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Frohnmayer's 'Oregon Blueprint' and the embrace of citizenship

Nine years ago, Dave Frohnmayer — then president of the University of Oregon — was invited to speak to the Oregon Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to improving the state.

Dave didn’t want to waste their time. He didn’t want to speak in platitudes about the beauty and greatness of Oregon.

He gave them a speech about something he called the “Oregon Blueprint.”

Blueprints are never made by just one person, Dave said. They are created by architects in consultation with electricians, plumbers, steel workers, wood workers, landscape designers — all kinds of people.

At the heart of Dave’s Oregon Blueprint was the idea that we’re all in it together. He was concerned, though, that a disease he called “partisanship” or “tribalism” was killing the state.

He told his audience nine years ago: “If you leave with only one memory today, it is this: Bitter partisanship, which is the political equivalent of road rage, threatens to leave us as a state and people a tangled wreck on the side of Oregon’s road toward progress.”

Dave talked about vital issues — the challenge of sustainability, our changing demographics and Oregon’s eroding middle class. Yes, those are some popular buzzwords strung together, but they weren’t always buzzwords. They once had real meaning.

Suppose you were drawing up a blueprint to create jobs. You need to sustain the economy and sustain the environment at the same time.

“The ex-mill worker in Gardiner watches his old workplace dynamited and knows he is poorer for the loss,” said Dave. “The forest ecologist, noting the old growth trees still standing, sees a richer world.”

Since we are all in this together, you wouldn’t just consult only the ex-millworker or only the forest ecologist.

Dave was concerned about what he called the New Tribalism. He first defined this term back in 1992 when he started noticing how politics was becoming increasingly based on narrow concerns. Political issues were being broken down along divisions of class, region, ethnicity, religion, ideology.

He had a basis of comparison for how the political climate was changing. He served six years as state representative from 1974 to 1980. He followed that with a decade as the state’s attorney general.

He knew how politics could be a force for the general good. While serving in the Legislature, he promoted laws requiring that government bodies meet in public and release public records. Those are laws that serve everyone — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal.

As attorney general, he enforced consumer protections. All of us — Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, whatever — are consumers.

In the Oregon Blueprint that he offered nine years ago, he warned that tribalism was creating an environment where our political system was being asked to take on social and religious disputes that it could not possibly resolve.

He was absolutely right. Our political system is supposed to be one of limited government. When one group demands that our political system help it foist its politics on another group, we end up divided even further.

Dave described this as “a high-blood pressure, winning-at-all-cost, no-prisoners-taken approach to politics that is better suited for the Politburo than the statehouse.”

In politics he believed even small gestures could help when seeking the moderate center. Start by lowering our voices, he said. Lower the volume and raise the quality of what we are saying. He advised against email flaming — delete the angry email before sending it.

In general, he was not a fan of quasi-public means of communication like email. He realized it had none of the nuances of honest public dialogue. Think of all the people we know who could’ve used that advice the past nine years.

I thought about Dave the other day when I had some people in my office trying to get me to vote in favor of a particular bill.

“It polls well,” they told me.

I’m sure it does. But is it good law? Is it right?

Dave would advise to look beyond your own self-interest and look beyond today. Consider the common good.

This concept of embracing citizenship ran through Dave’s Oregon Blueprint. He looked for ways to restore a sense of balance in the state’s political life.

One idea was to create a legislative exchange program, kind of like a foreign exchange program at universities. In Dave’s scenario, legislators would go live for a week or so in another legislative district and get a feel for representing other Oregonians.

Dave liked the idea of the Columbia River uniting the various parts of the state — the image of eastern Oregon farmers shipping wheat and produce down the river, into the Port of Portland and then beyond to feed the world.

It’s an image that reinforces the truth that we are in this together.

When Dave died, newspaper editorials around the state hailed him as a moderate Republican in the tradition of Gov. Tom McCall and Sen. Mark Hatfield. They made it sound like Dave Frohnmayer was the last of a breed.

He would not want that. He would want others to step up. There is much to do, and the work is never done.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, serves Senate District 16, which stretches from Astoria to Forest Grove. She shared a longer version of this tribute at Dave Frohnmayer’s memorial service on March 21.


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