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DJC OP-Ed: The departure of practicals from the Legislature … and elsewhere

By: Mike Salsgiver
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter

This article was published by the DJC on December 19 in Buildings Bridges and Roads and can be viewed here (subscription required).

With the recent Oregon Business Plan Leadership Summit, the annual intersection of business and state government, we were reminded of the work that is needed to propel Oregon toward greater success. State spending, budget gaps, the looming PERS crisis and our educational system are all in desperate need of examination.

The success of our state is contingent upon the willingness of our leaders to come to the table. Strong leaders will need courage and fortitude to stand amidst these problems and ask, “How can we fix this?” and “How can we leave this better than we found it?”

We can no longer afford to kick the can down the road. Our children and grandchildren deserve better. These problems are no longer a “What if?” but an “Uh oh; what now?”

And while the summit offers those glimpses of hope, we’re reminded just how behind the eight ball we are.

The transportation panel at the summit seemed to echo the thoughts of hard work needed to accomplish the tasks ahead. They are a great microcosm of what it takes to move the needle. This bipartisan group of legislators worked tirelessly to ensure Oregon’s largest and most comprehensive transportation package passed in the 2017 session. We heard from Rep. Cliff Bentz, Rep. Caddy McKeown, Sen. Brian Boquist, and Sen. Lee Beyer that while reaching a consensus was challenging, the strength offered by relationships and respect was always present.

The characteristics of the public servants that shaped our state aren’t as prevalent these days.

These men and women knew the state like the back of their hand. They knew the history, demographics, socioeconomic structures, geography and geology of our communities, and the history of our state and the Pacific Northwest, and could bring that context into their decision-making. They shaped our forward-looking state. These leaders worked toward a common vision. Did they always agree? No. But they knew how to manage their differences. They knew which differences were relevant to the conversation and which agreements were most important to accomplishing greatness.

Leadership qualities are invaluable to a successful society. The best leaders can manage conflict and know when to seek assistance. The best leaders are committed, not just interested, in their mission.

Rep. Jodi Hack, R-Salem, and Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, have the leadership qualities we’re beginning to see disappear in the Legislature. Both of these state leaders are moving to new ventures – Hack to the Oregon Home Builders Association as CEO and Johnson to Oregon Business & Industry as president and CEO. Several others are making similar decisions, or choosing not to run for re-election.

These decisions highlight a problem I call “the departure of the practicals.”

Oregon, throughout its history, has been fortunate to have had so many great leaders. But the changing nature of the climate in which our state government operates is creating a need for finding that sweet spot where compromise, relationships, change and government happens. That spot is built upon an informed, functional and engaged middle.

We may be the drone of the world, as far as advances in technology, but the foundation of human connection, those relationships, still drive that drone.

The leaders who value relationships will have to work together to eliminate gridlock and keep status quo at bay.

As late U.S. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield would say, “Success in any endeavor is a function of human relationships.”

The “departure of the practicals” isn’t just a problem in government. We see it throughout society.

The problems facing our elected officials are daunting, but they aren’t insurmountable. We’ve faced and accomplished big things before.

But we have reached a proverbial fork in the road, whether it’s dealing with our fiscal problems, addressing a subpar education system, or tackling the state’s fiscal crisis generally.

It will take the best from our leaders to point us toward economic and collective success. As we face elected bodies with a diminishing appreciation for the value of consensus, those members of our House and Senate who are known for their unwavering leadership qualities, their dedication to what’s right, and the ability to think independently and work with everyone, will have to lead the way.

And when they do, I look forward to writing another column: “The return of the practicals.”

Frankly, the future of our state depends on it.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or

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