Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ben Westlund: "We went to war for oil"

[This is part one of a multi-part series based on my interview with goobernatiorial candidate Ben Westlund. The plan is to publish/post two more segments over the next several days--Carla]

I met Ben Westlund and his press person/Girl Friday Stacey Dycus on a sunny afternoon at Starbucks on Capitol Highway in Portland. Westlund presents an imposing physical figure--which is dwarfed only by his flinty eye contact and sheer force of personality.

We dove right in to our chat. Westlund often leaned in over the table with his eyes piercing directly into mine while he spoke.

We began with parallels to the United States' situation during the Vietnam era and today. Westlund articulated a deep concern for the nation's current state:

You look at that period in American history. The most disruptive, socially changing--I mean America was in crisis. We had double digit interest rates, double digit inflation, a quadrupling of energy prices. We had the most divisive war in our country's history...albeit (except for) the Civil War. We had kids getting shot on campuses protesting the war and we had a President resign/get impeached. This country was in serious trouble. Our structures of governance were being threatened as well as our economic position in the world. I see extraordinarily similar parallels to today.

We went to war for oil. We're sending kids to Iraq to die. We've got a President that's selling ports to foreign nationals. That's had the most tepid response to the worst natural disaster in our history. Spying on the American public and outing CIA agents. And who has spent us into record deficits that will without question come home to roost financially in terms of double digit inflation and double digit interest rates. There is no way around this.

This moving and impassioned speech seems very much at odds with a man who in this same interview confesses to voting for a Bush every time there's been one on the national ticket. I can find no reasonable way to reconcile those votes with the statements made.

Westlund's words and record do appear to match up in another area however: his commitment to funding public education.

In 2001, Westlund shepherded through a $5.2 billion spending package (SB 5514). I'm not sure how hard he had to push as the vote to pass it was unanimous. But it does demonstrate a commitment to funding.

During what Westlund calls the "summer of not-so-special-sessions" (2002) when $2.3 billion of revenue disappeared, Westlund says he treated K-12 education with "kid gloves". He says he worked to minimize cuts to education and forced budget cuts in other areas of the state budget instead.

Westlund also supported revenue in the form of Measure 28 and apparently had his co-chair position stripped by Minnis because of it.

Westlund is further opposed to Measure 5 (the property tax cap):

If Ballot Measure 5 or a similar Measure were on the ballot today I wouldn't just vote no I'd be screaming no. And working to defeat it.

He's also been an advocate for changes to the tax system in Oregon for several years. Westlund's campaign is built in large part around his ideas for revenue generation and tax reform. "Tax reform" for Westlund means sales tax.

Westlund's reputation as a consensus builder in Salem seems to have chops as well. While his enviornmental scorecard with the League of Conservation Voters isn't especially stellar, they still awarded him Best Consensus Builer in 2005, something Westlund says he's very proud of:

I've always had this ability to define a problem, envision a solution and then create the opportunity to solve it. That's why I work so well across the aisle. That's why the Oregon League of Conservations Voters (where I don't have the greatest voter score) made me the Consensus Builder of the Year. I'm really proud of that. I helped them try to get toxic mixing zones on the Willamette River patched together.

Can Westlund bring Republicans to the table in Salem? Especially after jettisoning them in his bid for governor? Has he really been "building consensus" or just bucking a party that's increasingly gone to the conservative fringe? Can he build a bridge with the "very partisan, self serving, feather-their-own-nest...monopoly parties", as he describes them?