Oregon's 'Ornery Tradition'

What makes Southern Oregon's political history so volatile? Why is Ashland different culturally than other towns in the Rogue Valley?

From failed attempts at secession in the state's early years, to support of unorthodox third party candidates as recently as 2004, the areas of Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties have often strayed far from political norms compared with the rest of the state.

That history was the basis for a group discussion Wednesday on the Southern Oregon University campus, titled "An 'Ornery Tradition': A Political History of Southern Oregon."

More than 60 residents turned up at SOU's Campbell Center to hear a lecture by Jeff LaLande, adjunct professor of history at the university and author of books on Oregon's political development.

"Oregon has always been a place where people have wanted to govern their own affairs," LaLande said. "We've often marched to the beat of our own drum."

He spoke for two hours, detailing the state's founding at the outset of the Civil War and its ties to white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan.

"The Klan had a really strong presence here during its era, not necessarily because they were against blacks, but because they were against Catholics," LaLande said. "The area was settled largely by Protestants, Methodists and Presbyterians, and there was a lot of fear of Catholics and of new people in general."

Oregonians have always been quick to embrace popular political movements, LaLande said. Occasionally, they have led the way.

At the turn of the century, state legislators enacted the initiative, referendum and recall process, giving voters the power to overturn unpopular laws through the use of petitions. That process has since spread to more than half the states in the country and is still referred to often as "The Oregon System."

Using notable presidential elections as examples, LaLande also explained the tendency in Southern Oregon for voters to embrace third party candidates — conservatives, liberals and just about anyone in between.

The 1912 election was notable for the campaign of Eugene Debs, an outspoken member of the Socialist party. While Debs earned around 3 percent of the national vote, 10 percent of Jackson County voters selected Debs and nearly 20 percent of Josephine County voters chose him.

Two decades after supporting the liberal, third party candidate, Southern Oregon voters pulled an about-face, giving a conservative third party candidate nearly 10 percent of the vote in 1932, while the rest of the country gave him just one-tenth of a single percentage point in the vote.

"This has been an area that's always been very supportive of third parties," LaLande said. "In a way, that support is a measure of the place's discontent with the status quo."

The lecture was set up as part of a series of discussions, sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, aimed at promoting intellectual activity among senior citizens. The OLLI's Southern Oregon University chapter has worked with area seniors since 1993, recruiting guest speakers to lecture on topics including politics, art, religion and history.

Local OLLI chairperson Jane Rachles helps to coordinate each lecture. She said getting her fellow seniors engaged in the educational process exposes them to current issues and continues the process of intellectual growth.

"I have different subjects every week," she said. "We are all seniors, and we're all anxious to learn."

Anyone interested in registering with the local OLLI program can call its office line at 552-6048. Members pay a yearly fee of $100.

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at eglucklich@gmail.com

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