Sen. Barack Obama once remarked on the long odds of a "skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name" finding success in American politics.
How much more improbable then that Oregon—an overwhelmingly white state 1,700 miles from his Chicago home—could finally put the Illinois senator over the top this Tuesday, May 20, in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Obama campaign looks to that date as the day to finally declare victory over Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), after an anticipated Oregon win gives Obama a majority of pledged delegates nationwide. Little wonder then that Obama's third Oregon swing May 9-10 felt more like a victory lap than a campaign stop. In Beaverton, Albany, Eugene and Bend, Obama test-drove a new strategy of targeting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and largely ignoring Clinton.
WW caught up with Obama following a town-hall meeting in Albany, where he spoke to a crowd of 3,000. After our longer interview with his rival ("Twenty Minutes With Hillary," WW, April 9, 2008), we asked Obama in the much smaller amount of time granted by his campaign about Oregon issues like medical weed, local politics and a healthcare plan from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
WW: What's the biggest difference between you and Hillary Clinton on an Oregon-specific issue?
Barack Obama: I don't spend all my time reviewing Sen. Clinton's positions. But I can talk to you about my positions on some issues that are very specific to Oregon. I think it's important for a state to have the ability to make decisions about the siting of liquefied natural gas stations. I think it's important for us to have a policy on county payments that is consistent and that allows for long-term planning for local communities, so that they're not scrambling to figure out do they have to lay off deputies from the county or do they have to close libraries. So I'm committed to working with Sen. [Ron] Wyden and Congressman DeFazio and others to make sure that we've got a system to help deal with counties where so much of the land is taken up by federal lands.
Can you see a time when those timber payments would go away?
What I'd want to do is negotiate with local counties to figure out how are we ensuring that basic necessities are paid for, and do it in a way that recognizes that the best way to handle this over the long term is to generate more economic growth in these communities. But we've got to do it in a way that is environmentally sound as well.
Would you stop the DEA's raids on Oregon medical marijuana growers?
I would because I think our federal agents have better things to do, like catching criminals and preventing terrorism. The way I want to approach the issue of medical marijuana is to base it on science, and if there is sound science that supports the use of medical marijuana and if it is controlled and prescribed in a way that other medicine is prescribed, then it's something that I think we should consider.
What's the nicest thing you can say about Sen. Gordon Smith?
I think Gordon Smith is a very nice man. I think he's very gracious, very polite, and I enjoy talking to him. I think Gordon Smith's problem is that he rarely breaks away from George Bush and the Republican agenda that I think has done this country great damage. But personally I think he's a perfectly decent person.
The hottest race besides yours on Oregon's May 20 ballot is the Democratic senate contest between Steve Novick and Jeff Merkley.
I have no opinion on that.
Do you care who wins?
I have no opinion on a Senate primary.
What do you think of Sen. Wyden's Healthy Americans Act?
I think that Ron has done a lot of really smart work in thinking about the issue, and he is somebody I will have at the table as I'm negotiating to bring about a universal health care plan. I have expressed some concerns about the feasibility of shifting so quickly away from the employer-based system to a system in which each individual is responsible for buying their own health care. But I think the idea of portability is one that is important. I'm looking forward to having him as one of the driving forces in the Senate behind getting universal health care.
Any irony that Oregon may put you over the top in the pledged delegate count?
I think it would be wonderful. I don't know how ironic it would be, but I would be thrilled by it happening and I hope it does.
If you had a tattoo, what would it be and where would you put it?
Uh, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I would get a tattoo.
If you were under duress.
If a gun was put to my head?
Then I suppose I'd have to have [his wife] Michelle's name tattooed somewhere very discreet.
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Video of WW's interview with Obama:
Last week, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio joined Oregon Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer and David Wu as superdelegates backing Obama. Clinton has superdelegate support from Gov. Ted Kulongoski and U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.). Oregon's other seven superdelegates are undecided.
Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton return to Oregon this weekend.