Merkley off to a good start

Give U.S. Sen.-elect Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., credit for making La Grande one of his four stops around the state on his victory tour last week. He has, in the past few months, made as many public appearances in Union County as two-term incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith did in the past four years: two.

Of course, if it were up to voters in Northeast Oregon who would be our senator, Smith would have won re-election handily. A solid majority of voters in our region are concerned — and rightly so — about the policies Democrats in Washington, D.C., might invoke, especially concerning timber policy. A majority of voters in the state, however, saw things differently on Nov. 4. — Merkley eked out a narrow victory.

He told a standing-room-only crowd of about 125 people at the Union County Senior Center last week that he will represent all of Oregon. That he will keep in touch with all of Oregon by following Sen. Ron Wyden's example of holding town halls in every Oregon county every year. He said he comes from a timber family from Myrtle Creek, and he knows what it means to have timber-related jobs displaced. His father's was.

When John McColgan of Wallowa County stressed that timber receipts are essential to the economic health of our region, Merkley responded, "Message received."

He went on to say that county timber payments are important, but that "the best way forward is a compromise for a steady supply of logs. We're not managing the forests well. Producing receipts through jobs would be the number one priority."

Sen.-elect Merkley, we're going to hold you to that statement.

As we've stressed numerous times in this space, there's a middle ground when it comes to forest management, one that accommodates forest protection, sustainability and jobs. Extreme positions on either side of the debate have created the stalemate that we have.

Our senator-elect is going to need to demonstrate to the people of rural Oregon that he means what he says and that he will work to balance the special interests, especially as they pertain to our forests.

And if he wants to earn voters' support all across the state, he'll need to learn from Sen. Smith's mistakes. Although Smith is more aligned philosophically with the majority of people in our region, this year he got caught in a Democratic tidal wave. But that wasn't the sole reason for his loss. Somewhere along the line he simply lost touch with his constituents — even those of us in Eastern Oregon. He rarely held events to solicit citizens' views. Even on his statewide bus tour the week before the election, his office announced he would be in La Grande at a certain time, but that the announcement was not intended for print or broadcast. Simply put, Smith lost touch with Oregon.

Merkley is off to a good start. He says he will keep in touch. And he says he understands our region's needs. We hope he lives up to his word and becomes a senator for all of Oregon. We sincerely wish him well.

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