into the heart of democratic institutions across the country. From California to Maine, politicians abandoned patience and compromise and adopted a political stratagem driven by animus and a cutthroat competition for control and power.

Gone were the days when Oregon legislators, Republicans and Democrats, would meet at Magoos Sports Bar and hash out differences, days that former Gov. Vic Atiyeh, a Republican, once described to me as “filled with people who were not afraid to come together to get things done for Oregonians.”

Instead, the aisle that cut through the House and Senate chambers became a kind of crocodile filled creek, and woe be it to anyone who dared stick their toe in that water.

So, there we were. A $900 million deficit and no one willing to work on a compromise.

That’s when my son, who had basically grown up in that Capitol, thinking the entire building as “mama’s office,” did something any child might do when their mother is distracted. He put his hand on the bright red object on the wall, grabbed its handle and pulled in the direction of the arrow.

At the sound of the fire alarm, I sighed.

“Someone had kept popcorn in the microwave too long,” I thought. It was a common problem. Knowing we’d probably get an “all clear” in a moment, I turned to go back into my office to finish the day’s story. That’s when I saw my son’s hand on the fire alarm.

I didn’t know who to call or what to do, so I just grabbed Elijah’s hand and we joined the group of people filing out of the building.

Outside, the weather was beautiful, the sun rich and warm. Elijah watched the fire trucks arrive while I looked around trying to figure out who to apologize and explain.

That’s when I noticed something. The stiff faces I’d watched for 19 days were loosening up. People were looking at the sky. They were even talking to one another. Smiles started to appear. By the time we got the all clear, people were walking back into the building in unsegregated groups.

Later that day, a budget compromise was announced and approved and the session came to a close.

And that’s how a 2-year-old innocently got 90 partisan politicians to see that holding so ardently onto a single position was not just bad politics or bad for the state, it was bad for their health.

They needed fresh air and they needed to lose their grimaces and remember that politics is not the art of war, it is the art of finding a middle ground.

That’s my hope for next month’s short session.

No walk outs, no stalling on critical issues: workforce training and development, changes to mandatory sentencing, and legislation geared to help prevent criminals from getting guns.

Politicians need to put some planks across that crocodile creek. They need to model the behavior we were all taught when we were young. Talk out your differences. Don’t be a bully. Listen more than you speak.

And for heaven’s sake, get outside and play.

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Naseem Rakha

Naseem Rakha is a former public radio reporter, news show host and commentator. She is an author of the novel "The Crying Tree," which was inspired by her time covering two executions in Oregon. Naseem spends her time hiking, climbing, rafting and photographing areas throughout the American West.