BY LINDA BAKER
Sen. Jeff Merkley at the World Trade Center in Portland. He says the best thing about being a senator is having an avenue to address policy. The worst thing is the gridlock and "witnessing a broken institution."
// Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
It’s a late Tuesday afternoon in April, and Jeff Merkley, Oregon’s junior Democratic senator, is headed west on I-84 near Boardman, explaining the purpose of the poplar trees growing along the highway. Managed by GreenWood Resources, the tree farm will supply feedstock for ZeaChem, a company that will soon produce advanced biofuels in its Port of Morrow based refinery. “You might ask why poplar trees,” remarks Merkley, adding, “I asked that question myself.” The answer? This particular species of poplar boasts a high yield, reaches maturity in only two years, and can regenerate after harvest.
A self-described math and science geek, the 55-year-old Merkley is fond of dissecting how things work, whether the subject is the conversion of woody biomass into cellulosic ethanol or the nuances of getting a bill passed in today’s “supermajority” Senate. His cerebral, detail-oriented approach to policy is one reason he’s on the road this day. It’s part of a two-week Made in Oregon tour involving 47 manufacturing businesses around the state. Since 2001, the country has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs and 40,000 manufacturing facilities, Merkley says. His goal is to help stop the hemorrhage by figuring out what’s working and not working for Oregon companies engaged in the business of making things.
Riding along with Merkley and his three aides for the Pendleton-Portland leg of the tour provides a glimpse of the hectic and sometimes absurd schedule of a U.S. senator and the diversity of manufacturing in Oregon. With a few business roundtables and town halls thrown in for good measure, the trip also highlights the evolution of Merkley’s relationship with Oregon business owners, a group that wanted little to do with him during his campaign against two-term Republican Gordon Smith. Merkley himself told Oregon Business in 2008: “While I was running, what I heard from the business community was that they didn’t think I could win.”
Today, as Merkley fundraises for his 2014 reelection campaign, the liberal son of a Roseburg millworker appears to be changing a few hearts and minds among Oregon business leaders, especially as he makes growth in manufacturing, central to Oregon’s economy, one of his key legislative priorities. But tackling one of the country’s thorniest issues is no easy task, and the connection between policy at the federal level and the specific problems facing Oregon business is not always clear. The Made in Oregon tour is good meet-and-greet politics and reflects Merkley’s deliberative style. But the question for many business people, a group that is far from monolithic and often has competing interests, is what happens next.
“I give the senator credit for the interest and effort he is devoting to learning his state’s products and the challenges manufacturers face selling them in a global market,” says David Mercer, president of Mercer Windows in Beaverton, a stop on the tour. “So far, the senator is impressing me,” Mercer adds. “Now let’s see what kind of a salesman for Oregon business he can be.”