For those outside Oregon’s urban areas, the urban-rural issue is an opportunity for next governor

Listening sessions to help the press report on the Oregon governor’s race triggered engaging conversations

March 15, 2022 5:30 am

A sign on a desk in the House at the Oregon state Capitol on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Recent listening sessions with Oregonians about the governor’s race were revealing.

Common themes emerged, no matter the location in the state or the political leanings of those participating.

These people are very alert to the urban-rural divide. They see opportunity but want a governor who gets out of Salem more.

These are people who don’t care much about party labels or party positions. They are looking for someone who can be governor of all Oregonians.

They aren’t too interested in political scandals.

And they have clear ideas what they want from Oregon’s press during this campaign season.

Through February and March, four sessions of what we called “Let’s Talk” were held via Zoom. About a dozen people gathered each time, a different cast from different areas of the state.

The intent was twofold.

One was for those of us at Oregon Capital Chronicle and other media to find out what Oregonians want to know about the people who would be governor (more than 30 want the job).

The second was to find out how Oregon reporters could better serve that information.

This was an experiment, asking for help planning press coverage. To make these sessions a success required work in a lot of quarters.

The Capital Chronicle teamed up with Rural Development Initiatives, an Oregon nonprofit sharply focused on helping build and sustain rural areas of the state. The other partner was the Agora Journalism Center in Portland, part of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.

The invitation to participate went out from all these organizations, but we had a huge assist from media outlets from all over the state. News sources from Klamath Falls to Yachats to Bend to Pendleton also alerted their readers to these “Let’s Talk” sessions and how to join in. The Pamplin group of newspapers, anchored by the Portland Tribune, helped as did public radio such as Jefferson Public Radio in southern Oregon.

We weren’t expecting a scientifically representative group. The crew at Rural Development Initiatives – Jennifer Groth, Jessica Black and Lauren Kolojejchick-Kotch – did work through the submissions to create groups with geographical and political balance. For the Portland session, Andrew DeVigal and Regina Lawrence of the Agora Journalism Center took on that chore.

Moderated by Groth, each online session lasted about an hour. The participants worked through a few questions and the time passed quickly. The participants were respectful and thoughtful. No one got on a political soapbox to push any ideology. They actually seemed to bond over the hour, though they had never met.

They came to these sessions from all corners of Oregon ­– the northeast, the Klamath Basin, the southern coast, and the Portland area.

To a person, they love Oregon – and worry about the future of the state.

Those outside of Portland are hoping the next governor will take a more evident interest in rural areas of the state.

That urban-rural divide has been a common refrain since the founding of the state. Those who live any distance from the seat of political power (Salem) or economic power (Portland) can feel left behind, if not left out.

For the participants, this divide was very real. This wasn’t some political talking point from rural politicians. This wasn’t some rabid table-pounding demand to be cut loose to shift to Idaho. They live the divide every day in their communities.

What does that look like?

For these participants, several remarked on the lack of opportunity. They don’t think state government sends enough help – money, mostly – to rural areas.

They see their communities as capable of solving their own problems. No one wanted the next governor to ride into town with saddle bags stuffed with solutions. They want a governor to understand the real distinctions of rural life ­– why it is attractive for many, how its cadence differs from urban areas.

Several speakers remarked that rural communities are particularly skilled at addressing community needs. “Resilient” was one description applied several times. By that, they seemed to mean that they were willing to do the work needed to fix whatever needed fixing. They just needed a few more of the tools that urban areas get to do so. They want the next governor to deliver.

What they also want is a governor and state leaders who will listen to them. Several remarked that it would do wonders to have a governor get out of Salem more. They want genuine engagement, not just a whistlestop tour through a Rotary Club luncheon or a contrived “community meeting.”

They think the next governor would learn a thing or two in far corners of Oregon that could be shared elsewhere – even in the cities. Rural communities don’t need or want those in Salem to come up with a single solution to, say, grade school reading problems, and insist that every part of the state use that solution. They want adaptability, more freedom to conceive answers that serve the people in the community the best.

So, for those 30 people running for governor, heed the message. Rural Oregon may not have the mass of votes to be coveted by any politician. But a governor who shows genuine interest in what happens in Lakeview or Ashland or Newport or The Dalles likely will find not only support, but perhaps an unexpected source of help to govern.

And in a future commentary, I’ll describe more about what participants want from candidates ­– and the next governor.

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Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.