Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley shares secrets from Washington, D.C., including why he decided to run for Senate, details of his 15-hour filibuster, and whether or not he plans to run for president in 2020.
Story by: Haley Hodges
Photos courtesy of: The Harkin Institute
Senator Jeff Merkley is a Democrat from the state of Oregon. He began his legislative career as a representative the Oregon House of Representatives in 1998. In 2008, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. DPR sat down with Merkley to discuss his career in politics, his 15-hour filibuster in 2017, and a potential 2020 presidential run.
Why did you initially want to get involved in politics?
I was raised on the ethic through my church, through my parents, through boy scouts, that you have a responsibility to contribute to society and I didn’t know how that would unfold in my life. Initially I decided in college I was going to work on third world economic development through poverty and that was the field I pursued through graduate school, but unexpectedly I had a chance to work on strategic nuclear policy for [Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger] at a time when nuclear weapons were the biggest threat to the survival of humankind.
It’s been that interest all the way through public policy, sometimes working inside an organization. Then I wrote studies for Congress, the Congressional Budget Office, then I led nonprofit organizations doing real work in the field, such as Habitat for Humanity and the World Affairs Council. At various points those positions led to lobbying those in elected office to say “Hey, we should change the law in this fashion; we should help this group in this fashion” and that led me to thinking you know, it’d be easier to actually get to vote rather than just lobbying [and] trying to advocate to those who are able to vote.
What is it like being part of the Senate now?
The Senate has changed dramatically. I was first there as an intern in 1976, that’s four decades and a year, that’s a long time. That Senate was a very functional legislative body, rarely invoked a supermajority requirement. The senators all felt they were on the same team, the American team. They had served in World War II together, they had a normal work week, they had chances to socialize, they had connections between their family members and deep friendships.
That’s very different from the Senate of today where people don’t live in D.C. We’re there three days a week, Monday night through Thursday night. The relationships are therefore much harder to develop. We didn’t fight in a world war together so we don’t have that sort of bond.
And now you have these two media camps that are so separated and present such a different picture of the world and then communities across America, some listen to one media camp, some to another media camp and that reinforces the divisions. So it’s a very deeply divided, very dysfunctional Congress and the underlying problems [is that] there are these divisions in the electorate [splitting them] into two tribes and it’s going to be very hard to remedy that.
How did you manage to pull off your 15-and-a-half-hour filibuster opposing Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination?
From the policy side, we started preparing weeks before to have binders of material because if I did speak at length, I wanted it to be on topic. I had a very clear mission, my mission was to try to get the leadership of the Senate to talk to each other and stop the travesty of the theft of a Supreme Court chief. That was the preparation on that side. The physical side, I wasn’t able to start until late in the evening so I had already been up all day and for twenty-four hours, I didn’t drink. The other half of it was that you can’t sit down or leave the room so dehydration was an important element.
Do you have any plans for a presidential campaign in 2020?
No, I’m just immersed in 2018. I’m not up for elections and my children are now out of high school so I can assist Democrats across the country.