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In the Land of the Angry Republicans: Talking with the new Deschutes Democratic Chairman 

Jim Thomassen was elected in November to chair the Deschutes County Democratic Party. A graduate of the University of Oregon, he was a professional economist

Jim Thomassen was elected in November to chair the Deschutes County Democratic Party. A graduate of the University of Oregon, he was a professional economist for state government before working in marketing in the high-tech field. He and his wife moved to Bend in 2004. This is an edited transcript of a conversation with him by Source Senior Writer H. Bruce Miller.


tSW: How would you label yourself? Are you liberal, progressive, moderate, conservative, all of the above?

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Thomassen: Yeah (laughs). On issues I'm different. I would say I am nearly a violent liberal on the war. ... On fiscal responsibility, I'm an economist, I know we can't spend that kind of money. On the social issues I believe it is our obligation to take care of our people. The fact that we have, I think it's 200,000 homeless vets - that kind of stuff is embarrassing. It's embarrassing to have the large, large number of poor people we have. It's embarrassing that our middle class is disappearing. So on social issues - progressive.

How would you compare the political climate in Central Oregon with what you experienced in the Portland area?

We lived in Lake Oswego, and that's a pretty Republican town. But they were nice Republicans. And in a lot of cases they'd vote Democrat, even though they called themselves Republicans. ... Well, when we got over here we found angry Republicans. And that was a new experience for us.

On a First Friday [Art Walk] - we'd moved here about four days earlier - we parked our car downtown, and when we came back we found on the windshield what looked like an official parking ticket. But it wasn't. It called me a pigheaded asshole and a couple other nasty words, and at the end the infraction is, they wrote in: "Kerry bumper sticker." ...

How did you get involved in Democratic Party politics?

I was really involved in the '60s and '70s because of the war in Vietnam, and then I raised a family so I kind of backed out and didn't do too much. And then the big push again happened after 9/11 when they decided to turn right and go into Iraq instead of going after the bad guys.

Back in the mid-'70s I went to a movie called Coming Home, and I remember casket after casket coming out of the back of the airplane. ... I walked out of the movie and I said to my wife, 'You know, I didn't do enough - I didn't do enough to stop this.' I said, 'You know what? I'm not going to say I didn't do enough again.' So we volunteered, went to work for the Democrats in Portland. ...

Is there a significant ideological split in the local Democratic Party between the element that wants to impeach Bush and Cheney and so forth, and the ones [former Deschutes Democrats Chairman] Paul [Motta] has called the Blue Dog Democrats?

I would say there was a significant split for a very short period of time, and after that it was blown out of proportion. There was a group of Democrats who really wanted to be more vocal on national issues, and then there was the group that just wanted to get things going on the local level. If there was a split it was a very short-lived split. ...

We had a party last night [Jan. 10] and we had over 200 people there, 200 Deschutes Democrats. And everybody told me this was the largest crowd they've seen of this group since its inception. ...

There are those who said there are some of the Deschutes Democrats who are too worried about their [Republican] neighbors to take a stand. And my reply to that is, 'You're darn right we're worried about our neighbors, because our neighbors are independents, our neighbors are Republicans, some of our neighbors are Democrats, and we need to have the whole group to come together. The Democrats can't pull this country together by themselves. So, yeah, we're going to be very conscious of our neighbors, and we're not going to purposely try to inflame our neighbors.

But if you have a Kerry bumper sticker on your car and somebody puts a thing on the windshield that says you're an asshole, how do you reach those people?

Some of them you can't. About 30% of the public still thinks Bush is doing a good job. But a lot of them you can reach; a lot of them are not happy with the way things are. They may not blame Bush, but they're not happy with how the economy is going, they're not happy that we're still in Iraq.

Personally I find it very easy now to talk to Republicans. There are still a few mean Republicans, but I'm guessing there are a few mean Democrats too. I'm finding that my neighbors who are Republicans who in the past made a point of just not talking about that stuff, we can talk now. ...

Most of the Republicans that I talk to our fiscal conservatives, and they're really not happy about putting all this stuff on the credit card. So there's common ground already, and there wasn't so much common ground four years ago. What we have to do is make sure we don't lose that common ground, and one way to lose it is to start coming out with inflammatory positions that aren't really going to buy anything. Now, we will take strong stands on issues, but we're not going to do it to inflame or to show how Democrat we are.

What are the local, regional or state issues that you think the Deschutes Democrats can take stands on and use to their advantage, looking ahead to November 2008?

Well, I think one area where we have to position ourselves is on the economy. Of course, the war ...

The war seems to be receding as an issue.

I know, and that bothers me, because we just lost another kid yesterday. Twenty years old - god ...

So obviously we will continue to talk about ways of getting out of Iraq, and certainly the economy, and that goes for gas prices. And the current problem we have with housing. I have friends and relatives who are underwater on their houses. And sure, it's their fault. But it's not all their fault, because they were offered free money, and it's hard to turn that down. ...

Let me tell you one issue that I'm going to be going after, and that's immigration. ... What would like to do is have what I guess I would call issue forums, and one of them is going to be on immigration. Why don't we solve it? Why don't we in Central Oregon solve it? Because if we can't solve it, who's going to solve it? Why don't we find the people who say let's build a wall, and then find people who say let's send them all home, and then find someone who says we can't send them all home because our economy needs them, but let's give them a process to become citizens. ...

The immigration issue seems to be a lot higher profile, according to the polls anyway, for the Republicans than the Democrats. I was kind of a little surprised to hear you talk about it.

Let me tell you why I'm talking about it. I think the Republicans are going to make it an issue. And if we are not ready we're going to be in trouble. Because there are a lot of Democrats that are unhappy about illegal immigration.

Do you think it's going to be an issue even in the local and state races?

Only in the sense that if people get incensed enough about what's happening on the national level they decide to stay with the Republican Party, whereas they had been thinking about jumping ship because they're so unhappy with their leaders today. ...

Whether it becomes a Central Oregon issue or not, it engages us in the process of solving problems at home. We can't ask our governor what position we should take. We should figure out what position Central Oregon should take. We may not have the power to follow through on our solutions, but if we solve problems here we can negotiate with our solution. I'd really like to see a cross-party forum on solving these issues. ...

For instance, I wish there was some way we could figure out how to have a building moratorium and slow down the housing so we can let the infrastructure catch up. ... Maybe this is the time to be talking about how, in the future, we need to be building Bend from the bottom a little bit more. Even our telephone service struggles at times because we're putting in so many houses. Those are the kinds of issues we need to solve. ...

Getting back to the economy again, it looks like we will soon be in a recession if we're not in one already. What should be the local Democratic Party's response to that? What's the message to give people about how we got into this and how we're going to get out of it?

The problem is the lower middle class becomes the poor class, because they're the ones losing their houses and their jobs. We have to make sure that we as a community are set up to take care of these people. It's difficult at the local level to really swing an economy. However, having been an economist, I also understand that ... as an economist, if I said gloom and doom, I was causing gloom and doom. And then the news media too - it's important not to gloom-and-doom us into a bad recession.

Hopefully it will be a short recession. Personally I think Bend will be one of the first places out of the housing problem. I believe there's quite a pent-up demand of people who really want to move here, as opposed to investors or speculators. Because this is a cool place to live. ...

As soon as things start to turn I think we're going to see that growth again. What worries me most is that the infrastructure won't be ready for it. What we can do about that is we can get different people elected, we can get different people leading us, and we can instruct them that we need long-term solutions, not make-money-now solutions. Bend is big enough, Bend is sophisticated enough that we should be able to act like a big city now. We should be able to have structured growth. ...

Let's talk about a couple of local races. On the Deschutes County Commission, Mike Daly is going to run for re-election. Do you see anybody emerging on the Democratic side to be a strong challenger to him?

The mayor of Redmond, Alan Unger, is going to announce. He's the one I know of. But we are actively canvassing to find somebody to run. Obviously we're not going to pick our candidate before the primary. He would be good, though - I talked to him yesterday, and he certainly is astute on Central Oregon issues.

I think Paul Motta would call him a DINO [Democrat In Name Only] because he has supported [Republican Sen. Gordon] Smith and [Republican Rep. Greg] Walden. Do you think that's going to be a problem?

It will be a problem for some of the Democrats. I don't know what he's going to do about that. But when I asked him about some of the things he wanted to do, it was stuff that I liked and that I thought we needed to have somebody doing. My job is to get people to stop talking about this type of Democrat versus that type of Democrat. We are Democrats, we are THE Democrats, and we can't fight among ourselves. And we can't fight with the Republicans. Let's have discussions among people. ...

In another local race, Judy Stiegler is going to have another run at Chuck Burley [for the House District 54 seat]. She lost a very close race last time. Now Chuck has the advantage of incumbency, and he's been a pretty moderate Republican legislator, he's backed some progressive or semi-progressive things. ... So I guess the question is if she couldn't beat him then, how is she going to beat him now?

If the playing field was level she would beat him. We have more Democrats [now], we have more independents who are pretty much fed up with the status quo. Now that he is an incumbent obviously the field is not level anymore. So it's going to be hard. We are putting a big organization behind her, because we believe Deschutes County is going to be the point of the spear that brings the first Democratic legislator from Central Oregon. ...

She has some things already in her arsenal. He doesn't have a very good attendance record over there [in Salem]. He's already been quoted as saying he doesn't want to run for the Senate because it would be too much work. Those are not necessarily good things to say for somebody who's working for you. If someone's working for me and they say, 'Nah, I don't want to do that, it would be too much work' they're gonna come off of my promotion list, that's for sure. And they're also going to go on that list of people who I might have to rethink if we need to lay off employees. ...

One thing I think might be working in the Democrats' favor is that on the national level, the Republicans I don't think are going to be real excited about this election. Republicans might stay home in large numbers.

And the Democrats certainly won't. From what we're seeing and what happened just last night - we were stunned.

bruce@tsweekly.com 

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