PENDLETON, Ore. — The annual Pendleton Round-Up gave Oregon Gov. Kate Brown a platform to tout her accomplishments in Eastern Oregon more than a year before she is expected to run for reelection.
Although Brown, a Portland Democrat who has held the post since February 2015, has not formally announced her candidacy for 2018, her political action committee has been fundraising.
There are already official contenders for the GOP nomination, including State Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who was also spotted at the Round-Up festivities this week.
In a political era characterized by ideological divisions between rural residents and urbanites, the governor on Friday — clad in western shirt and cowboy hat — pledged her commitment to stimulate Oregon’s rural economies.
Brown, who has now attended the annual Pendleton Round-Up festivities every year of her administration, went to a VFW fundraiser breakfast Friday morning and rode a horse in the celebrated Westward Ho! Parade in downtown Pendleton.
In a speech at an annual governor’s luncheon at Blue Mountain Community College Friday afternoon, sponsored by the college, the Eastern Oregon Women’s Coalition and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Brown said she was aware that the economic recovery had not fully reached rural Oregon.
“So our focus has been really making sure that our communities that are struggling have the tools and the resources that they need to make sure that their kids can get an excellent education in that community, and also grow up and get a good-paying job in that community,” Brown said.
The governor recalled visiting Ontario, a town of approximately 11,000 on the Idaho border, after this winter’s snowstorms devastated the primarily agricultural community.
“I asked folks there, I said, ‘What can we do to make this community better?’” Brown said. “They said, we need a transloader facility. And you know what, Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature and everybody came together and said, ‘We’re going to fund a transloader facility for Ontario,’ and that’s exactly what we did.”
While overall, Oregon is adding jobs quickly and its GDP is growing, the state’s rural areas are just starting to see the benefits of an economic recovery that has taken off in Portland and other metro areas of the state.
Generally, urban economies tend to be more diverse than rural ones, and as a result bounce back more quickly from economic dips such as the Great Recession. Recent advances in technology and broader economic conditions have also fundamentally changed rural businesses, such as increased automation in timber and agriculture.
But rural Oregonians can also be heard complaining of a Portland-centric government that, from a regulatory perspective, fails to acknowledge the needs of further-flung corners of the state.
For example, State Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, whose district spans about a third of Eastern Oregon, this week expressed concerns about the effects of a proposed cap-and-invest program on rural Oregonians, who typically must drive further to get to work, school and shopping.
His fear is that a cap-and-invest program, which would place limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that businesses could emit every year, would lead to higher prices at the fuel pump and directly affect pocketbooks and commerce in rural Oregon.
In a brief interview Friday morning, Brown countered by saying that she hopes the program can be tailored to support renewable energy projects in Eastern Oregon, where sun and wind are abundant.
The cap-and-invest proposal, still in the early stages, is backed by Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and various other Democrats in the legislature.
This year’s legislative session did bring some victories for rural Oregonians.
Lawmakers were able to agree on a $5.3 billion transportation funding package and on $10 million in funding for economic development projects on the Oregon side of the border with Idaho. On Friday, Brown also touted investments in housing and water infrastructure.
Chuck Sams, communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, who introduced the governor before she made remarks at the luncheon, said his community was pleased by the success of the transportation package and the renewal of a special economic development zone on the reservation.
Sams said the tribes monitored more than 300 bills this legislative session, and while he keeps a close eye on gun-related legislation and wishes there was more funding for mental health treatment in the region, he was mostly pleased with policymakers’ recent handling of issues affecting rural Oregon.
For all of their political and cultural differences, rural and urban Oregon do face some common challenges, such as a dearth of affordable housing.
Brown, a former legislator, concluded her speech Friday on that note, with a recollection that State Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day — now the Senate Minority Leader — attended her wedding in 1997. For Ferrioli, that meant a five- or six-hour drive.
“It doesn’t matter where you live,” Brown said. “It doesn’t matter who you voted for. We all think that Oregon is special, and I know that by working together, we can keep it that way.”