Almanac A members-only database of searchable profiles compiled and adapted from the Almanac of American Politics

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D)

Oregon

N/A

merkley.senate.gov

Biography

Elected: 2008, term expires 2020, 2nd term.

Born: October 24, 1956, Myrtle Creek

Home: Portland

Education: Stanford U., B.A. 1979; Princeton U., M.P.P. 1982

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.

Ethnicity: White/Caucasian

Religion: Lutheran

Family: married (Mary Sorteberg) , 2 children

Democrat Jeff Merkley, Oregon’s junior senator, was elected in 2008 and reelected six years later. Merkley shares with President Barack Obama a background as a community activist and advocate for affordable housing—but politically, he is to the left of Obama and a good many of his Senate colleagues.

Merkley was born in Myrtle Creek to parents who worked at a local sawmill. 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. “My parents lived with an ethic of making sure they saved and spent very little money on frills,” he says. In high school, Merkley spent a summer in Ghana as part of the American Field Service Exchange Program. The first in his family to attend college, he pursued international affairs as an undergraduate at Stanford University. He spent a trimester in Florence, Italy, and a summer hitchhiking around Israel. After graduation, he took an internship with the Carnegie Endowment for 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.

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. In 2003, he was chosen by his peers as the Democratic House minority leader, and fellow House members cited his consensus-building ability. But the state House was plagued by bitter partisanship between the two parties, making it difficult to get anything done. Merkley demonstrated a competitive edge by aggressively campaigning on behalf of Democratic House candidates in 2006, including a controversial television ad that 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. Yet 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 with a bill that imposed an interest rate cap of 36% annually on consumer loans of 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 newspaper called the session “one of the most successful legislative sessions of recent years.”

Merkley got the attention of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles 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 labeled Merkley as pro-war for a vote he cast in favor of a 2003 resolution that praised both President George W. Bush and American troops for courage in the war against Iraq. 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. Smith had broken with his party by voting for higher automobile mileage standards and against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. To combat Smith’s centrist appeal, Merkley allied himself with Barack Obama and his presidential campaign 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. Smith touted his reputation for bipartisanship, particularly his good relationship with fellow Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat. He attempted to distance himself from Bush, running ads that featured Wyden, Democratic icon Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and even Obama.

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. Smith ran an ad that claimed Merkley had voted to increase state taxes 44 times, although an independent review showed that he 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 Constitution Party candidate Dave Brownlow, a libertarian with almost no campaign budget but who threatened to draw conservative voters from Smith. On November 4, Merkley defeated Smith 49%-46% with Brownlow getting 5%. Smith out-raised Merkley $13 million to $7 million, but the DSCC and other outside groups poured $11 million into the race. The election gave Oregon two Democrats in the Senate for the first time in 40 years. (Smith went on to be named president of the National Association of Broadcasters.)

In the Senate, Merkley has been a dependable liberal vote, particularly on economic and social issues. He was the most liberal senator in 2011 in National Journal’s annual rankings; he dropped to 34th in 2012, just ahead of Wyden, after taking centrist stands on foreign policy. He won a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee in 2013, making him the only Oregonian in the House or Senate to serve on a spending panel. During the 2010 debate on the health care overhaul, Merkley was among a group of Democrats who unsuccessfully pushed for a Senate vote on a government-run “public option” to compete with private insurers. He opposed the subsequent year’s deal to raise the federal debt ceiling, arguing that it cut spending by too much. He successfully amended the Senate-passed 2012 farm bill to make it easier for organic farmers to obtain federal crop insurance.

In early 2013, Merkley took over as chairman of the Economic Policy Subcommittee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. He said he planned to focus on “crowd-funding,” which enables small businesses to use the Internet to gather investments without being subject to stringent Securities and Exchange Commission funding rules. Earlier, Merkley was one of just 11 Democrats to oppose Ben Bernanke’s confirmation as Federal Reserve chairman in January 2010, contending Bernanke was partly at fault for the recession and was the wrong person to trust with an economic recovery. During the debate on the Dodd-Frank financial industry overhaul, he joined forces with Michigan Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan to craft a tough version of the “Volcker Rule” banning banks from engaging in risky investment practices that may have contributed to the crisis. Their provision remained in the final bill, though in watered-down form to attract Republican support.

Also in 2013, Merkley secured the chairmanship of a new Green Jobs and the New Economy Subcommittee on the Environment and Public Works Committee. He planned to try to duplicate some of Oregon’s moves to increase renewable energy development and create jobs. He supported a permanent ban on offshore drilling on the West Coast and unveiled an energy plan in 2010 that relied on electric cars and increased mass transit to make the United States independent of foreign oil in two decades. He also joined Maine Republican Olympia Snowe on a bill in 2011 to give the president additional emergency authority to reduce gasoline prices, and he worked with Wyden on a measure to extend federal payments to timber-dependent counties.

Like other members of his Democratic freshman class, Merkley has chafed at the Senate’s procedures. He told Portland Business Journal in February 2013 that he hoped, with the election out of the way, for greater bipartisanship. He told The New Yorker in 2010 that he winces when he hears the chamber described as the world’s greatest deliberative body, “because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” He joined Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota on a proposal to bar filibustering of motions to proceed to legislation. Their measure also required senators opposing a bill to stay on the Senate floor, limited debate on nominations to two hours, and targeted “secret holds” that permit senators to anonymously block legislation. When Senate leaders announced a bipartisan agreement in January 2011 that retained the filibuster, he expressed skepticism that the deal would lead to significant change. His proposal to make senators come to the floor to carry out filibusters fell 18 votes short of the number needed for passage. He and Udall tried again in 2013, but Senate leaders once again resisted their efforts.

Republicans had hopes of unseating Merkley in 2014, nominating as his opponent Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon with moderate positions. But stories emerged about allegations that Wehby “stalked” her ex-husband and a former boyfriend. No charges were ever filed, and Wehby blamed Democrats for trying to “shred” her family. But she never recovered from those allegations, and Merkley worked hard, visiting as many as eight cities in a single day of campaigning. He won easily with 56%.

Office Contact Information

MAIN OFFICE

(202) 224-3753

(202) 228-3997

HSOB- Hart Senate Office Building Room 313
Washington, DC 20510-3705

MAIN OFFICE

(202) 224-3753

(202) 228-3997

HSOB- Hart Senate Office Building Room 313
Washington, DC 20510-3705

DISTRICT OFFICE

(503) 326-3386

(503) 326-2900

121 SW Salmon Street Suite 1400
Portland, OR 97204-2948

DISTRICT OFFICE

(503) 326-3386

(503) 326-2900

121 SW Salmon Street Suite 1400
Portland, OR 97204-2948

DISTRICT OFFICE

(541) 318-1298

131 North West Hawthorne Avenue Suite 208
Bend, OR 97701-2958

DISTRICT OFFICE

(541) 318-1298

131 North West Hawthorne Avenue Suite 208
Bend, OR 97701-2958

DISTRICT OFFICE

(541) 465-6750

405 East Eighth Avenue Suite 2010
Eugene, OR 97401-2730

DISTRICT OFFICE

(541) 465-6750

405 East Eighth Avenue Suite 2010
Eugene, OR 97401-2730

DISTRICT OFFICE

(541) 608-9102

10 South Bartlett Street Suite 201
Medford, OR 97501-7204

DISTRICT OFFICE

(541) 608-9102

10 South Bartlett Street Suite 201
Medford, OR 97501-7204

DISTRICT OFFICE

(541) 278-1129

310 South East Second Street Suite 105
Pendleton, OR 97801-2263

DISTRICT OFFICE

(541) 278-1129

310 South East Second Street Suite 105
Pendleton, OR 97801-2263

DISTRICT OFFICE

(503) 362-8102

495 State Street Suite 330
Salem, OR 97301-4384

DISTRICT OFFICE

(503) 362-8102

495 State Street Suite 330
Salem, OR 97301-4384

Staff

Sort by: Interest Name Title

Abortion

Alexa Damis-Wulff
Legislative Correspondent

Agriculture

Adrian Deveny
Director of Energy and Environmental Policy

Rebecca Ward
Legislative Assistant

Animal Rights

Hayes Ingraham
Administrative Aide

Appropriations

Banking

Erika Calderon
Legislative Correspondent

Budget

Erika Calderon
Legislative Correspondent

Campaign

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Economics

Education

Alexa Damis-Wulff
Legislative Correspondent

Energy

Adrian Deveny
Director of Energy and Environmental Policy

Rebecca Ward
Legislative Assistant

Environment

Adrian Deveny
Director of Energy and Environmental Policy

Rebecca Ward
Legislative Assistant

Family

Matthew Traylor
Legislative Assistant

Elizabeth Eickelberg
Legislative Correspondent

Foreign

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Tedros Abraham
Legislative Aide

Govt Ops

Bernard Westlund
Legislative Correspondent

Grants

Jodi Niehoff
Administrative and Correspondence Director

Gun Issues

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Health

Alexa Damis-Wulff
Legislative Correspondent

Homeland Security

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Housing

Matthew Traylor
Legislative Assistant

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Elizabeth Eickelberg
Legislative Correspondent

Human Rights

Jeremiah Baumann
Legislative Director

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Immigration

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Intelligence

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Judiciary

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Tedros Abraham
Legislative Aide

Labor

Matthew Traylor
Legislative Assistant

Elizabeth Eickelberg
Legislative Correspondent

Military

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Tedros Abraham
Legislative Aide

Privacy

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Public Works

Bernard Westlund
Legislative Correspondent

Seniors

Matthew Traylor
Legislative Assistant

Social Security

Matthew Traylor
Legislative Assistant

Elizabeth Eickelberg
Legislative Correspondent

Tax

Erika Calderon
Legislative Correspondent

Telecommunications

Bernard Westlund
Legislative Correspondent

Trade

Erika Calderon
Legislative Correspondent

Transportation

Bernard Westlund
Legislative Correspondent

Veterans

Adrian Snead
Legislative Counsel

Election Results

2008 GENERAL
Jeff Merkley
Votes: 864,392
Percent: 48.9%
Gordon Smith
Votes: 805,159
Percent: 45.55%
Dave Brownlow
Votes: 92,565
Percent: 5.24%
2008 PRIMARY
Jeff Merkley
Votes: 246,482
Percent: 44.82%
Steve Novick
Votes: 230,889
Percent: 41.98%
Candy Neville
Votes: 38,367
Percent: 6.98%

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