05-18-2024  6:47 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Rep. Earl Blumenauer speaks at The Skanner Foundation's 38th Annual MLK Breakfast at the Oregon Convention Center January 15, 2024. (Photo by Julie Keefe)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 14 February 2024

The former Portland City Council member said he plans to continue his career in public service locally and off the political stage, and to be of use however he can as the city transitions to a new form of government. In recent years, he has been supportive of efforts to rebuild historically Black neighborhoods all but decimated in Portland’s North and Northeast neighborhoods, while championing better transportation infrastructure as an economic boost to marginalized communities.

The Skanner sat down with Rep. Blumenauer at his district offices in Portland to reflect on his career and the current state of affairs in the nation’s capital. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Skanner: What made you decide that now is the time to retire from office?

Rep. Blumenauer: I’ve done this all my adult life. Literally, for 54 years, since I was in college, I’ve been working full-time on political activities. And it’s reached the point where I feel like we’ve made amazing accomplishments in the last couple years, unprecedented sums of money through the Inflation Reduction Act, the infrastructure bill. It’s just a bonanza to be able to invest in the local communities, but it didn’t seem to me like the best use to continue doing the political side of the equation. So I’ll continue working with people, trying to solve problems, here. But less time in airports and more time working with people directly.

The Skanner: Reports of extreme partisanship in D.C. are many. Have you found Congress to be a less workable environment in the last couple years?

What we’ve seen in the last couple weeks, where there was a bipartisan group working on immigration reform – something that was going to make a difference and could pass. And the Republicans turned against their own proposal. I mean, that’s just mind-numbing. And I have never, never seen anything like that.

But there are so many of these big things that are in the pipeline. This is the largest infrastructure investment in the history of the world for clean energy. What’s happening with transportation, clean water, Amtrak – you name it, it is a dramatic investment creating lots of jobs and improvements. Focusing on that is a better use of my time than running for office.

The Skanner: What excites you most about these infrastructure investments?

The Skanner: How do you see these investments in infrastructure benefitting the BIPOC community?

Their time is exceedingly valuable.

And if we have a system that isn’t efficient, congestion ties up their time stuck in traffic, it’s a tax on low- and moderate-income people. Being able to make the system work more efficiently actually puts money in their pockets.

One of the reasons unemployment is so low is because we’re putting lots of people to work rebuilding and renewing the community and the country. So there will be more economic opportunities that I think will be profound.

Having this low unemployment rate and more opportunities particularly in construction and development, those are very intense opportunities where people can actually see the jobs taking place. And that is going to provide very tangible results in ways that will create more job opportunities while it improves quality of life in the community.

The Skanner: During your time in office, what work in support of the BIPOC community are you most proud of?

Rep. Blumenauer: I’m very pleased with work that we’ve been doing to try to support Albina Vision Trust, the legislation that we enacted providing resources to try and heal communities that were ripped apart by ill-advised federal programs.

This is the first time that there’s been a conscious effort with federal investments to be able to put together communities that were ripped apart, like what we saw with Albina where the federal government subsidized urban renewal, highway projects that just ripped the heart out of Portland’s Black community.

What we’ve been able to do with these new programs is to have elements that speak specifically to investing in things that will bring the community back together, that will speak to areas of racial justice to promote greater housing inclusion – things that are long overdue, where the federal government’s resources in the past created problems and now we’re going to have an opportunity to have the federal resources to solve them.

The Skanner: Do you see similar pushes happening elsewhere in the country?

Rep. Blumenauer: There are. There’s an awareness,  in communities large and small, that the federal government has actually made problems worse by having freeways that go through the heart of established minority communities – that is the national pattern. It was the path of least resistance, the price was paid by Black, brown, low-income (neighborhoods), because they could just run roughshod over them. This is something where there’s growing awareness around the country for projects like what we’re working on here. It’s part of a national movement that I think is very, very encouraging.

The Skanner: You worked with Skanner cofounder Bernie Foster to rename Union Avenue as MLK Avenue in 1989. Why was that change so important to you?

Rep. Blumenauer: Dr. King is obviously a very significant person in the history of the world, and makes a difference in our community. And it was an opportunity to be able to rally support for a symbol of racial justice and leadership.

It was remarkable what we encountered in terms of resistance.

It really exposed some of the dark racist underbelly here. People who know the history of Portland are aware that we had Ku Klux Klan activities in our past; even after World War II returning veterans couldn’t live in the neighborhoods they wanted; lots of discrimination in terms of housing redlining. This was a small demonstration of our commitment to racial justice and leadership, and it was really difficult at the time navigating that and watching the vitriol that was expressed. I knew that there were racist problems, but I didn’t realize how deep that was.

Part of what I was proud of was developing a plan to deal with the history of racial inequity in terms of our housing programs here, that was an area that was interesting and rewarding, to try and help the federal government be a better partner.

The Skanner: And how do you do that?

Rep. Blumenauer: A series of things. Part of it is having programs that are guaranteed to try and help those who need it the most. Public housing is something that needs more support, not less, and that’s been a struggle. The federal government has not always been the most reliable partner, to be delicate about it. Being able to raise the profile, have more programs that are geared to people who  need it the most, having the federal government stick with it, rather than change directions every year or two. It’s an area that has gotten more attention in the aftermath of what we see here, some of the demonstrations in support of racial justice and equity. It’s been a real challenge here to be able to have people mobilize behind it. But we’re supporting federal policies that make the federal government a better partner in helping us achieve our objectives. 

The Skanner: What regrets do you have from your time in Congress?

Rep. Blumenauer: I’m frustrated with how difficult it’s been to have people work together to solve problems, rather than create new ones. All my legislation is bipartisan; we try and focus on things that will make a difference that we can actually make progress, and concentrate on things that bring people together. I did that with trades, with restaurants, infrastructure – these are things that are opportunities to make progress and not create new problems. I’ve been frustrated with how hard it is to get people to cooperate, to work together, to be able to move forward on things like this that will enhance the quality of life in the community.

And I’m extraordinarily frustrated that it’s been so hard to get people to try and work together.

The Skanner: What’s your take on the upcoming presidential election?

Rep. Blumenauer: It’s really disappointing that Donald Trump refuses to participate in the debates, he’s insulting people, and sadly, it looks like he’s getting traction – it’s a real horse race. Although if you look at (Biden’s) actual performance, we have the lowest unemployment in years, highest rates of minority employment, the job creation is off the charts, the inflation rate is down, the stock market is up – it is perplexing that it’s even close. But sadly, people listen to the bluster of Donald Trump and the lies and exaggeration, and we’ve got our work cut out for us. But I think at the end of the day, people are going to look at the fact that the economy is performing well, that Joe Biden has provided a steady hand working internationally, standing up to Putin – these are things that actually shouldn’t remotely be controversial, but sadly what’s happened is some of our friends in Congress refuse to make progress at the border because they want an issue to try and use politically – it’s just stunning. And it should not be acceptable. 

The Skanner: More locally, what are your thoughts about the new form of city government Portland is transitioning to?

Rep. Blumenauer: There’s a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainty. I personally did not get involved with the charter revision because I wanted to be neutral in case there’s a role I can play to try and help put the pieces back together to provide some education and involvement.

It’s unknown. I think there are real question marks about how the ranked-choice voting is going to work with individual districts. We know how it is in a campaign where there’s two or three or four people running against each other and you use ranked-choice voting, but when it’s a multimember district, somebody could win with less than 20% of the vote. I think that’s going to be confusing for some folks.

It’s also going to be hard to arrive at some sort of unified fashion – it kind of institutionalizes people who have minority views. Diversity of opinion is good, but if it makes it difficult or impossible to actually reach consensus and solve problems, it’s likely to be very challenging.

It’s not been tried anywhere in the world like we’re doing it here.

So we’re going to be involved with this learning experience for most of the next couple years.

And then because there are so many people who are involved because of the multimember ranked-choice voting, it’s going to be hard to develop consensus. We’re all going to be learning how to make this new system work together. 

The Skanner: What do you plan to do in retirement?

Rep. Blumenauer: Mostly I want to continue doing the work that I like with the community in terms of transportation, land use, trying to help people solve problems. But I won’t have to be involved with airplanes for 14 hours a week. I’m going to spend probably half my time here, and (look forward to) being able to do a little deeper dive and better connections, not being involved so much in the politics, but working directly with people. 

The Skanner: What do you look forward to in your remaining 46 weeks in office?

Rep. Blumenauer: Part of what I want to do is spend time here trying to help Portland put the pieces back together. We’ve had a very difficult time, a lot of controversy and problems in terms of our community – being able to spend some time helping folks understand what the opportunities are to work together, to develop infrastructure, housing, some of the projects that we’re going to have for government funding are ways that we’re going to see making a difference on the ground. And the final analysis, the proof is going to be being able to put more people to work on things that actually improve the community. We have an opportunity with the Albina Vision Trust for instance, to be able to make more investments in the revitalization of North and Northeast Portland – long, long, long overdue.

Perhaps being able to relocate the headquarters for the school district in a place where the headquarters can be located in some under-utilized or vacant office space, and inject more vitality in the central city.

One of the things I’ve spent a lot of time working on dealt with trying to rescue the restaurants. During the Covid crisis, we were looking at restaurants closing their business. I was able to develop legislation that created grants for 100,000 independent restaurants that have helped stabilize that workforce, strengthen that supply chain. And the restaurant industry is one of the greatest sources of minority and women, and that’s another example of something that’s a tangible, on-the-ground difference that is going to help with the Portland recovery. 

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The Skanner Foundation's 38th Annual MLK Breakfast