ALEX ARONSON faced a room full of Oregon politicos, ranging from a 16-year-old high school student to a geezer who owns his own airplane.
"How many of you have registered someone to vote?" asked Aronson. The room became a forest of raised hands. In the past two years, the Oregon Bus Project has registered (by its own count) 31,300 Oregonians to vote. The progressive public interest advocacy group's biannual conference descended on Bend last weekend with over 400 activists, politicians, and clipboard-wielding campaigners, taking the pulse of Oregon's left and rallying support behind concrete plans to advance a statewide progressive agenda.
The conference's snapshot of the left included more than an army of experienced voter registerers. It included peppy chants. It included State Representative Ben Cannon aiming to get reelected fueled only by $20 contributions. It included competing gubernatorial candidates John Kitzhaber and Bill Bradbury trying to one-up each other's after-hours parties (Bradbury won in a straw poll of voters conducted via text message on the last day of the conference, aided to an indeterminate degree by his party's three kegs). It included late-night discussions with environmental advocates about the possibility of taxing alcohol to pay for public transit (any takers?), and exhortations from Congressman Earl Blumenauer to rally around green energy rather than letting the negative side effects of wind and solar atomize the movement.
The keynote speech from digital freedom advocate and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig received loud applause for summing up, with a single phrase, the crowd's thoughts on the increasing amount of big corporate money in politics: "WTF?"
But the solution, Lessig says (and the Bus Project agrees), is not to put less money into politics, but to gather up more small, individual contributions to combat the Chevrons and the Eli Lillys—to get more volunteers on campaigns, to push bolder ideas, and field more candidates. That spirit of tech-savvy, yes-we-still-can optimism is what defined Oregon's attempt to reboot democracy last weekend.
And what ideas, exactly, are progressive groups pitching for the state's future? The conference voted on 12 "shovel ready" political projects, pledging to throw volunteer time and money behind the top contenders. Here is a rundown of the top three ideas the mass of students, elected officials, lobbyists, and activist journalist-bloggers chose as the left's next top priorities:
Reform Voter Registration
The biggest hurdle to voting in our democracy is that you actually have to register. Oregon spent an estimated $8.8 million in 2008 running around trying to get citizens to fill out the paperwork that puts them on the voter rolls—and in every state, the people who are most likely not to register are young people and people of color.
The plan from the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), which took top prize at Rebooting Democracy, would flip the way the state registers voters from an opt-in system to an opt-out system. The idea is to use existing databases (like DMV and tax files) to automatically register Oregonians to vote when they turn 18 or move to the state. Voters would have to fill out forms to unregister if they did not want the chance to participate in elections. "A full third of people who are eligible to vote in Oregon are not registered," says Aronson, a Bus veteran who was representing OSPIRG onstage. "Canada uses this opt-out method and I don't usually trust people who douse their fries in mayonnaise, but they have a 93 percent voter registration rate."
Put Local Food in Schools
Portland high schools serve pizza every single day in their cafeterias, thanks in part to the fact that Oregon is one of only four states nationwide that does not give public schools any money for their lunch programs. Upstream Public Health and other green advocacy groups want Oregon to invest 15 cents for every school lunch and seven cents per breakfast on buying Oregon grown and processed foods. That adds up to $22.6 million every year in lunch money from the state, but backers say it would lead to $100 million in economic activity and cut the fat from kids' diets.
Kick the Kicker
One problem with the Oregon budget is simple. "We don't save money in good times to prepare for the bad," says the Oregon Business Council Project Coordinator Jeremy Rogers, who pitched the idea that the state should kick its tax return "kicker" into a state rainy-day fund rather than back to taxpayers. When times were good in 2007, the state gave $1.2 billion back to taxpayers, only to have to turn around and face a budget hole of $1.4 billion in 2009.
In six months, we'll check back in on how the Bus Project and Oregon progressives have done on these three priorities.