Jeff Merkley, the Unquiet American

The junior senator from Oregon orders the peppered chicken and cheese omelet and a Coke. The server says they only have Pepsi. That’s fine. 

Sitting across from Merkley in the low black booth, I order the same $3.25 grilled cheese sandwich President Obama had in 2012, when he hit the Gateway Breakfast House on Portland’s outer east side for a photo op. Pictures on the nondescript diner’s wall show Obama working the room like a master conductor on that sunny July day, all smiles and handshakes.

My grilled cheese seems to be the only thing these two visits share. I meet Merkley on a rainy afternoon in an endless Portland winter. In the parking lot, the 60-year-old Democrat didn’t want to shake hands at all, warning me against a nasty cold that’s plagued him for a week.

The tiny diner is packed and loud. We chat for several minutes while Merkley’s state communications director waits for an open table. No one takes any notice of us. That’s normal, Merkley says. People don’t expect a senator to eat, let alone live, east of 110th Avenue.

Orders placed, I ask the senator why he chose to meet me here. Because he lives close by? He says he’s never been to the Gateway before. His communications director, squeezed into the booth beside him, tells me it was her idea. You know, because of Obama.

Jeff Merkley has been called wooden. That’s unfair. He describes himself as an introvert. He doesn’t smile easily, but he’s not glum or dour. He looks you in the eyes, shoulders slightly stooped. He sometimes gives long, detailed answers, and other times single-word responses. He’s analytical at the expense of charm. He speaks in quotes from remembered conversations, incorporating other voices into his own. When I ask him if he will run for President (and there has been talk, which not long ago would have seemed fantastical), he doesn’t say, “Never say never.” He says, “I guess people say, ‘Never say never.’”

It’s not that he’s emotionless. He’s guarded. When he recounts meeting his wife of 25 years, Mary Sorteberg—then a volunteer at a homeless shelter in the crack-ridden neighborhood of ’80s DC where he lived—he tells me everything right up to the moment of their first encounter, then stops abruptly. When I ask about his faith—he and Mary rarely miss a Sunday service at Central Lutheran—he’s reluctant to elaborate.

“Love others as yourself and put your life to good use,” he says. “That about sums it up.”

But now, this understated figure is having a moment: Merkley has become one of the loudest Trump administration critics in Congress’s upper chamber. Soon after Inauguration Day, he kicked off petitions signed by more than half a million people, demanding an investigation into Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s ties to Russia. He took the lead on the Supreme Court vacancy, becoming the first Democrat to say in the national media that his caucus should filibuster any nominee not named Merrick Garland, the 2016 Obama pick whom Republicans blockaded. In February, Chuck Todd invited Merkley on MSNBC to talk about a surging Democratic “resistance movement.”

“You’re starting to see the Republicans get really worried,” he told Todd, “because they’re seeing this mass reaction that there is no mandate for this president, for his agenda, and for what the Republicans want to do in Congress.”

A few weeks before our meal at the Gateway Breakfast House, Merkley took a stand during the now-infamous “Nevertheless, she persisted” episode. After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prevented Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts from finishing a letter by Coretta Scott King about then-nominee Sessions, Merkley picked up where she left off and read most of the letter aloud. The progressive wing of the Internet roared, and Merkley followed up on Twitter, questioning why his female colleague was censured and he wasn’t.

Vox opined: “Merkley’s speech represented how McConnell’s decision to cut off Warren may have backfired.”

“Senator Jeff Merkley is once again out in front of the resistance to Trump,” reported the political blog Daily Kos more recently.

“I’ve gotten better about being in the spotlight,” Merkley says. “I’ve evolved from ‘Let’s analyze this issue from five different directions.’ People don’t have the patience in modern society to go through all the pros and cons. I’ve gotten more comfortable standing up and leading the parade when that’s the important thing to do.”

On April 4, Merkley took the lead in opposing Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, by holding the Senate floor for more than 15 hours overnight, a prelude to the Republican majority’s vow to “go nuclear” to eliminate Supreme Court filibusters. Even in the face of Gorsuch’s almost inevitable confirmation, Merkley’s insomniac oration was widely lauded. The New York Times called it “a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style filibuster for the digital age—rousing flourishes, meandering detours, encouragement from his Democratic peers on social media.”

Merkley’s concrete legislative successes have tended to lack flash. He maneuvered his way onto the Banking Committee during the economic meltdown of 2009, where he joined Michigan’s Carl Levin to add the so-called “Volcker Rule,” banning high-risk trading at banks, to a Wall Street reform bill; he also fought predatory mortgages. He got Oregon’s protections for breastfeeding on the job into the Affordable Care Act. He is the first Oregon senator since the 1997 retirement of Republican legend Mark Hatfield to serve on the Appropriations Committee, gatekeeper for all discretionary federal spending. He’s especially good at patching overlooked policy flaws—helping save post offices in small towns, or giving border-hugging Oregon farmers the ability to drive wheat across state lines.

Now, however, may not be the time for such fine-tuning. Merkley says he’s alarmed. As we sit down, it’s been another full week of “headscratchers,” as he later puts it. The second iteration of President Trump’s travel ban is on its way. And then, without evidence, Trump accused Obama of wiretapping him during the 2016 campaign.

“That the president turned to Breitbart—that’s a five-alarm fire right there,” Merkley says. “A president who is prone to conspiracy theses, prone to alleviate attention from his own mistakes by attacking others. That’s just on top of the whole enormously divisive strategy he’s brought to his campaign and to his presidency.”

Times have changed. So has Jeff Merkley.

In his eight years in the US Senate, Merkley has accrued a sizable fortune in frequent flier miles with Alaska Airlines.

Almost every Thursday, Merkley leaves the white marbled edifices of American democracy and takes the afternoon flight—always coach—to return to his one-story house in a quiet block on SE 115th Avenue. The airline sometimes tries to push him into a free first-class upgrade.

“If it’s too late to reverse it, I just go down to someone in coach and say, ‘Hey, have you ever flown first class?’” he says. “And they say, ‘No,’ and I say, ‘Well, why don’t you try it out?’ That’s a sweet moment for someone.”

He seems equally luxury-averse on the ground. Merkley bought his house in Mill Park in 1996 with his wife, a nurse at a nearby Providence clinic. His mother and sister also lived in the neighborhood, and he and Mary raised their two kids (now 18 and 21) here; both attended David Douglas High School, as did Merkley. 

“We live very, very simply,” he says.

When they moved in, the neighborhood was different: blue-collar and white. It’s still blue-collar, he says, but no longer white. In 2016, the Mill Park neighborhood had the second-lowest percentage of English-only households in Portland, and one of the highest percentages below the federal poverty line, at 29 percent. Merkley says he has no plan to move.

“Most of the leaders [in the Senate] come from affluent neighborhoods, gated neighborhoods,” he says. “They’re surrounded by people who are successful in society, and don’t see on a regular basis what poor America is all about.”

His core political truth is that he knows that blue-collar didn’t always mean poor. The son of a millwright deeply connected to Oregon’s once-thriving logging industry, Merkley moved to Portland with his family in 1962. They got by on his dad’s single income, he says, which stretched for both his college education and family vacations. In high school, Merkley went to a rural village in Ghana—he had requested Africa—as an exchange student, where he saw debilitating poverty firsthand.

“My [exchange] family was middle class by virtue of owning a bicycle,” he says, “and getting to rent a house with three concrete rooms and an outdoor water supply. It was a big improvement on living in a complete shack.”

His political ambitions first flickered as a sophomore at David Douglas, where he had forged an identity as, as he puts it, a “math and science nerd.” One day, he was sitting in the library when the class president—whose name, Mike Meadows, the senator vividly recalls—asked him to sign his petition for the next school election.

“Mike had been class president every year since middle school,” Merkley says. “And I said, ‘OK, Mike, I’ll sign it, but you gotta treat me right or I’ll run against you.’ He started laughing and said something like, ‘Like you’d ever have a chance.’ And I thought, why do we let these popular kids run student government when they never get anything done? So, I marched down and got my petition.”

Merkley’s fellow math and science nerds all thought he was crazy. Nevertheless, he persisted. The juniors and seniors occupied a separate building of the high school complex; he campaigned vigorously in his own building of younger kids, which he correctly predicted the entrenched incumbent would ignore. More than 40 years later, the outcome brings a smile to his face: “I crushed him. I crushed him. Crushed him.”

As an international relations student at Stanford during the 1976 bicentennial summer, Merkley interned for Sen. Mark Hatfield, one of the midcentury progressive Republicans who forged Oregon’s political identity. He says the experience still informs his work.

“I saw public policy in action,” he says. “I was monitoring the floor, briefing Senator Hatfield on the amendments, telling him about what people were writing about, and drafting letters to constituents about tax concerns. [It was] a lot of substance.”

After getting a master’s from Princeton, Merkley bounced around DC, working in strategic nuclear weapons policy. In 1991, he returned to Oregon to work for Habitat for Humanity, eventually becoming president of the World Affairs Council of Oregon, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about international issues.

In 1998, he decided to run for his east Portland district’s open Oregon House seat. Fighting a four-way Democratic primary, with no staff or polling, Merkley was written off. (“Everyone told me, you are losing, you’re gonna get destroyed, you’re not visible.”) While his opponents illegally plastered public thoroughfares with campaign signs, Merkley spent weeks jogging from door to door, asking people to stick a Merkley sign in their front yards.

I think everyone already knows I’m not a particularly charismatic leader. But I can build institutions. I can get the fundamentals right.

“I couldn’t drive down the main streets of these neighborhoods during the campaign because all I saw were my opponents’ signs,” he says. “But if you turned off the main streets I had a sign about every block in somebody’s yard.” Merkley, again, crushed them.

By the end of the 2003 legislative session, still earning a paycheck at the World Affairs Council, Merkley grew frustrated with political stagnation in Salem, then split between a Republican legislature and Democratic governor. He wondered if he should commit even more time to the low-paid, part-time duties of a rank-and-file legislator. “I said to Mary, ‘Maybe I should quit my day job,’” he recalls. “And Mary said, ‘Either way you go, I’m behind you.’ What you’d expect a spouse to say is, ’We have two small children. Grow up!’ But Mary said, ‘We’ll make it work whichever way.’”

A spot in the House Democratic leadership emerged that same year. He won it, tasked to change how the party raised funds, recruited candidates, and worked with consultants. In 2006, those reforms bore fruit, he says, as the Democrats retook the Oregon House. Merkley was raised unanimously to Speaker. From there, it took one more victory to propel him to the US Senate. In 2008, Merkley rode a national Democratic wave and Oregon’s continuing march to the left to defeat Sen. Gordon Smith, at that point the state’s last significant Republican standing, by 3 percentage points—becoming the first to unseat an incumbent Oregon senator since 1968, when Bob Packwood beat Wayne Morse.

In the years since, Merkley has assembled one of the Senate’s most liberal voting records, ranking right alongside lefty darlings Bernie Sanders and Warren. Another ranking, meanwhile, stuck him in the bottom quarter of the Senate in terms of “leadership.”

“I think everyone already knows I’m not a particularly charismatic leader,” he says. “But I can build institutions. I can get the fundamentals right.

“I see myself as a fighter for ordinary people,” he adds, when I ask him what separates him from other liberals. “Most of my colleagues, they come from elite backgrounds. They’re surrounded by the powerful and are heavily influenced by them. But I come from a background of knowing that we’re not doing well as a nation. The successful don’t need me to help make them more successful. That’s not going to make the world a better place.”

The days of 2009, when Merkley took office alongside Obama, feel like an eternity ago. The brief ascendency of progressive optimism has, for many Democrats, given way to a defensive stand against energized conservatism, with everything from the Paris climate accords to Meals on Wheels on the table (or chopping block). Even so, Merkley doesn’t think bipartisanship is dead—in fact, he claims Trump-sown panic can be found on both sides of the aisle.

“There is a sense of confusion and distress,” he says. “Republicans have waited a long time to consolidate power in all of the branches of government. They don’t know what to do with it. They’re at odds with each other.”

The Democratic landscape, too, has changed. Early in 2016, Merkley became the first, and only, sitting US senator to endorse Sanders for president, a move that eventually kicked up murmurs of Merkley as a viable vice presidential pick. Those hints of national potential have since become, at least, a louder murmur. A vacuum has opened. Nearly every elected Democrat above the level of mayor could plausibly be a player in 2020. Sanders and Warren and Cory Booker? Of course. But also, Merkley?

“The presidential primary is wide open,” says John Halpin, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “There is no Barack Obama or an equivalent establishment figure in the party capable of dominating early endorsements. Senator Merkley would certainly be among the contenders given his background and progressive credentials, his strong stands on trade and financial reform, and his ability to push his economic ideas outside of traditional Democratic strongholds. Opposing Trump will be the easy part. Getting people behind a progressive Democratic vision that both mobilizes Obama’s voters and cuts into some portion of Trump’s support will be critical if the party wants to recapture the presidency.”

“Almost every senator has had the thought cross their mind,” Merkley says. “And at the moment, every senator feels like they could do a whole lot better than President Trump.”

In the weeks that followed our lunch, Merkley denounced the rise in hate crimes. On the Senate floor, he railed against Trump’s “authoritarian” tendencies. He joined Ron Wyden, his Oregon colleague, and 22 other senators to sponsor legislation to rescind the president’s executive order to build a border wall, and reintroduced a 2015 bill that would ban discrimination against the LGBT community.   

As we part ways in the Gateway Breakfast House parking lot—once again not shaking hands, Merkley carrying his half-eaten omelet in a plastic to-go container—I ask him about his schedule the following day. He’s going on an all-day road trip along the Columbia River: Hood River, then The Dalles, then tiny Rufus and Arlington, for town halls in each place. He’s held more than 300 such gatherings since 2009, one every year in each of Oregon’s 36 counties. His eyes light up as bright as I’ve seen them, his face and hair damp from what has turned from a drizzle to real rain.

“That is where the magic happens. You just never know what you’re going to run into.”