Sen. Jeff Merkley (D)
Elected: 2008, term expires 2014, 1st term.
Born: Oct. 24, 1956, Myrtle Creek .
Education: Stanford U., B.A. 1979; Princeton U., M.P.P. 1982.
Family: Married (Mary Sorteberg); 2 children.
Elected office: OR House, 1999-2008, House Speaker, 2006-08.
Professional Career: Pres. fellow, Office of the Secy. of Defense, 1982-85; Natl. security analyst, CBO, 1985-1989; Exec. dir., Portland Habitat for Humanity, 1991-94; Dir. of housing development, Human Solutions, 1995-96; Pres., World Affairs Cncl. of OR, 1996-2003.
The junior senator from Oregon is first-term Democrat Jeff Merkley. He was born in Myrtle Creek, Ore., to parents who worked at a local sawmill. A declining local economy forced them into career adjustments during Merkley’s formative years. The sawmill closed when he was 2 years old, obliging his father to work as a logger and homebuilder in the neighboring town of Roseburg. When those jobs disappeared, the family moved to Portland where his father took a job as a mechanic. During these times, the Merkley family lived frugally. “My parents lived with an ethic of making sure they saved and spent very little money on frills,” he says. In high school, Merkley broadened his perspective on economic struggles by spending a summer in Ghana as part of the American Field Service Exchange Program. The family he stayed with had two prized possessions: a bicycle and an iron. The first in his own family to attend college, Merkley pursued international affairs and travel as an undergraduate at Stanford University. He spent a trimester in Florence, Italy, and a summer hitchhiking around Israel. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, he took an internship with the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. In the summer of 1980, Merkley and a fellow intern traveled through war-torn Central America by bus. He earned a master’s degree in public policy from Princeton University, landed a presidential fellowship at the Pentagon in 1982, and then worked as an analyst in the Congressional Budget Office.
|Jeff Merkley (D)||864,392||(49%)||($6,501,315)|
|Gordon Smith (R)||805,159||(46%)||($11,372,481)|
|Dave Brownlow (CNP)||92,565||(5%)|
|Jeff Merkley (D)||246,482||(45%)|
|Steve Novick (D)||230,889||(42%)|
|Candy Neville (D)||38,367||(7%)|
Merkley moved back to Portland in the early 1990s and took a job as director of the city’s Habitat for Humanity chapter, where he concentrated on affordable housing and skills training for at-risk youth and low-income families. In 1998, he was elected to the state House, campaigning on his desire to improve Oregon’s school system. He achieved his first legislative victory in 1999 with a bill establishing Individual Development Accounts to help low-income families save money for buying homes, attending school, or starting businesses. As a state legislator, Merkley supported fee increases on deeds and other home purchase filings to increase funding for low-income housing. In 2003, the Democratic House minority leader stepped down, and Merkley, who had gained a reputation as an unassuming policy wonk, was surprisingly elected to succeed her. Fellow House members cited Merkley’s consensus-building ability. But House Republicans had concentrated their power and restricted the Democratic caucus’s influence, and the ensuing partisanship prevented cooperation on major legislation. Merkley demonstrated a competitive edge by aggressively campaigning on behalf of Democratic House candidates in 2006. One controversial television ad accused Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis of covering up suspected sexual misconduct by her brother-in-law. State Republicans condemned the ad as too personal, but Merkley stood by it. Democrats won control of the Oregon House for the first time in 16 years, and Merkley was unanimously elected speaker.
During his tenure as speaker, the Legislature passed several reforms, including an expanded indoor smoking ban and greater rights for same-sex couples. He also pushed through an ethics bill aimed at curbing gifts and other perks from lobbyists to lawmakers. In 2007, Merkley fought Oregon’s payday loan industry by sponsoring a bill that imposed an interest-rate cap of 36% annually on consumer loans less than $50,000. He also negotiated the establishment of a state rainy-day fund to protect schools and other state services from recessions; an increase in the state’s corporate minimum tax paid for the fund. The Oregonian called the session “one of the most successful legislative sessions of recent years.”
Merkley got the attention of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer of New York, who recruited him to challenge incumbent GOP Sen. Gordon Smith in the 2008 election. National Democrats thought Merkley would appeal to the same voters who had elected the moderate and pragmatic Smith to two Senate terms. Despite the endorsements and financial backing of his national party, Merkley faced stiff primary competition from liberal activist and political consultant Steve Novick, who had opposed Merkley’s elevation to House minority leader in 2003. Merkley initially ignored Novick and focused his campaign on Smith. But Novick, who stands just 4 feet, 9 inches tall, built support among the state’s most liberal voters. He ran ads saying he would “stand up for the little guy,” and labeled Merkley as pro-war for a vote he cast in favor of a 2003 resolution that praised both President Bush and American troops for courage in the war against Iraq. Without sharp disagreements on policy, the two candidates reverted to criticizing each other through negative ads and spirited debates. Merkley narrowly defeated Novick, 45%-42%. Novick won liberal Multnomah County around Portland by 12 percentage points, but Merkley’s large victories in rural areas gave him the nomination.
The general election was one of the most expensive and closely watched contests of 2008. In Smith, Merkley faced a moderate Republican who had demonstrated an independent policy streak and willingness to work across the aisle. Smith had broken with his party by voting for higher automobile mileage standards and against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In August 2006, The Oregonian wrote, “As a Republican senator from a politically divided state, Smith’s Senate terms are six-year balancing acts in which he must please both conservatives in this party and enough liberal Oregonians to get re-elected. In an increasingly polarized political world, Smith straddles a rare middle ground.”
To combat Smith’s centrist appeal, Merkley allied himself with Barack Obama and his presidential campaign’s theme of change. The message resonated in a state where Bush’s approval ratings were below the national average. In late October, Merkley aired a television ad that featured Obama urging voters to bring about “real change” by casting their ballots for Merkley. Former Vice President Gore—noticeably absent from the campaign trail for most of the election cycle—also stumped for Merkley. Smith touted his reputation for working across the aisle, particularly with fellow Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat. He attempted to distance himself from Bush, running ads that featured Wyden and Democratic icon Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Cognizant of Oregonians’ anti-GOP sentiments, Smith featured Obama in three of his own ads, including one touting that the two senators had worked together to increase mileage standards.
On issues, Merkley criticized Smith for supporting the $700 billion government bailout of financial institutions. The two-term senator also faced renewed questions about the legal status of seasonal immigrant workers at his family business, Smith Frozen Foods. Ironically, as House speaker, Merkley had helped kill the bill that would have required Oregon employers to verify the legal status of foreign workers; Smith has voted for such legislation in Congress. Merkley also called on Smith to return campaign contributions from Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who was convicted in a corruption scandal. (The conviction was later thrown out.) Smith ran an ad that claimed Merkley had voted to increase taxes 44 times in the state House. An independent review showed that Merkley had voted eight times to directly raise taxes. In one of the campaign season’s oddest attack ads, the National Republican Senatorial Committee aired an unflattering clip of Merkley gobbling a hot dog and fielding questions about Russia’s invasion of Georgia with his mouth full. In addition to capturing an inelegant moment for Merkley, the ad also caught him uninformed on the issue. Smith later condemned the ad.
Another hurdle for Smith was the candidacy of Constitution Party candidate Dave Brownlow, a libertarian who threatened to attract conservative voters estranged by Smith’s moderate platform. Late polls showed Brownlow taking 3% to 5%, despite running an almost no-budget campaign. On November 4, Merkley defeated Smith 49%-46% with Brownlow getting a significant 5%. Smith out-raised Merkley $13 million to $7 million, but the DSCC and other outside groups poured $11 million into the race. In a post-election tribute to the defeated incumbent, The Oregonian editorialized, “The across-party working relationship he developed with Democrat Ron Wyden—even if it frayed in this political season—became a model for bipartisan cooperation worth emulating in other circumstances, nationally and locally.”