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Citizen power is alive in Salem

Now that the 2013 Oregon Legislature is in session, how can a resident of the Beaver State make a difference? Many will assume we are helpless given the power of money, political parties, vested interests and a governmental process that all too often seems like maze. 

But if one understands the basics of Oregon legislative politics, what seems a mission impossible need not remain such. 

First of all, Oregon is blessed to have a "citizen's legislature." The people who represent us in the legislature come from our communities and we elect them. So that's the beginning of "citizen" power. 

Lesson #1: Because we elect them, lawmakers are accountable to us. Members of the legislature are not some faceless political drones thousands of miles away from us, but are our neighbors. They have lives above and beyond being legislators — as farmers, businesspeople, teachers, doctors and, yes, even lawyers.

More importantly, they have families rooted in our communities with children and grandchildren. Like us they have a stake in Oregon's past, present and future. They, just like us, get up in the morning and are off to “the job" or to their Salem job.

Lesson #2: Legislators have a personal interest in their communities. And since they are part-time legislators not professional ones, they can't live off the minimal wages of their legislative salaries. They have to have other "real" jobs and/or family resources. 

In most cases legislators commute from home to Salem each day, except those who live outside the Portland-Salem corridor. But every legislator is home for the weekends, which usually means from Friday to Monday.

Lesson #3: Legislators are accessible in their home districts and an e-mail or phone call away from us in Salem. If you want to influence a legislator get to know them in your community through your religious, community or professional networks. Building face-to-face relationships is a key to influence. Similarly, working on a campaign is another way to get to know your legislator. Representatives face re-election every two years; senators every four. This gives you plenty of time to get to know them, and they to know you.

Lesson #4: Politics is about building relationships. Politics is personal.

Once the legislature is in session you have to work with others who agree with you on a given issue if you want to have influence. But if you've opened the door by knowing your legislator, you've got a leg up in the process.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, Pacific University. Read his blogs at russdondero.squarespace.com.




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