Desks and chairs and credenzas, oh, my

With 10 weeks remaining before the Nov. 4 election, the biggest "issue" in Oregon's U.S. Senate race is ... furniture.

That's the impression left by Sen. Gordon Smith's television ads blasting his opponent, House Speaker Jeff Merkley, for the state capitol remodeling project that included expensive solid wood desks and other furniture for lawmakers' offices.

With all the burning issues facing the United States and Oregon — the faltering economy, soaring energy prices, a broken health-care system and two wars in the Mideast, it's beyond ludicrous that a carefully planned remodeling project approved by lawmakers of both parties should be getting this much attention.

If Smith's hammering of this nonissue hasn't already turned off more voters than it has persuaded, the latest revelation ought to take care of the rest. It now turns out that Smith's own state director, Kerry Tymchuck, who served on the Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature, not only voted to approve the remodeling project, but praised the subcommittee recommendation of the furniture purchase as "thoughtful" and "innovative."

How the Legislature spends public money is certainly worthy of debate, and reasonable people can disagree whether spending more for high-end furniture because it will last longer is more prudent than spending less. But it's hard to see what that bipartisan decision has to do with who would make a better U.S. senator.

Smith clearly is vulnerable in this election, with voters weary of nearly eight years of Republican control in Washington. But Oregonians need to hear why they should return him for six more years, not how much Oregon legislators spent on desks and chairs.

Merkley is hardly blameless himself in this campaign. His latest attack blasts Smith for a wastewater spill at Smith's frozen vegetable plant in Eastern Oregon — a spill the company self-reported and which the Department of Environmental Quality described as "minor." Smith has no day-to-day role in operating the plant, a responsibility he turned over to others when he was elected to the Senate in 1996.

A press release from Merkley's campaign leads off with the recent spill, but uses far more space describing a much more serious spill at the plant 16 years ago — before Smith was elected to the Senate.

Except for the presidential race, this Senate seat is the highest office Oregonians will vote on this year. Voters need to hear a clear discussion of how each of these candidates intends to tackle the problems facing Oregon and the nation, not the political equivalent of mudwrestling.

Real issues, gentlemen. Please.

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