Jeff Merkley: The interview

Shortly after obtaining his master’s degree from Princeton, Jeff Merkley was appointed as a Presidential Management Fellow in 1982, marking his first experience in the political arena.

Shortly after obtaining his master’s degree from Princeton, Jeff Merkley was appointed as a Presidential Management Fellow in 1982, marking his first experience in the political arena.

After spending the past 15 years in numerous political positions, including serving as president of the World Affairs Council of Oregon for seven years and being elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1998, where he has been the speaker of the Oregon House since 2006, the native Oregonian is taking the next step and is running for Gordon Smith’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

The Vanguard: What are you doing in your platform to look out for college students?

Jeff Merkley: Well, certainly, we (the Oregon Legislature) doubled scholarships to enhance the ability of students to go to college. Then we greatly increased the funding for the schools in the university system. But, also, tackling these quality-of-life issues, like working to improve our healthcare system, affects students. Now, I think students are affected by all these pieces–our healthcare system, the existence of family-wage jobs so they’ll be jobs when you come out of college.

I want to encourage students on all campuses to get involved in this next election cycle, because in the not-near-distant future, you’ll be out of school and we have to fight to set things back on track in this nation.

What would be your first course of action if you were elected senator?

The first course is to team up with the rest of the hopefully enlarged Democratic majority to end this war in Iraq. The way we do that is to send a budget bill to the president with a firm timeline for withdrawal from combat roles.

How does your experience in Washington serve you in ending the war in Iraq?

Well, I think my years in foreign policy give me a lot of confidence and credibility when it comes to issues like the war in Iraq.

What were your main reasons for deciding to run for the Senate?

The main reason is that our nation is so far off track. I’ve spent the last four years working to end the paralysis in Oregon state government. The result this year, as my role as speaker, was the most progressive, the most productive session in the nation, and certainly the most productive and progressive in Oregon in the last 30 years.

But when I turn my eyes to Washington D.C., I see similar paralysis. I see a nation far off track. And that’s the beauty of democracy–if you don’t like what’s going on you get to jump in and try to change it.

On the war in Iraq:

The most important issue is ending the war in Iraq. We need to bring our sons and daughters home, and we need to start bringing them home today.

Here are the other components: We need to have a stronger policy with Iran, Syria and Turkey, we need to continue rebuilding the nation, but we need to do it through Iraqi contractors, not through 180,000 American contractors. We’ve got to get our troops off the patrols and check points–that is not serving our long-term interests or Iraq’s long-term interests.

On healthcare:

It’s been 62 years since [President Harry] Truman called for a healthcare system that serves every man, woman and child in this nation, and now is the time that we need to make it happen.

How do you provide access for healthcare?

…We need to make our system much more efficient than it is now, including making huge investments in prevention and in disease management, and we need to dramatically reduce the cost of drugs. On energy and global warming:

The Smith-Bush plan has given billions of dollars of tax breaks to oil companies to continue the dependence on foreign oil. That dependence is an enormous expense to our national security as well as to our economy. We instead need to invest those funds here in the United States–in alternative energy, in biofuels, create good paying jobs here in America with that money, eliminate dependence on foreign oil.

Which kinds of alternative energy sources do you favor?

To give you a sense of some of the things we can do on the global warming front, we need to transform our fleet to automobiles that are hybrids and plug-in hybrids…The second thing we need to do is dramatically increase conservation. If you don’t need to generate as much energy, you don’t have nearly as many issues. Third, we need to vastly increase our investment in solar rays and wind turbines and wave energy.

On respect for the Constitution and rule of law:

We’ve had seven years in which Bush, with the support of a Republican-led Senate, has bent the rule of law, ignored habeas corpus, undermined the Geneva Convention, engaged in extraordinary renditions to secret prisons and torture. Not only does this damage our reputation as a nation of law but it enormously diminishes our leadership in the world.

On education:

Another significant issue is investment in education and making education affordable. College is way too expensive and it’s causing many of our students to forego college, or having to work half time or full time while attending, thereby making it much harder to get through a program.

What is the role of the Oregon University System and Portland State in terms of investing in education?

It’s to provide an affordable, high-quality university education for our students.

Does that include raises or increased pay for professors?

We can decrease the need for universities to raise tuition, and then also attack that from the other side with scholarships. But we need to pay our professors enough that they are not stolen away by ever other university system in the country.