Reimagining American Community

rongreenAt Solidarity Hall, we hope to encourage localist thinking and new economy solutions. Do any political candidates ever appear espousing these ideas? Actually, yes.

One such candidate is Ron Green, a former small business owner, long-time jazz musician, and committed fan of the work of Wendell Berry, Gar Alperovitz, Jane Jacobs and others.

Last year Ron, a resident of Albany, Oregon, got an unexpected invitation to run as a Democratic Party candidate for the Oregon State Legislature from the 15th District. A highly informed candidate but a political novice, Ron garnered some 33.4% of the vote against a four-term Republican candidate who had become his party’s state leader in the Legislature a few months before the 2012 election after the previous Republican leadership had been spotted in a California topless bar and had to step down.

SH: What in the world would make a sixtyish guy with a nice life want to run for the state legislature?

RG:  The candidacy just dropped in my lap. My nice neighbor across the street was the candidate of record for the office but he was selling his house and moving out of state, so although he had already come through the primary, he couldn’t run. This district, the 15th House district of Oregon (out of 60), is in the Willamette Valley, between Salem and Eugene. Every two years they throw some hapless Democrat up against the Republican. And as it turned out, it was my turn in the barrel. But at the time I had enough hubris to think we might really do something.

SH: So you had always been interested in politics?

RG:  Yes, and I was curious as to the nature of the process, although I was inexperienced, having never run for office before. And we had only lived in this area about four years.

Most people in politics start with city council or zoning commission. So here I was trying to start out in a bigger race—without even having to run in the primary. So I was the guy.

SH: And how did you handle your lack of experience?

RG:  I put out feelers for a campaign manager and hired Brian, a young guy from Eugene who had run seven or eight campaigns in southern Oregon and had won a couple of squeakers. A very smart guy. I probably learned most from him about the process—cause he knew all about media and managing the campaign. All I had to do is show up and talk.

Brian had a math background and his skill was looking at precinct records and figuring out what was going on, where to put the resources, etc.

Naturally I had my own political philosophy and ideals about positions we should take and things we should emphasize. And I had thought quite a bit in recent years about how the state level is the place to build localism.

But quite often Brian would tell me, “You can’t say that!” and he was right. Because he’s a politically savvy person and I was not.

SH: So did you think you had a shot here?

RG: Yeah, although the Tea Party element is very strong in this district, mostly the usual kind of anti-government, “ain’t it awful” kind of thing. That’s often what passes around here for advanced politics. My opponent was a hail-fellow, good old boy, not a Tea Party type, worked all his life as a state policeman and so had never been in the private sector. Whereas I had a business for ten years, so I knew how to do that. His job as the new party leader in the Legislature was to take the huge amounts of Republican money coming in from out of state and shovel it around where it would do the most good. We weren’t even on his radar—he wasn’t even checking our media buys.

SH: What’s the district like?

RG:  The Willamette Valley is a kind of microcosm of the entire state of Oregon. Corvallis, just across the river from here, has Oregon State University and the pointy-headed intellectuals. Back here, only ten miles away, lies Albany, a city of similar size, creating a kind of twin cities situation, with Albany the more working class and the more Republican of the two. So in some ways my town defines itself often in contrast with “the town across the river.” Which meant that at times, I had to cross the river to raise money—out of my district. Which is also where I found most of my volunteers.

I like to tell people, here’s how you can tell whether you’re in Corvallis or Albany: in Corvallis the cyclists have helmets and they ride on the right side of the road, with the traffic. Whereas here in Albany, the cyclists ride bare-headed and smoke cigarettes as they ride over on the left side of the road. On really old bikes.

SH: So what did that tell you about your odds?

RG:  Early on I was hearing, well, it’s just too steep a hill you’re trying to climb here. The curious thing is, to be a candidate at all, you have to use two parts of your brain: one part tells you this effort will probably not succeed. But with the other part you have to believe that you can prevail in order to get out of bed in the morning.

I met the three previous Democratic candidates, all good people and friends of mine now. Bu they all had the same story: you put out your yard signs, do the best you can, squeeze out your thirty percent, and go home.

Brian said, we’re not gonna do that. So, instead of working out of the local party’s office, we had our own campaign office. Instead of putting out 100 or 150 yard signs, we put out 1,000. We did radio, we did television, it was an ambitious effort. And Brian, after looking at where we thought the swing might come, felt we could make this happen. No one had ever gone through these precinct records before and then done all the data entry on them. Brian believed it proved this would be the first serious race in this district.

In this district, which is most of Linn County, 28,000 registered voters, of which there are 1,000 more Republicans than Democrats. But about a third are independent or unaffiliated voters. And they were our target, of course.

SH: So how about your message. Did you tell voters your political philosophy?

RG:  I felt I could not engage much with the loftier themes and also, when I did so, my audience did not respond well and seemed impatient. “What are you gonna do about PERS?” (the Public Employee Retirement System), they would want to know. The issues had already been framed by the media so that’s what people wanted to talk about.

My opponent had no political philosophy at all, being mostly a genial, bumbling bagman for corporate money.

When I would talk about the things I was reading in Richard Wolff, Gar Alperovitz, David Korten, and Phillip Blond—all these Big Thinkers—they seemed to me irrefutable, they’re showing the way things have got to go. So I thought: this is a golden opportunity for our little district to send somebody to the statehouse who is willing to stand up, not beholden to anybody, and talk about this stuff. And even if the voters were to send me packing after two years, I will at least have stood up and said these things that need to be said.

SH: So how’d that work out?

RG:  Well, here’s a story. At one point I sat down with our local Chamber of Commerce to do an interview. And they had asked me a question about energy—the price of energy and the availability of energy. So I went into a thing by which I imagined a future in which people in our community would not, each and every single one of them, have to own a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Because there would be one available, say, in each and every neighborhood that we could cooperatively own. You’d just make one phone call to schedule that bad boy so you could go pick up your plywood sheets the next day and then take it back.

So everybody wouldn’t have to be mortgaged to the hilt from making payments on his or her own truck. It was about three days later, my campaign manager comes up to me and says, “Did you really tell the people over at the Chamber of Commerce that you were gonna take away their pickup trucks?!”

SH: What’s the political complexion of the state of Oregon?

RG:  The political history of Oregon is populism, both the progressive kind that you think about in terms of the Wobblies and the Grange Movement. But also a conservative kind of populism among the ranchers and others who don’t trust the gummint, the “ain’t it awful” people I mentioned. Oregonians like to think of themselves as independent and populist.

So the image of Oregon around the country is that of a big blue Portland. So on the one hand, you’ve got Portland, the coast and the People’s Republic of Eugene. That’s all blue. But the rest of the state is… Wichita Falls. [Ed. Note: The latter reference is due to Ron’s and my shared Texan ancestry.]

So our little ten-mile area exactly matches what the state of Oregon is all about. The statehouse—which I was hoping to tip in the blue direction– was evenly balanced at that moment between red and blue, exactly 30 and 30. Now it has switched to 26 Republicans, 34 Democrats.

And I had a small part of doing that, in that I kept my opponent busy enough in this district that he was not able to interfere in some of the neighboring districts’ contests. As a result, some local officials here have pledged that they will help me retire some of my campaign debt.

SH: You’re a native Texan—in fact, I should mention to readers here that you and I were in high school together, more than a few years ago, in rural East Texas. What’s the impact of your Texan background?

RG:  For one thing, growing up in Texas gave me the ability to use self-deprecating humor, the good old boy style. Certainly my opponent’s main attribute seemed to be that he was a good old boy.

And there’s something else. We’re talking about growing up in the Jim Crow South in the 1960s. I think you can’t understand America without understanding the black experience. You and I both experienced as kids the sight of an old black man, old enough to be your grandfather, stepping off the curb onto the street to let you pass. Even as young kids, we both instinctively sensed that something was wrong with that. So to become thoughtful people, we’ve had to process that all our lives and figure out what that was all about.  In my case, as I eventually became a jazz musician, I also thought about the history of blues and jazz and what meaning these things had in this country and for the world.

People out here in the Northwest who are not natives come from places like Nebraska, say—so they haven’t gone through that experience. Which being a native Texan helped me understand.

In the last twenty years or so, this area has had an influx of Hispanic agricultural workers, now becomingly less migrant, more resident. I worked in social services in this area for eight years. And I discovered that most social services were not being accessed by Mexican-American non-doc workers: they were just taking care of themselves, bunked up ten to a house, not tapping into local social services system at all.

SH: What was grassroots, retail politics like?

RG:  I enjoyed it and I think I was pretty good at it. The best part was knocking on doors and meeting people and working with my campaign manager. I personally knocked on 6,000 doors and our campaign organization and volunteers 9,000.

I would come to the door with a list of about a dozen issues—education, economy, taxes and so on. And we found that the number one issue people wanted to talk about was healthcare. Education was probably second.

I enjoyed being a candidate but the worst part was begging for money—coming home after a long day of knocking on doors and then to have to make calls to prospective donors.

And I’d have to say I was schooled on where I really live by my campaign.

SH:  How do you mean?

RG:  I can’t tell you how many times walking up the driveway I would have to maneuver past three or four big vehicles –suburbans and pickup trucks and things—and then there would be nobody home! They were all gone in some other big vehicle!

And I would think to myself: here are our community’s resources, poured into these big vehicles that don’t seem to ever go away—they’re somehow required, nobody gets rid of one very often. It’s a freedom issue, I know. But it’s also a public health issue and several other things.

SH:  Did you make a few mistakes?

RG:  There were a few times—say, late in my third speech of the day–when I was tempted to say the really big things such as, folks, you know, we need to separate human happiness from economic growth. Or just say to my audience that the truth is, folks, you voters really aren’t very smart. I mean, you really can’t just say these things.

SH: What’s your verdict on your campaign?

RG:  I got 9,070 votes—about 33.4%—-so I think that some folks did hear a message about local access to capital, local relationships, and so on.

In the Oregon statehouse, there is no real representation of localism—or even the Green Party. It’s just the usual players—you know, on one side the unions,on the other the banks and big corporations.

In a lot of the world, it’s always been the interaction of church, state and market: that’s what we’ve always had. Now those things in this country have really strayed out of balance, so our society is less moral. Helping to restore that condition is part of what excites me about the idea of localism. It’s the re-establishing of balance at a level at which people can buy in. And that’s why I thought this little run at the statehouse would be an appropriate way to put that out there.

SH:  Any final observations on the current political scene?

RG:  Sure, here’s a soundbite: If someone says he’s afraid the government might take away his guns, then probably someone should do that.

SH: We thank you, sir. Best of luck.

About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.