Monday, March 19, 2007

Chip Shields, The Progressive's Champion

There's certainly no shortage of liberals in the Oregon legislature; that seems self-evident given the high number and proportion of liberals living in Portland, who then send liberals to represent them in the House and Senate. I mean, any legislature where Ginny Burdick is considered a DLC-type sellout must have some fairly liberal members.

I could pick out several of them and point out the good work they're typically doing, but one person's name keeps popping up in the action as we watch the 2007 session unfold: second-term Representative Chip Shields, from North and Northeast Portland. Despite his clean-cut, Cal-Chico Law Review kind of look*, he represents a fairly gritty section of the city: anchored by MLK and Grand Streets going north-south through areas hampered by decay and crime, District 43 roughly rivals the outer SE area around 82nd Avenue for worst in the city.

Whether in recognition of those conditions or not, it's no surprise that Shields is part of both the Ways and Means Subcommittees on Public Safety, and for Transportation and Economic Development. During the session Shields has been prodigious in his support of legislation from across the spectrum {pdf}, putting his name on over 100 bills, certainly in the top third or so in the House.

Many of the proposals he supports, particularly those related to his legislative specialty in public safety, seem to have in common a concern for the kind of people who live in his district, and the circumstances many of them tend to live under. There is a proposal to give those being terminated from workmen's compensation more notice, and one to help grant workmen's comp for home health workers, a common lower-middle class occupation. When development does come to his district in the form of condo developers, Shields has a plan to protect renters in those buildings being converted. Good development, in the form of minority, female or 'emerging' small business projects, can expand without undertaking expensive public works bonds.

On the straight law and order tip, Shields worries about the ridiculously anti-Constitutional "exclusion zones," offering legislation to curb their use on arrested persons not yet convicted. He wants every county to have a civilian review board as a check on their police. He also wants to establish a specific ethnic and racial impact statement for any corrections-based legislation, similar to an environmental impact statement for development-based bills. But Shields is also sensible about the reality of criminal activity; he's seeking to set limits on the number of high-risk offenders supervised by one caseworker, and to study the further use of "ignition lock" devices for preventing drunk driving.

That's the nuts and bolts of legislating, and it's the kind of assistance and championing that Shields' constituents definitely need. But as someone who lives out of district, I'm most impressed by the big statements he makes. There is something to be said for "the vision thing;" the sense that it is important for legislative bodies to make statements of belief and of moral duty, and to advance a set of principles that Oregonians can rely upon as they meet the future. Three of those big picture bills stand out.

The first is one we've discussed several times here, declaring opposition to escalation in Iraq and seeking withdrawal beginning this autumn. One's sights don't get any bigger than that as a state legislator, to weigh in on federal foreign policy--but despite some criticism for taking Salem's time on an issue that only Washington DC can solve, Shields has stood firm in his belief that the exploitation, abuse and death of dozens of Oregonian lives makes it their business, and is a necessary statement of record to show history that indeed, some spoke out. His bill will receive debate and a vote tomorrow; its likely passage is a testament to its careful crafting and Shields' dilligence in putting the measure before his colleagues, as he did in 2005 (when of course it died under the heel of Karen Minnis and Wayne Scott).

The second "big idea" bill is another
sweeping statement of principle:
Health care is an essential safeguard of human life and dignity and there is an obligation for the state to ensure that every legal resident of Oregon has access to health care as a fundamental right. The Legislative Assembly by law shall adopt a plan that incrementally expands health care coverage so that every legal resident of Oregon is able to obtain effective and affordable health care on a regular basis.
It's a very few progressives who don't see health care as a fundamental human right. It's also a philosophical pedestal on which to place all further discussions in the state on how to secure those rights, even if only incrementally. With all of the plans and ideas being bandied around to fix Oregon's health care system, why not start with the conviction that concern for human rights demands that we do something?

Finally, a bill that I'm personally thankful for but which may not be as entirely popular in many circles: a proposal to place a moratorium on executions in the state, establishing a task force to evaluate the entire efficacy and cost of the death penalty process. As I am, Shields is personally opposed to the death penalty for a number of reasons, but the easiest ones to sell to others are that it's costly and doesn't work besides:
‘I do think it’s time for Oregonians to take a look at the death penalty and make sure that it is the best way to fight crime and increase public safety,’’ said Rep. Chip Shields, D-Portland, a death penalty opponent who is backing the bill. ‘‘I certainly have my doubts.’’
It may continue to be true that a majority of Oregonians favor the death penalty, but I'd be very surprised if that support hadn't atrophied over the last five to ten years. Other states have placed moratoria on their own death row, worried about studies showing racial and ethnic discrimination and the ultimate nightmare--innocent people awaiting execution. It's a good time to stop and reassess whether being part of the Third World club of nations that still kills its own people is where the US, and particularly its most enlightened states, wants to be.

So, a tribute to Chip Shields, D-Portland--the progressive's progressive. Not too lofty to get his hands dirty with mundane legislation; not too wonky to miss the forest whilst working among the trees. If you support the things he's working to provide for his people, drop him a line and tell him. And tell him we said so.

Update, 7pm--
Over at the Merc, they're discussing the Senate bill Shields is part of regarding exclusion zones. Seems Mayor Potter is actively fighting it, which runs in line both with his law and order background, and his apparent support for other quasiconstitutional vagrant-nudging policies like sit/lie. Merc-man Scott Moore says that Commissioner Sten is on Shields' side, seeking a similar resolution at the City level that goes most of the way towards the principle of due process. What's either quite coincidental or a brilliant application of another Shields bill, is that Sten wants the exclusion process to have an oversight board that reviews data along racial and ethnic lines to track the law's use, a form of "racial impact statement" that Shields augurs for. Let's hope Potter loses this one.

*He only looks like a lawyer; his degree is actually a Master's in Social Work from PSU.