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DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: Thinking Locally, Influencing Nationally

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Don't Shoot the MessengerEver since a motley crew of anti-federal government militia settled into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, there has been a certain amount of chiding about the so-called Oath Keepers, most cleverly done (in our opinion) by Portland-based Colin Meloy, the lead singer for the Decembrists, who posted six hours of faux homo-militia erotica on Twitter. There also have been plenty of late-night talk show jokes standing alongside comments by residents about their concerns and surprise at the bullheaded attempt to “liberate” land.

But what has been largely overlooked is where and when tension between local and federal concerns and laws are appropriate—and even productive.  

No, not a single one of our brain cells or a single heart beat condones what we see as misguided actions to protest federal policies (if that, indeed, is what has been happening); instead, though, we’d like to take a few paragraphs to redirect the conversation to the positive elements that can be derived from the tensions between local attitudes and federal rules.

Tension does not need to be combative, but can be constructive difference of opinions—and, in fact, this general framework of public dialogue is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of the Founding Fathers and U.S. Constitution. Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that cities and states should be the laboratories for ideas—and, to paraphrase, that local governments and people should try out new ideas and laws; sort of like throwing noodles on the wall and seeing what sticks for the rest of the nation. Indeed! This interplay between local ideas and national identity can be what makes America so great—and Oregon has a robust history of trying out new ideas. The bottle bill is a prime example, a unique and modest idea that idea started as a letter writing campaign from a traveling salesman to his elected officials in Salem, and ended up serving as the cornerstone for a nationwide recycling movement.

More recently, the legalization of recreational uses of marijuana has pitted local lifestyles against federal drug laws. While Oregon is not the first state to take this step, it is within the first pack of states to do so—and it has pushed this envelope for decades, first by permitting medical marijuana and now by joining Washington and Colorado in what many have labeled as a “social experiment.” Yes, how Oregon—and its cities like Medford and Ashland—manage to properly or improperly handle these new ideas will set the tone of a national dialogue and the course for other states to adopt—or not—these policies.

In his State of the City speech last week, City of Ashland Mayor John Stromberg touched on this theme (see News, page 7). He talked about the interplay between national issues like same-sex marriage and global warming, and local municipalities. Take, for example, same-sex marriage which, twelve years ago, was a radical idea when, in 2004, San Francisco and Multnomah County (Portland) started to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as well as hetro-couples. It took another decade, but those ideas percolated into state laws and, eventually, were adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court—and an entire nation.

Yes, what has been hijacked at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is the idea that tensions between local and federal attitudes and laws needs to be destructive and combative. We hope instead, that as the state legislative session gears up that unique and challenging ideas to some of the nation’s most pressing issues and problems—gun violence, global warming, to name two—will be presented, and that Oregon and city governments will look both to other cities for solutions and also understand that we can provide solutions for national problems.  


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