Think Out Loud

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat, announces retirement from Congress

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Oct. 31, 2023 1:45 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Oct. 31

Congressman Earl Blumenauer speaks to the crowd before President Joe Biden took the stage at an Air National Guard hangar at Portland’s airport, April 21, 2022. On October 30, 2023, Rep. Blumenauer announced his decision not to seek reelection after nearly 30 years serving in Congress.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer speaks to the crowd before President Joe Biden took the stage at an Air National Guard hangar at Portland’s airport, April 21, 2022. On October 30, 2023, Rep. Blumenauer announced his decision not to seek reelection after nearly 30 years serving in Congress.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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On Monday, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer announced he will not seek reelection next year after serving nearly 30 years in Congress. In a statement released by his office, he pledged to continue “championing livable communities starting right here in Portland and being a resource and a partner for the next generation.” The Democratic lawmaker from Portland was first elected to Congress in 1996, the same year he founded the Congressional Bike Caucus which has grown to include 130 members. In 2017, he helped launch the Congressional Cannabis Caucus which successfully lobbied recently to end the prohibition on using federal funds for cannabis research. Rep. Blumenauer joins us to talk about his legislative priorities and his decision to retire amid the recent election of a new House speaker and the threat of a government shutdown next month.

Editor’s note: Blumenauer’s wife, Margaret Kirkpatrick, is an incoming member of the OPB board of directors.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Democratic U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer announced yesterday that he will not seek reelection next year. The Democratic lawmaker from Portland was first elected to Congress in 1996 and he is Oregon’s longest serving member in the U.S. House of Representatives. But when he started in Congress, he was already a veteran politician, having served in the State Legislature, the Multnomah County Commission and the Portland City Council since the early 1970s. When you add it all up, Earl Blumenauer has represented Portland area voters in one way or another for half a century. Representative Blumenauer joins me now to talk about his career and his decision to not run again. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Earl Blumenauer: Thanks, Dave.

Miller: Why stop when this current term is up?

BlumenauerGood question. I think it’s pretty clear we’re going to be in control of the House of Representatives next time and that’s attractive. But I truly think that there are better ways that I can spend my time. The House is increasingly dysfunctional. I’ve been on airplanes 14 hours a week forever. I have a family that I have neglected a little.  [pauses] It was time.

Miller: I have to say, maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, but it seems like this is an emotional decision, an emotional thing for you to talk about right now?

BlumenauerYeah, it is. It’s, [pauses again] yep.

Miller: What are you thinking about right now?

BlumenauerWell, I’m looking forward to making the transition. I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by people who’ve responded, who think I made a difference and they’ve got ideas about things I can do going forward. I was texting Ken Burns as I was walking in. It has been a remarkable opportunity. But I no longer feel that, for me, that it’s the best way I can make a contribution, given my commitments to the community and my family and things I want to do. I don’t want to spend countless hours, I mean, if I ran for reelection, there would be four or five people who would run because they’d think, “Now is the time to take the old guy out.” I would beat them but I would have to spend hours doing campaign stuff which adds no value to my life.

Miller: The first thing you said, when I said, “Why now,” is that you’re pretty confident that you’ll regain the House. I mean, do you think your calculus would be different if you represented a swing district?

Blumenauer: It might if my staying in the House made a difference in Democratic control, but that’s not the case. There are some really terrific people who will run in this district. It will be a thoughtful, progressive person, I’m quite confident. And so I’m kind of a free agent in terms of that responsibility. And I made clear to the Democratic leadership and to the governor that I’m going to be all in for the next 14 months while I’m in office, and then look forward to working together, just not politically for me on the ballot.

Miller: I want to turn back to your first elected office - 23 years old when you were elected to the House of Representatives, the Oregon State House, among the youngest members ever. What goes through your mind when you think about that time now, arriving there in your early twenties, in the early ‘70s?

Blumenauer: It was an amazing time. I was privileged to serve probably in the most consequential term in Oregon’s history. It was the last of Tom McCall’s governorship. The Democrats took control and legislation that had been bottled up for, literally, decades. We had the land use legislation, for instance. There was an air of possibility and there were lots of young people in there. Maybe not as young as I, but they were in their twenties and thirties who added a vibrancy to it. It was exciting, the sense of possibility.

Miller: How much of what you’re describing now is a retrospective understanding of how consequential that was. And how much did you feel at that time?

BlumenauerI was convinced at the time that it was very consequential. You could feel being a part of work. In my first session, I had legislation that created a transportation commission and mandated a multimodal comprehensive transportation plan. That was 20 years ahead of the Federal government. We were doing things like that in Oregon and there was a sense that you were part of history, helping Tom McCall wrap up his legacy and people starting a really exciting political path.

Miller: Why did you eventually want to make the jump from state office to then the county and city level government to Congress. Why go to the Federal government?

BlumenauerWell, at that time, we were really challenged. This was the Gingrich takeover of Congress, an agenda that was decidedly at variance with our Oregon values and things I cared about.

Miller: Just for folks who missed the timeline, that was the Republican revolution. That was ‘94. And then we’re talking about 1996 when you ran in a special election?

BlumenauerWell, they had just taken over in ‘95. I was elected at the last half of that 104th Congress. And it was a scary time politically. It was a time of change. I thought I could help make a difference. It took longer than I thought to get in the majority. But I was able to make a difference, I felt from the beginning, in terms of our portfolio of issues.

Miller: Given the glacial pace of Congress, I mean, it’s often slow the last year, almost nothing has happened. But given that and given the fact that you’re always going to be one voice among 435, do you ever think about what you could have accomplished if you had stayed in local politics or in state politics?

BlumenauerIt would have been a different path and a somewhat smaller stage, but perhaps more impactful. I mean, I think the 10 years I spent as Portland’s Commission of Public Works, managing these land use and transportation policies, were consequential for our city and actually set the stage for some national activities. But, at that point, it seemed to me that the federal government needed to get involved with what we were doing. And being able to take that livable communities agenda to Congress, being able to spread the word (I was described as the Johnny Appleseed of livability), campaigning around the country. It was very exciting and I think consequential.

Miller: Where do you see the consequences, because what we’re talking about or what you’ve been pushing for for decades and decades, is a very different vision of the way communities could be built and the way people can get around. And there are billions of dollars of infrastructure, built infrastructure, and sunken costs that make our country a very car-centric country. So where do you see movement?

Blumenauer: Well, just the last two years have been perhaps my most impactful in Congress. Peter DeFazio encouraged me to leave the T and I [Transportation and Infrastructure] community that I really loved and go to the Ways and Means Committee to raise money that he could spend. And we’ve had a gusher of federal funding. The work that I did on the energy provisions is the largest reduction in greenhouse gas potential, not just in our history, but anywhere in the world.

Miller:  As in the Inflation Reduction Act?

BlumenauerYes, we had massive increases in infrastructure that, again, Peter’s committee helped craft and we helped pass. And we’re watching, across the country, things that are taking place that would have been inconceivable: for bikes, for Amtrak, for transit. The Biden Administration is the first of five administrations I’ve worked with that is really committed to rebuilding and renewing America with a low carbon equitable future. And things are really happening all over the country.

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Miller: I should note that the Congressman’s wife, Margaret Kirkpatrick, is an [incoming] member of OPB’s Board of Directors.

I want to turn to cannabis, one of the issues that you’ve been most publicly known for on the national level. Many states have obviously legalized cannabis. There’s been a huge societal shift in the approach to the drug, first medically then recreationally. But despite your efforts and many other people’s efforts, it’s still a Schedule 1 drug and there have not really been banking changes. The House, because of your efforts, has voted seven times to change that. The Senate has not passed it. It recently passed in a committee, but we’ll see what happens from there.

Is there any reason to believe, based on what we’ve seen for years now even with societal shifts, that Congress is going to make the kinds of changes you have been asking it to make for decades?

BlumenauerAbsolutely. And part of what we’ve been doing is a multi-pronged approach. I’ve been working on the congressional legislation. As you mentioned, we’ve had some progress. My legislation last Congress was the first amendment to the Controlled Substances Act ever, dealing with research. We have passed the Safe Banking Act. It’s moving in the Senate. But just as exciting is what’s happening at the state and local levels. I’ve been involved with, I think, every state initiative around the country. It’s been a tidal wave of action.

It is really exciting to me to watch attitudes change. When I started this, it was opposed by a majority of the public. Today a majority of Republicans support this and it’s like 70% of the American public support legalization. And if it’s medical, it’s like the Fourth of July. I’m a patient guy…

Miller: Meaning, that people like the Fourth of July?

BlumenauerI’m sorry, not that it’s explosive. I’m a patient guy. The things that I have worked on take time. We’re dealing with public attitudes, we’re dealing with building infrastructure, we’re dealing with changing laws. That’s not something that happens overnight.

Miller: Why has this been one of the issues that you have been most publicly in support of? What is it about cannabis that makes you want to change federal laws?

BlumenauerWell, it is an example of the federal government being so out of touch with the needs of the American public. The failed “War On Drugs” has destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, particularly for young Black Americans. It has not been administered fairly. Selective enforcement, literally, has ruined lives. We have been denied the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis. And it was so inequitable.

I am proud that we’re watching this change. It is changing society. It’s changing health. It’s a new era in terms of economic development. And the only reason that it is as bumpy as it has been is because the federal government has been out of step with what the American public wants. But we’re going to change that.

Miller: What was going through your mind, in vote after vote, of internal Republican squabbles, internal scene battles, this month when various GOP factions kept tanking their own nominees for speaker?

BlumenauerWell, I think it serves them right. I mean they can’t agree with themselves about why they wanna impeach Joe Biden. These battles internally don’t need to continue. And I think this is perhaps the beginning of the end of Republican hostage taking and such a destructive [climate]. It’s gonna be bumpy for a while. It’s gonna be rough in the Middle East. It’s gonna be rough with Ukraine. It’s gonna be rough being able to get on track financially. But I think this is something we have to go through. But it was painful to watch and completely unnecessary.

Miller: What do you think is better? What do you personally like more, having no Speaker of the House and having nothing get done or having someone that Matt Gaetz has called MAGA Mike Johnson in charge of the House of Representatives?

BlumenauerWell, it’s not possible to continue without a Speaker. I mean, you can’t do anything. And there are things that have to get done. Johnson, I think, is sort of exposing the dark underbelly of the Republican agenda. I mean, he is anti-choice. He was an election denier. He is out there on so many things and I think that it’s going to force a reckoning.

Almost everything I propose is bipartisan. I have great relationships with the governing wing of the Republican party. I’m proud of that. And they are beside themselves. And I think it’s just a matter of time before it melts down again. It will make it much more likely that Democrats control Congress. And the American public understands the stake.

Miller: What is your political read there? Why do you think that having Mike Johnson as Speaker, or the unsuccessful votes before him to get a Speaker, why do you think that is going to lead to voters punishing Republicans at the polls?

BlumenauerWell, I think they’re watching the dysfunction now. It’s papered over a little bit with Johnson because he was the lowest common denominator they could vote for. And all of a sudden now people are discovering who this guy is, what he believes, what he’s done. That’s [not just] out of sync with the majority of Oregonians, but the majority of American voters and it’s out of sync with many of my Republican colleagues. I think it’s going to lead to a day of reckoning that, ultimately, we have to have.

Miller: I wanna turn back closer to home. What’s it been like for you, as a lifelong Portlander and one-time, longtime city and county leader, to see Portland become a kind of poster child nationally for two of our country’s twin social ills right now: homelessness and fentanyl overdoses. What’s that been like for you?

Blumenauer: It’s been painful.

Miller: You’re on the Central City Task Force. What do you hope will come from that?

BlumenauerWell, let me just say that Governor Kotek, and I think I’ve worked with five governors now, has been more engaged with helping us in our local community than any governor. I’ve had great relationships with them. But Tina has really zeroed in. She understands the challenge and she’s put herself out there.

Miller: It’s probably also fair to say that no governor that you’ve worked with has presided over a state at a time when Portland was seen as much of a mess as it is now?

BlumenauerAbsolutely. We’ve been sort of a poster child of success. And now it’s the opposite.

Miller: So what should happen? What are the fixes that you think would be meaningful?

BlumenauerWell, I hope that we can focus on opportunities, in Portland particularly but also in the metropolitan area, where we can start making a difference there. I’m working on 82nd Avenue. We have an opportunity to take that street, the number one transit street in the system, and be able to revitalize it and have thousands of housing opportunities. The Lloyd Center is a tremendous opportunity for redevelopment, Montgomery Park, OMSI. Getting these in order, showing progress, attracting investment, I think will be key to encouraging international investment in our downtown again.

Miller: Have you ruled out running for local office again?

BlumenauerI don’t think that’s in my future. I’ve been there. I don’t think that’s where I add the greatest value. I’m to the point now where I think people recognize that I may have some reasonable thoughts and opportunities to try and help. I’d rather be a resource, working on the revitalization of our city, dealing with Portland State and Portland Community College, helping in terms of navigating some of these problems with housing and addiction and dysfunction. I think my experience may give me a voice that I can help contribute. I don’t pretend that I have any magic solutions, but I do believe in magic buckshot on a series of steps that can help make a difference. And I’m gonna try and influence the conversation.

Miller: Earl Blumenauer, thanks very much and congratulations on 50 years of public service.

BlumenauerThank you.

Miller: Earl Blumenauer is a Democratic U.S. Representative from Oregon’s 3rd District. He announced yesterday, he is not going to seek reelection next year.

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