Walden questioned on Green New Deal

Eighth-grader Hunter Houck asks Rep. Greg Walden about climate change and the Green New Deal during a town hall in Heppner in August 2019. Participation in town halls is one way everyday citizens can be more civically engaged.

One of the side effects of being a reporter is you get to know a lot of politicians.

I don’t say this to brag, but rather to make the opposite point: It’s really nothing to brag about.

Sometimes a senator or governor or mayor can seem like some mystical being, a celebrity you read about on the news but would never expect to have a casual conversation with. Talking to one might seem intimidating. But politicians are just people.

Congressman Greg Walden may have the ear of president, but he also went to the same public elementary school in The Dalles as me. Our city councilors and county commissioners might make important decisions for our communities, but they also live in the same towns we do. They drive on the same roads and shop at the same grocery stores.

The upshot of all of this is that no one should feel inadequate about getting involved in politics.

As a taxpayer and a resident of this country you have every right to show up at a town hall or a city council meeting or a legislative committee in the Oregon Capitol and voice your opinion. If your opinions are good enough to share with your friends on Facebook or with your family over the dinner table, they are good enough to share with the people whose job it is to represent you. If public speaking sounds too intimidating, you can always write a letter.

Just as importantly, we also need people to step up and do the work of being one of those representatives. Each election we see races where candidates are running unopposed. Even if that candidate is a great choice for office, opposition can help candidates flesh out their ideas and push them to do more outreach.

While contests for flashy elected titles like governor get most of the attention, much of the work of running government also happens in committees where everyday volunteers you’ve never heard of are also representing you.

The city of Hermiston’s public infrastructure committee, for example, worked with city staff to craft the capital improvement plan that set in motion the water, sewer and street projects now underway, and the water rate increase helping to pay for them. The city council was the ultimate authority to approve the plan, but the committee spent hours refining it first.

Anyone can apply to sit on a city committee, and the long list of committees coupled with relatively low interest means there are almost always seats open somewhere. Anyone can also apply to sit on one of the state of Oregon’s boards and advisory councils, where residents advise the state on everything from wine to hearing aids.

While anyone can also run for elected office, regardless of experience, boards and committees are great training grounds for doing so. Serious candidates — the kind who win races — often learn the ropes that way first.

Dan Dorran, for example, who recently advanced to the general election for Umatilla County commissioner, studied the ins and outs of how the county operates while serving on the county’s charter review committee. Hermiston’s newest city councilor, David McCarthy, hit the ground running by voting to approve a budget that he had already studied as a member of the city’s budget committee.

The world is run, as someone once told me, by those who show up. I hope in this time of political strife that more people ponder how they can “show up” on behalf of their own community.

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