Commentary

Kotek might consider a century-old example to unify Oregon

One of the biggest challenges facing the governor-elect is unifying the fractured state

December 7, 2022 5:30 am

Gov.-elect Tina Kotek has promised to visit Oregon communities to bring the state closer together. (Jordan Gale/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Nearly a century ago, one of Oregon’s smallest communities was declared “the capital of the United States all day long,” at least as an honorific.

On that day, July 2, 1923, President Warren Harding, who was then on a transcontinental train ride (from which he wouldn’t return to Washington alive), stopped his train at the small Blue Mountains community of Meacham. Before rolling on west to Pendleton, he stayed there for eight hours and 20 minutes, spoke to a crowd and local officials, and made the highly informal declaration which, no doubt, delighted the assembled Oregonians. 

The event did not transform Meacham, which today is a smaller community than it was a century ago. But It made a connection, and brought people far from a metropolis together with the leadership of the nation. In its small way, it helped to unify. 

Something like that is one part of what Tina Kotek, the governor-elect of Oregon, has promised to do once she takes off: bring together, at least to some greater degree, the many often splintered parts of Oregon. One way she could do that is follow Harding’s example: Travel around the state and declare some of the far-flung communities in it Capital for a Day.

Okay. It’s something of a gimmick and a stunt. But taken seriously and handled with care it can be more than that, especially if it becomes institutionalized and expected, the way Sens. Ron Wyden’s and Jeff Merkley’s annual county town hall gatherings have become. And there’s plenty of past experience to help Kotek do it properly.

Idaho’s governors, for one nearby example, have been holding capitals for a day around that widely scattered state for decades (somewhat interrupted by the pandemic). The governor’s website there says, “By bringing members of the governor’s cabinet to a rural town in a different Idaho county every month, residents are able to address their issues directly with the governor and his administration for an entire day. Idahoans are encouraged to ask questions, share their opinions, and seek answers from state agencies.” The events usually draw significant crowds. 

Typically, they’re held in some of the smaller communities in the state, usually hours from the state capital of Boise. Most recently, they’ve been held in Ammon, Rexburg, Troy, Driggs, Cascade, Parma, Glenns Ferry and Rathdrum, places that often don’t see a lot of statewide officials. 

Idaho didn’t invent the idea; governors around the nation have been employing capital for a day for decades as a way of bringing state officials and a scattered constituency together. 

In July 2001, New York Gov. Governor George Pataki signed a proclamation and declared “Batavia’s now the official capital of New York,” albeit for a day – but it was a day of conversation. That was the first such occasion in that state, but it was followed by a string of others. His successor, Andrew Cuomo, kept up the new tradition.

In 2008, Minnesota Gov. ernor Tim Pawlenty declared a group of small cities around that state as capitals for a day: Bemidji, Thief River Falls, Detroit Lakes, New Ulm and Winona.

In Florida, that state’s long-ago capital, St. Augustine, in 2003 joined a long list of communities listed as capital for a day and hosting state officials. 

In 2008, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley launched a similar program including such communities as Salisbury, Hagerstown, Ellicott City, Cumberland and Gaithersburg. 

In Oregon, you could imagine the local impact – and impact on the state – if top state officials came face to face with the folks in places like Condon, Lakeview, Elkton, Cove, Willamina and Toledo, as well as a few that come a little closer to regional centers. With 241 cities in Oregon, there are plenty to choose from.

Especially in the counties that have voted in favor of leaving Oregon and joining Idaho. 

The positive impacts could be deeper, if less immediately spectacular, than President Harding’s long-ago stop at Meacham. 

 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.

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