Editor’s Notebook: Merkley off to a good start with openess, accessibility

Imagine my surprise when I answered the telephone on my desk and heard, “Vicki, this is Senator Jeff Merkley.”

There had been no staff member on the phone first, telling me Merkley would be coming on the line. It was the new Oregon senator himself. That’s unusual — and far from an everyday event around here.

I was especially surprised because the senator was scheduled to be in Roseburg within a few days for a town hall meeting. I figured any contact with the media would take place then.

But Merkley was calling to brief me before the meeting on his committee assignments and the economic stimulus bill the Senate had just passed. We spent nearly 30 minutes on the phone. He seemed to be following a script of main points to hit on, but he kept it conversational and gave me the opportunity to ask questions. We talked until he was a few minutes late for his next meeting.

Though it had been a good interview, I still wanted to attend Merkley’s town hall meeting last Tuesday to see who turned out, what kind of questions they would ask and how the senator would field them.

I admit I had been skeptical of Merkley during his senatorial campaign. It seemed suspect that someone who hadn’t lived in Douglas County since elementary school would suddenly trot out the “son of a millwright and born in Myrtle Creek” persona. Some of my South County friends were scratching their heads wondering if their rural upbringing had become cool. Or was this guy just trying to pull a slightly conservative sheet over his liberal Portland philosophies?

Standing in front of a lectern at the Douglas County Museum last Tuesday, Merkley seemed quite sincere as he celebrated the fact the Dairy Queen is still in the same location in Myrtle Creek while he lamented the loss of the A&W in Roseburg. He also recalled climbing on the locomotive in Stewart Park when he attended first grade in Roseburg.

So he does have memories of his days in Douglas County, and he truly seems to see himself as a Southern Oregon son. As the town hall meeting began, he pointed out it has been 50 years since anyone from Southern Oregon served in Congress.

He was also keeping a campaign promise with his local appearance. Our own longtime government and politics reporter John Sowell challenged Merkley to hold his first town hall meeting in Douglas County. Merkley followed through and even obliged Sowell by signing the “left” door of the reporter’s credenza, a cast-off of state Capitol furniture that had been an issue in campaign ads.

The town hall audience pitched a variety of questions and suggestions at Merkley, including the need to map the Oregon coastline, provide aid to commercial salmon fishermen and require the government to hire wildland fire timber fallers who have workers compensation insurance. The fight against global warming, world poverty and AIDS, and the high cost of health care were other issues that came up.