A lesson in automated glass cutting with Kinro plant manager Eric Wiese.
Educating constituents about the rarified world of federal policy is one senatorial task. But the Made in Oregon tour is mostly about the education of Jeff Merkley, even if it’s a whirlwind education. On the agenda this day is Barhyte Specialty Foods, located in Pendleton where Merkley toured a bottle-labeling facility, and sampled mustard and charcuterie while listening to a jovial Jan Barhyte describe potential value-added products such as locally grown horseradish.
Next is Pendleton Woolen Mills, where mill manager John Boston talked about global cotton prices while the senator bore witness to the weaving of the famous jacquard blankets. (Most other Pendleton products are manufactured in China). At Turtle Island Foods, home of Tofurky, Merkley, dressed in hair net and white lab coat, toured the Hood River facility and bonded with owner Seth Tibbott over their Outdoor School experiences. Merkley, laughing, reveals his nickname: Smash. Pretty much opposite of his unassuming personality.
Somewhere along the way, Merkley and his staff stop for a Town Hall in Milton-Freewater where one elderly constituent asks, “Anybody want to see some abortion photos?” There was also a quick lunch at Subway, the default dining choice while Merkley is on the road. “It’s fast, relatively healthy and we know what the senator likes,” says Courtney Warner Crowell, Merkley’s deputy director of communications in Oregon and one of several young aides who appear as earnest and cerebral as their employer. “I can clear a room with my banter,” notes business liaison Jake Oken-Berg, perhaps channeling Merkley, who at one point offers “copies of studies I did if you want to learn about a range of airplane wing functions or modification of the B-1 bomber.”
It’s about 5 p.m. and Merkley is making one of his last stops of the day, at Northwest Aluminum Specialties in The Dalles, where a somber president Bill Reid makes a direct appeal for help resolving the company’s credit challenges. Northwest Aluminum, which produces round aluminum stock used in fire extinguishers and other products, generated $40 million annually until 2008, Reid tells the senator. Then the economy collapsed, the price of aluminum dropped 60%, and the company’s relationship with its bank deteriorated. “We’re in a hole we’re not able to get out of,” Reid says, noting that in 2011 sales dropped to $17 million. “If there is some option you can bring to the table … we are not looking for a handout. We need a leg up.”
Taking off the hard hat and safety glasses he wore for a tour of the aluminum processing facility, Merkley launched into his spiel. “Everything you say is right on. The credit crisis has hit so many folks.” He invoked the Volcker Rule and noted the president recently signed his crowd-funding bill enabling small and startup businesses to harness the power of the Internet to raise capital. But that mechanism probably wouldn't be suitable for an old-time manufacturing business requiring millions of dollars, Merkley acknowledges. “Frankly, I don’t know how we can be helpful,” he concludes. “But let’s have a more extended conversation.”
This is the conundrum of a sitting senator, a federal representative who in Merkley’s own words tries to “hammer away at relevant policy but not so much on the ground.” Speaking after the tour, Reid says one of Merkley’s aides “did seem to be connected to the Small Business Administration and might be able to bring something to the table for us.” But even if nothing comes of that conversation, Reid says. “It was an opportunity for us to tell our story, and that’s what we wanted.”
At the end of the day, perhaps that’s the message of the Made in Oregon tour. Although Merkley earned high marks for trying to understand the complexities and specificities of the issues and problems facing Oregon businesses, the practical outcome of the trip isn’t necessarily clear, either because of the breadth of those complexities, the challenges of connecting federal law to local problems, or perhaps the ability of the freshman senator to make policy.
Merkley “is making an earnest effort to figure out if you can still make things in America,” says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association, which held a roundtable at Blount Industries during the tour. “Now we’re hoping he will use his cerebral approach and attention to detail and put it to bear on consolidating the 28 different federal workforce programs spread across eight federal agencies, that no employer can be expected to navigate.”