Interview with Zoë Carpenter on GOP's Oregon Power Grab

July 19th 2019

 
Oregon State Senator Brian Boquist ( Oregon Department of Transportation )

Oregon State Senator Brian Boquist (Oregon Department of Transportation)

FAIR

Janine Jackson interviewed Zoë Carpenter about the GOP’s Oregon power grab for the July 12, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson:The bizarre experience in Oregon last month, in which Republican lawmakers fled the senate—and the state—to prevent the quorum necessary for a vote on climate legislation, might have looked, as our guest writes, like a bit of “Wild West political theater.” But in truth, it’s a deeply unfunny story about the power of corporate interests and a small group of ideologues to squash legislation more than a decade in the making.

Zoë Carpenter reported on the story behind the stunt in Oregon for The Nation, where she’s associate Washington editor. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Zoë Carpenter.

Zoë Carpenter:Thanks for having me.

JJ: Even as it seemed like absurdist theater, the Oregon standoff was scary: One GOP Senator Brian Boquist now has to give 12 hours’ notice before he shows up at the capitol, because of threats that he made, including, after Gov. Kate Brown suggested sending state police to bring back the runaway lawmakers, and Boquist said that they should “send bachelors and come heavily armed.” He also told the senate president, on the senate floor, “If you send the state police to get me, Hell is coming to visit you personally.” That’s scary.

But the implications of the situation, as you report it, are as disturbing in terms of what they say about people’s ability to respond legislatively to climate disruption. So what was, first of all, the legislation that was going to be voted on in Oregon?

ZC: The legislation was essentially a cap-and-trade bill. It was often referred to as “cap-and-invest” legislation, because the revenue that would have been raised through the carbon marketplace would have been reinvested in a variety of different areas, including jobs program in communities that are most affected by climate change, and in some infrastructure, in particular in rural areas.

So the largest polluting companies in Oregon would have been required to buy credits for their carbon pollution. And then that limit on their pollutions would gradually be ratcheted down, to either lower their emissions or purchase more credits, on a regional exchange that includes California and some Canadian provinces.

JJ: Oregon does have a kind of particularly swampy situation, you might say, in terms of corporate/political coziness, yeah?

ZC: Yeah, it’s actually pretty striking. In contrast to Oregon’s reputation as a sort of liberal hippie paradise, the state actually has incredibly weak campaign finance laws. So, for example, there are no limits on what corporations and individuals can contribute to candidates. And there are only four other states in the entire US that are so permissive. One of the results of that has been that Oregon environmental laws are actually much weaker than neighboring states, California and Washington.

JJ: The storytelling can be unhelpfully reductive. The bill’s opponents ran a line of, as one sheriff was quoted:

This state was built by the timber industry and by farms, ranchers, construction and other blue-collar industries, not on coffee businesses and marijuana dispensaries.

But sometimes news media can cast things almost as crudely, and your piece, I think it’s interesting that it underscores that there aren’t really any monolithic players here. It’s more complicated than that. How so?

ZC: I think in terms of the general narrative that you hear, it’s generally painted as an urban vs. rural story. And to some extent, it is true that most of the support for this bill came from the more liberal, urban areas of Oregon—you know, the Portland to Eugene corridor, essentially. But there were lots of businesses that operate in rural areas—for example, some major forest donors—who were supportive of the legislation.

And another thing that got lost is what the bill actually could have done for rural areas in terms of the reinvestment dollars. And, of course, in terms of the broader goal to limit the damage from climate change, which will impact rural areas and constituents in pretty serious ways.

When you have a bill that’s this complicated—it’s a pretty technocratic approach to climate policy-making—your communication strategy has to be really clear. And I think there was a lot of disinformation that was allowed to persist, regarding the impacts on rural places.

JJ: Key for me in your piece was this sentence:

The villains in this narrative are out-of-touch Democrats using their legislative supermajority to run roughshod over loggers, ranchers and other working people, while the corporations actually affected by the regulation are largely invisible.

I think from a narrative perspective, from a media perspective, if you’re leaving out the most powerful actors, if you’re leaving out corporations, and just making it kind of ranchers vs. latte drinkers, you’re really telling the story wrong, in a fundamental way.

ZC: Yeah, it’s missing, basically, the infrastructure of power that makes this kind of legislation either pass or not. For example, I write about one CEO, Andrew Miller, who runs a big timber company. He is one of the largest Republican donors in Oregon. He’s spent many, many years trying to use his money to affect state politics — largely ineffectively, when it comes to electing his allies. But in this case, his influence was not often mentioned.

But there are ties between him and a so-called grassroots group, called Timber Unity, that does appear to have a lot of membership among people that work in the forest products industry, among other industries, many of whom are his employees. So the connection between him and his influence, and this so-called grassroots group, that’s an example of something that was not really covered in media portrayals of this conflict, but that, I think, was actually very important.

JJ: And it’s going to be very important, looking at those connections going forward, because, as you say, this legislation is going to be complicated; you know, responding to climate disruption is not going to be simple. And so we’re going to need people to parse it in a way that’s helpful. The sort of thing that happened in Oregon, with the running away to neighboring states, doesn’t happen often. It’s not unique, but it doesn’t happen often.

But it is frightening to think that people might look on this as a viable tactic: If you don’t get your way legislatively, you run away and shut things down and, in the case of these Republicans, threaten actual physical violence against people who might try to get things running again.

And the thing is, it seemed to work. I mean, the bill died, isn’t that right?

ZC: Yeah, that’s correct. Walkouts have been used by both parties in recent years.

JJ: Right.

ZC: Democrats in Wisconsin, for example. I think what was notable and different here were the threats of violence that accompanied the walkout.

JJ: Yeah.

ZC: And the fact that the legislation that they were walking out over did have broad public support.

One final point I’ll make is that Democrats were also at fault here. There were three holdout Democrats in the Senate. And, honestly, once the walkout ended, the Democrats could have called the vote on the legislation, but it wouldn’t have passed, because of those three holdout Democrats. All three of them have stronger ties to corporations than many of their colleagues, including one in particular who was concerned about the legislation’s impact on Boeing, even though Boeing would not directly be affected by this emissions cap.

JJ: I read a piece by Carolyn Kormann in the New Yorker about the Oregon standoff. And she said, yes, but if you look around, there are other good signs of progress in the 2018 midterms; more than 600 candidates on all levels were elected who had clean energy in their platforms, and six states have just done what Oregon did not do, which is follow through on what voters supported and pass major climate legislation.

So I guess another thing I would say for journalism is, it’s probably helpful to not just put a gloss on it, but to look at what’s happening in different states and different tactics and things like that, in terms of not just telling the story in a more granular way, but also in a more kind of hopeful way, that things are happening differently in different places.

ZC: I don’t think journalists should go looking for hope, unless it’s real, you know?

JJ: Right.

ZC: I think the enormity of the challenge that we’re facing is really severe, and we should be scared about that. But yes, it is very helpful to hear about the different tactics that are working or not working in other places.

JJ: Yeah, I just think the urgency is such that the point of parsing these setbacks should be, “How do we do it differently going forward?” I mean, that to me, that’s the response to urgency as well. I don’t want feel-goodism. But, golly, we can’t pull up the covers.

ZC: To your point, I mean, looking at the structural barriers to progress is important. I think we talk a lot about the political barriers, whether we’re electing people who believe that climate change is an urgent issue, and want to do something about it. That’s one issue. But then, once those people get elected, what are the structures in place that will or will not allow them to actually move forward on those policies? At the federal level, the filibuster in the Senate may become a huge issue after 2020, depending on who gets elected.

JJ: That’s an excellent point.

We’ve been speaking with Zoë Carpenter, associate Washington editor at The Nation.You can find her recent article, “Behind Oregon’s GOP Walkout Is a Sordid Story of Corporate Cash,” online at TheNation.com. Thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Zoë Carpenter.

ZC: Thanks for having me.

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