What Would Tom McCall Do?

I picked up a newspaper the other day and read the same news story I’ve read again and again for the past several years: the Governor of Oregon, the Chair of the Multnomah County Commission and the Mayor of Portland were in disagreement on how to address the greatest humanitarian crisis in modern Oregon history in the state’s most populated county. Ground zero of this unique American-made disaster.

How at this point in the crisis there isn’t a statewide emergency plan to take on homelessness is unbelievable to me. How at this point cities, counties and state agencies are often acting in conflict with with each other is also unbelievable. How the state decided to largely leave the issue up to the cities and counties is a gross dereliction of executive authority. We need leadership!

This is a state-wide crisis. Every locale in Oregon is affected, from Old Town in Portland, to national forestland outside of Sisters to the dunes of the South Coast to downtown Sweet Home to the willows of Klamath Lake. Every single place.

I wrote years ago Oregon needs to appoint a Czar to address the crisis and empower the office with sweeping power to make immediate decisions that go right over the heads of indifferent or incompetent county commissioners (see Clackamas County) and city officials. The Czar would also have the power to start kicking ass on the hundreds of nonprofit organizations that have been allocated hundreds and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars with practically no public oversight or evaluation.

The Czar could be a prominent government official or private citizen. It must be someone with a demonstrated record of administrative success.

As I read the same story of government conflict and impasse, I often wonder what former Oregon Governor Tom McCall might have done to address this crisis.

Yes, he was patriarchal in nature, a tall, white, older man but he was certainly no authoritarian, He was a leader and willing to risk his stature and buck conventional wisdom to solve difficult problems. In his era that meant, private encroachment into public beaches, point source pollution on the Willamette River, shoddy development of the state’s prime agricultural land, a public road system totally inhospitable to pedestrians and bicyclists, and so much more.

I’ll take an old white man who gets governing done as an administrator over anyone who doesn’t governs. So would a vast majority of Oregon voters.

I recently read McCall’s 1977 autobiography Maverick where he described the process of his many policy victories. It struck me how he got out in front, went to ground, met the public, talked to the public, even those who were vehemently opposed with ideas such as a mandatory deposit for bottles, staging a free rock festival to forestall violence, and quit allowing factories from discharge their untreated waste right into the Willamette River.

This going to the ground on the homeless crisis, in every county in Oregon, talking with homeless people, elected officials, advocates, heads of the non profits, asking questions, calling indolence and irresponsibility out. (No, you can’t park a derelict RV in front of a business or church or home for two months and run a generator all day and night. Be a good neighbor! No, a camping spot in a sanctioned camp site in Portland will not cost $40,000 a year to build and maintain.)

I can hear McCall and that magisterial voice challenging Oregonians to do better, Get to work! It’s an emergency! I can see McCall walking out of his office in Salem and over to the tents and shanties and RVs near the Capitol. I can see him doing it without the media. I can see him going down there every morning and talking to homeless people and with the people being paid to help them.

Would that approach work today? Who knows? Whatever our elected leaders are trying isn’t working with alacrity or working out at all. Remember those campaign ads from Drazen and Johnson where they drive by the Portland encampments and just shake their heads and promise they know how to clean up this humanitarian mess. They emanated zero inspiration but lots of scorn.

They didn’t know anything. McCall wouldn’t have claimed he had all the answers OR THE ANSWER. He would get the answers and the ideas and then risk his career with a risky, yet informed policy decision or several of them. And he would take responsibility for failure. No one at the upper levels of government does that in Oregon anymore. It’s always left up to someone else.