Climate change is hitting our state hard. A man experiencing a mental health crisis was shot dead by police last month. Our houseless population is growing. It seems like after the year and change that’s been, things in Portland and in the state at large are as challenging as they’ve ever been. Which is why Ron Wyden’s optimism about what’s coming next for this city and state seems so unexpected. Yet even as he talked about his own family's mental health problems, and the challenges facing his children, he still expressed faith in Portland's ability to solve its problems—and as the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he has ideas about how to fund some of those solutions. We caught up with the Oregon Senator—born in Kansas and raised in California, first elected to Congress in 1980 and to the Senate in 1996—who Zoomed from his kitchen in Southeast Portland.
Let's start by talking about this heat dome of last week, where more than 100 people died in Oregon from heat related causes. How could those deaths have been prevented? And I guess the more pressing question now is, how can we prevent that happening in the future, at a policy level?
It’s obviously tragic. And it certainly makes the case that Congress has got to get serious about tackling it. And that's what I have tried to do as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. We have authority over taxes and health care and trade. It's the premier economics committee in the United States Senate. And I was able to take the 44 separate tax breaks for energy, most of which are relics to yesteryear—fossil fuel breaks and the like. And I persuaded the committee to throw them in the dustbin of history. And instead of the 44, the Committee voted for the Clean Energy for America proposal that I offered. And our star witness who helped to crack the whole effort open was our very own Maria Pope, the CEO of PGE.
It was the biggest transformation of environmental protection, and anything resembling a cleaner environment, in more than 100 years. I walked out of the room that day, and I said, you know, I've got small children, and you have small children. This is for them.
As a parent of small children, this feels terribly pressing and urgent. Is it enough?
Absolutely not, there's so much more to do. We're also going to try to get a clean energy standard in the upcoming big economic on packages. And I have long felt that the two changes that really are going to make a difference with respect to the future of our energy policy involve [firstly] taxes. That's one that we've now got off to the races. And the second is prices. And I'm very interested and have been working for quite some time, with working groups representing workers, environmental people in business, on getting a price on carbon. Because if you set a price on carbon, just like taxes, you're sending a massive signal, a huge signal to everybody that it’s gonna be a new day.
I want to talk about funding mobile crisis response teams. With all the talk recently of police reform, this is something that’s already gotten underway in Portland, with a pilot program for Portland Street Response. However, that program has been stalled with the mayor essentially suggesting we should wait and assess the pilot before we fund further. But last week, a man with mental health issues was shot dead by police in Portland. Can we afford to wait?
Health care, and particularly mental health has been particularly important to me. My brother was a schizophrenic. And for years, the Wydens went to bed at night, worried he was going to hurt himself or somebody else. So this is deeply personal to me.
I went to Lane County and met with the staff at Cahoots [Eugene’s decades-old community policing initiative which provides mental health first response for crises involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.] And I said, what do you think is a way to translate the phenomenal work you’re doing into an opportunity for everybody else in Oregon, Portland, and other communities around the country? Cahoots, to a great extent, is funded by the police in Eugene, in Lane County. I said, I'm not sure that's the model for the country. So I began to talk to the Cahoots folks about a different model, and I was able to get it passed into law in December.
The Cahoots approach that I've proposed, which now has a billion dollars—that's with a ‘b’—authorized for Oregon communities and other communities in the country is embedded in the Medicaid program, the federal state health care program, where you can help multi disciplinary teams make these decisions on the streets. And my hope is that Portland will move strongly to take advantage of this. I'm in Portland at my kitchen table today in Southeast Portland. Tomorrow I'll be in Astoria talking to mental health people and law enforcement people; I'm quite certain that Astoria is going to be interested. And a few weeks ago, I was in Pendleton in Eastern Oregon. And they said, we're really interested in this. A billion dollars is available—I hope Portland will move strongly to take advantage of this.
What's your feeling, as we all emerge from all that's gone on in the past year, of how downtown Portland as a community feels and looks?
Obviously, we have a whole lot of work to do. I just came from an event a little bit closer to the mountain and we were coming back and we were going westward on Powell. We were in the 50s and 60s and we saw an awful lot of homeless folks gathered in pretty big groups on the street. Now, I've been able to get a fair amount of federal assistance for those kinds of programs that would assist but still the concern has been one that still needs to be tackled. We're going to be looking for some ways in which the federal funds can be used on a local level to accelerate effective approaches to deal with it. So we’ve got plenty to do. And it's my job to help marshall federal resources in areas like houselessness…
I will tell you, though, don't ever bet against Portland; we have an amazing resiliency. On the positive side, you still see people moving to Portland. The numbers are constantly going up. And you also see housing being in great demand. So we got lots to do here. But I just have enormous faith in Portland's bounce back capability.
Do you think in DC impressions of Portland have changed over the past year?
The fact that Donald Trump was constantly making stuff up to try to put our city in an unfavorable light has been seen by millions of people on national TV. But I also know, as people come through in Washington, DC from different parts of the country, they say, 'Hey, Ron, you know, my kid is in Portland. There’s been some news stories and the like. My kid’s having a great time. My kid came for school, my kid came to get their first job.' And this is part of the Oregon way. This is part of the Oregon story about the capacity to rebuild, tackle tough issues, bring people together.
So don't ever think Portland can't come back. Because history shows we always do. We always get on the trampoline and keep jumping and find a way to keep going up.
You’ve already stated your plan for reelection. And I just wanted to ask given the changing demographics of our city and state, and with a lot of calls recently on a national level for visibility and representation for historically excluded groups, take me through your decision to run again and tell me whether this is going to be your last term?
I never expected to do anything like this. Fiona, I wanted to play in the NBA! I didn't expect to announce at the end of [last] year. I was on OPB. And I was talking about all the issues that we were dealing with in the Senate, some of which we're talking about now. And he said, so how about you announce your political plans? I didn't even expect to be talking about that. He said, ‘You running?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’ Why? Because there's so much to do.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)