A couple of nights ago, I had the opportunity to attend the last Oregon Governor live debate in the KGW studios and meet Kate Brown, the current Oregon Governor. While sitting in the audience, I got this nagging feeling that bothered me for the entire hour. I couldn’t help but admit to myself that this experience was the singular moment of the November 2016 election season that stood out to me the most, more than the presidential debates or the stream of analysis delivered by political pundits about partisanship that has been flooding my newsfeed since this summer. I found myself profoundly inspired. As difficult as it was to admit, the fanfare of the election was not quite as exciting as this local debate.
The level of political discourse at this debate was a refreshing reminder of what representative democracy has the potential to be at its best. Both candidates touched on true policy positions and highlighted the significance of state level legislation, from Measure 97, a corporate tax bill in Oregon, to Oregon’s commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions to be a part of the bigger national movement to fight climate change. Most of all, they made the real concerns of everyday Oregonians the core part of their conversation. They spent valuable air time discussing affordable education, access to higher education, healthcare and worker’s rights, instead of merely attempting to boost their own agendas or antagonize the opposition. Kate Brown provided compelling anecdotes about her work as a lawyer, fighting for children in the foster care system. Bud Pierce delivered an extremely convincing case about his career in the medical field to support his argument about the importance of insurance coverage. And in certain instances, the two candidates recognized the validity of one another’s points. Party identity has become such a significant part of this election cycle that I found myself surprised by their tolerance for opposing opinions and willingness to reach across the aisle. When they felt the need to challenge each other, they did so politely and often humorously, at one point invoking Mt. Saint Helens, an active volcano in the Pacific Northwest.
This debate encouraged me to reconsider the influence of local candidate and legislative policy campaigns. Working for campaigns like Yes on 97 and Common Cause Oregon and phonebanking for state representatives on the Democratic ballot had previously seemed like personally rewarding, yet externally low-profile affairs. Beaverton city voter’s forums were mostly attended by involved senior citizens, not young people or working adults. While we pour intense manpower into nationwide elections, local elections get cast to the side. Though national elections often have tremendous power, local elections don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve. A government, of the people, by the people, for the people, genuinely begins on the local level. Politics, at the end of the day, is driven by the grassroots activism of passionate individuals. Only with a strong foundation of local election support can representative democracy truly thrive.