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One of the tenets of Oregon politics—and worth remembering during Fourth of July celebrations—is the idea of direct representation—or what is more commonly practiced as the voter referendum, the idea that one person with a good idea can change the world (or at least the state of Oregon).

Even the history behind how the “I and R” (initiative and referendum) came about is a true American (as we consider that term) success story of the little guy beating an elite system of financial and political power—which, after all, what is more American than a rebel with a righteous cause.

In the late 1880s, a Wisconsin-born farmer/miner/lawyer/wanderer William Simon U’Ren landed in Oregon; near Milwaukie. A Socialist by heart and head, U’Ren’s political philosophies were stacked on one side of the coin at the time: The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the financial reins firmly in the hands of a few, yet a growing number of workers were making demands for policies like eight-hour work days and regulations to protect fairness and equity. In spite of these demands, the political landscape at the time was stacked against the “little guy,” the ordinary citizen who wanted a voice. At that time, even U.S. Senators were not elected by popular vote, but appointed by their peers. It was truly an insider’s game—and such was true in Oregon state politics as well. One journalist at the time described the Oregon state legislature as being filled with “briefless lawyers, farmless farmers, business failures, bar-room loafers, Fourth-of-July-orators, and political thugs.”

Inspired by European ideas of direct representation, U’Ren began to stir for a method by which farmers and other disenfranchised residents could have a voice in the lawmaking process. He found allies in other groups who also wanted representation; in particular, women working for the right to vote. By the time the state legislature convened in Salem in 1895, U’Ren had 15,000 signatures calling for the “I and R.” But that overwhelming support was swatted away like an annoying fly at a picnic.

Not dissuaded, U’Ren ran for the state legislature and after winning, organized a revolt from within, rallying a group of lawmakers who for one reason or another opposed the political leaders. Although still the minority, they refused to participate in legislative business, effectively shut down the legislature, as there was no quorum and, subsequently, no lawmaking whatsoever during the session of 1897.  

Two years later, the legislature conceded and passed the “I and R.” Woodrow Wilson, then-governor of New Jersey, declared that “I and R” were “the safeguard of politics” and praised the method for “taking power from the boss and placing it in the hands of the people.”

Since then, the “I and R” in Oregon has helped bring about direct election of U.S. senators, women’s suffrage, minimum wage regulations, and the eight-hour work day; as well as, more recently, the Death With Dignity Act, legalization of marijuana and, to our main point here, a ban on Genetically Engineered seeds and plants when, two years ago, voters in Josephine County beat out mega-international corporations.

But a year after being voted into existence, the GMO ordinance was challenged by Robert and Shelley Ann White who argued, although it didn’t take away existing crops, prevented them from planting biotech sugar beets. At issue was whether a law passed by the state legislature banning GMOs bans preempts the initiative—and, in spite of the public support, in late May, a Josephine County circuit court judge un-did the voter initiative and GMO ban. Worse yet, last week the plaintiff attorneys followed their win by filing a petition for attorneys’ fees, a bill that could top $30,000, mainly derived from fees from the international law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which is claiming a rate of $625 per hour for lawyer John DiLorenzo, who, points out a press release, is the lobbyist who authored the state preemption bill at issue.

The celebration for the GMO ban—and, more broadly, the success of the voter initiative—is now quieted and, moreover, the lawmaking process is starting to look more like an elite system, where the authors of bills profit from the bills themselves, and where the will of thousands of voters can be plowed under by a handful of “farmless farmers (and) Fourth-of-July-orators.”


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