On the morning Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, we wake up in two Americas.
Americans, and Oregonians, are more divided than they've been in most of our lifetimes.
Left and right think the others are extremists, cannot agree on a common set of facts, and are at loggerheads on issues ranging from race and policing to the appropriate response to a pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans.
The peaceful transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden feels like no sure thing. On Jan. 6, a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the U.S. Capitol, seeking to stop Congress from certifying the results of the election.
Oregon has not witnessed an armed insurrection like the one in Washington, D.C. But right-wing protesters fought with police Dec. 21 in Salem as they attempted to enter the state Capitol. Proud Boys and other armed extremists menaced Salem again Jan. 6. And in Portland, six months of protests against the police have devolved into vandalism that threatens the vitality of this city.
Gov. Kate Brown has weathered five recall attempts; no sooner did Mayor Ted Wheeler win reelection in November than critics began working to recall him.
After the November election, the Portland polling firm DHM Research checked in with Oregonians across the state and termed its findings "disconcerting."
"Only 33% of us feel we can come together next year as Oregonians—urban and rural, Republican and Democrat, whites and communities of color—to make progress addressing these challenges and resetting Oregon," the firm found.
Oregon's turmoil is a microcosm of the split that has turned Washington, D.C., this week into a heavily guarded fortress, with tens of thousands of National Guard troops, federal police and local cops armed to the teeth against those who deny—against all evidence—that Biden won.
Civic discourse has rarely been less civil. And the need for it has never been more urgent.
So last weekend, WW asked two emerging leaders in Oregon politics—one a Democrat, the other a Republican—to talk to each other.
Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, 58, won a seat on the county board in 2018, becoming the first Indian American to hold office in Oregon. The forthright former corporate lawyer has a personal connection to the recent assault on Congress: Her sister, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), contracted the coronavirus while sheltering during the assault with unmasked GOP colleagues.
With Jayapal was Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, 39. An insurance executive who also won office in 2018, Pulliam knocked off a two-term incumbent to take leadership of one of Oregon's fastest-growing cities, an hour's drive east of Portland. Although Pulliam's office is nonpartisan (as is Jayapal's), he's a registered Republican whose outspoken criticism of Gov. Brown's COVID-19 policies—including leadership of the New Year's Day movement, in which 300 small businesses agreed to defy Brown's COVID orders—has put him on the list of possible GOP candidates for governor in 2022.
In a spirited conversation, Jayapal and Pulliam argued whether progressives or conservatives were responsible for most of the unrest roiling Oregon. They challenged each other on whether COVID-19 lockdowns have prevented misery in this state or intensified it.
But for nearly 90 minutes, they talked—and found issues on which they felt they could work together.
You can soon watch the full conversation at wweek.com. Here are a few of the highlights, edited for brevity and clarity.
WW: Joe Biden said the attack on Congress did not represent who we are. But Commissioner Jayapal, you wrote in a recent newsletter, "It is who we are."
What did you mean?
Susheela Jayapal: This is very much who we are. It's not all of who we are. But some of us stormed the Capitol. Some of us believed and spread white supremacist values that directly led to the storming of the Capitol. It wasn't the only example of trying to overturn a relatively free and fair election. And if we don't confront it, if we try to pretend that that's not part of our present, then we never address it. I believe in unity, but I think unity based on falsehood and based on avoiding reality isn't actually unity. It's a pretense.
Stan Pulliam: I need to push back a little on the term "right-wing extremism." The events in Washington, D.C., were outrageous. But we also need to recognize that this happens on both sides—there is extremism on the right and there's extremism on the left. We've seen that over the summer and fall and Portland, in the recent riots and violence. We need to call out extremism on both sides.
Jayapal: I didn't talk about right-wing extremism. I talked about white supremacy. I talked about false narratives about the election. However, if we're going to talk about extremism and where the balance of extremism sits, the storming of the Capitol was absolutely right-wing extremism. If you look at what our intelligence agencies across the country have identified as the biggest threat, it's white supremacy. It's not left-wing extremism. Creating an equivalence between the two is absolutely contrary to all of the evidence that we've seen.
Pulliam: A lot of people that live in the Portland metropolitan area would disagree, especially the small business owner who watched her storefronts get vandalized and people be scared to come out of their homes during the protests and riots. We've seen groups take over entire blocks on Mississippi Avenue during the Red House deal. Extremism and violence and mass riots are nothing new to us in the Portland metropolitan area. I just think we need to call it out on both sides.
Jayapal: What I saw, by and large, was peaceful protest. Over the course of the summer, there were relatively small numbers of people engaging in what we would both agree was destructive activity. More recently, there are people for whom property destruction was on the top of their list. But violence happened when right-wing extremists came to town. That was when somebody died.
Pulliam: Well, when you look at what happened in Washington, D.C., I think you would have many people say that, for the most part, there were people that showed up looking for a peaceful protest and there was an extremist element within that group that stormed the Capitol. We have extremist elements that hijack peaceful protests. When we did see violence in Portland, it was a member of antifa that actually shot and killed a member of the right-wing protest groups. So, I think we've got to watch out for the double standards and all stand against violence.
WW: Stan, you were at a Timber Unity rally in February of last year. You said in a video, "Kate Brown and the extreme left, you've bit off more than you can chew." What did you mean by that?
Pulliam: The Timber Unity movement is one that's very close to my heart. I grew up in a house of small business owners. I'm a bit of a political nerd, and for years I would drag my dad around all these different political events. But that Timber Unity rally was the first time that my dad said to me, "Hey, Stan, I'm going to get in my truck and I'm going to get involved."
You think about all the cap-and-trade restrictions that were coming against them and all the restrictions in their industry over the last decade. It's corporate America that can afford to reinvest in their businesses. But these working folks, they don't have the capital. So when I say, "You bit off more than you can chew," I think working families and small business owners throughout the state, they're sick and tired of it, and they're ready to push back.
Jayapal: I think we agree on some of that. There's no question that small businesses and working families have been hit devastatingly hard by the pandemic. You and I would agree that there is too much corporate power.
I'm not sure we agree about the role of government. To me, public health, which is what we're talking about in a pandemic, that is the arena in which government should be engaged. When the federal government has abdicated, as it has over the course of the pandemic, and you have individual states doing their individual things, it's proven disastrous. That's the danger that I see in the notion that if we disagree with the policies that the governor has enacted, that's it's up to each of us to decide that we're not going to abide by them.
Pulliam: If we're talking about the New Year's Day movement [to resist Gov. Brown's shutdown of some stores and indoor dining], I very much view that as peaceful dissent against mandates that were never passed through the state Legislature. Where people start to get upset is when they see double standards.
People don't understand why it's OK to attend mass protests all throughout the summer but we can't work out at our local fitness centers with sanitation and social distancing and mask wearing. We don't understand why we can go to the mall during the holidays and shop but we can't sit down and have a hamburger at a local Main Street mom-and-pop small business. And so if we're going to be putting down such strong restrictions, I think people certainly deserve to know the evidence that shows that we should be supporting big-box corporate America over these Oregonians.
Jayapal: The governor has the authority to do what she's done. I agree with you that people need to understand policy. Public health policy works better if people understand the why. And I agree with you that the state has not been consistent or clear through the course of the pandemic about setting out a set of principles and a rationale, and then explaining to people how we got from the principles and the rationale to the policy that was enacted. I have been puzzled by nail salons and hairdressers remaining open while other kinds of establishments are closed.
But we can't have everybody making their own decision about what they think is safe. What happens in Sandy doesn't stay in Sandy. I mean, a virus doesn't respect municipal boundaries.
Pulliam: I would again ask where's the evidence that these shutdowns are of businesses that contributed to the spread? And what I'd also like us to concentrate on a bit is our future.
WW: Are you saying you believe COVID is not really a serious threat?
Pulliam: I believe it absolutely is serious, but there's still a very high percentage chance that people are going to survive who come down with COVID-19.
Jayapal: That's no comfort to the folks who actually have died. And it ignores the fact that there've been long-term consequences even if you survive.
Pulliam: Yeah, certainly. And there's serious consequences that those individuals that are still living and are put out of work and not able to get their unemployment checks and have found that everything that they've worked for their entire lives has been taken from them. I think that leaders should be looking at the totality of the impact of their decisions.
Jayapal: The economic consequences absolutely have been devastating in some cases. But the way to get the economy back on track is to stop the spread of COVID. We can't actually get the economy back on track if we don't stop the spread.
WW: Stan, you told The New York Times in September you were "scared to death that what's happening in Portland will ever come out to where we live." What did you mean by that?
Pulliam: At the time of that interview, I think we were right around a hundred days straight of protests after the tragic killing of George Floyd—and much of the protesting was very peaceful, absolutely. But we also saw statutes being torn down and burned and all kinds of things. We just had to turn on the local news. Certainly, people in our community would be nervous about that reaching our community.
Because in Sandy, that's not what we're all about. We stand in solidarity with our local police departments that work so hard to keep us safe. And we certainly don't want to see our small businesses being destroyed with vandalism. That's not what we're all about. And quite honestly, it's not what Portland used to be all about.
Jayapal: I think we're probably not going to agree on the characterization of what happened and is happening in Portland. The picture of Portland as a hotbed of violence and vandalism just doesn't reflect the reality of what has happened here over the past many months. I am incredibly proud of the way that Portlanders stood up and spoke out about the murder of George Floyd and about racism and about Black Lives Matter. For a hundred days, they put themselves on the line, went to the Multnomah County Justice Center, took on tear gas. So if we're going to talk about calling out violence, we also need to call out police violence.
Pulliam: I think a lot of the violence and destruction that we saw coming out of the city of Portland was quite embarrassing, for most of us in the state. A lot of these small businesses along the main streets of Portland, they weren't closed because of COVID. A lot of them were closed because of the violence going on in Portland. And I continue to hear people wanting to come down on what happened in D.C. and the right-wing protests while just turning a blind eye to the destruction and violence that happened in Portland as part of these protests. I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
I'm guessing that we would both agree that the people that stormed the Capitol should be prosecuted and put in prison. And if we agree on that, do we believe that the folks found to do violence and destruction in Portland should be prosecuted as well?
Jayapal: I am going to push back really hard on the equivalence between storming the United States Capitol with weaponry, putting members of Congress in danger [and Portland vandalism]. So I really can't even respond to that question because it's a false equivalence.
Pulliam: What about an antifa member shooting a member of the right?
Jayapal: I condemn that shooting. Absolutely. But you made a direct equivalence between, should we prosecute the folks who stormed the Capitol with weaponry and put members of Congress in risk of their lives and with what we have seen in protest in Portland. So that is the equivalence I absolutely cannot buy.
WW: Last week, the House voted to impeach President Trump for the second time. If you had been a member of Congress, how would you have voted?
Pulliam: I would have voted no—for the sole reason that we're supposed to be unifying this nation right now. Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. But I saw the other day that 34% of Americans believe that there was fraud in this last election. I'm not sure what impeachment really accomplishes other than sticking your finger in the eye of the other side.
WW: Do you think Trump bears any responsibility for the attack on Congress?
Pulliam: I absolutely do. I think in his speech he definitely helped incite violence.
Jayapal: Probably no shock, I would've voted to impeach. I don't believe we can have unity if we don't have accountability. And I believe that he was responsible not just for the events of the day and inciting people in that time, but for all of the events that led up to the storming of the Capitol, including spreading false narratives about the election.
WW: If you separate out the pandemic, are things moving in the right direction in Oregon or the wrong direction?
Jayapal: It is really almost impossible to separate out the pandemic. But what's happening at the Legislature has not been going in the right direction: the walkouts, the inability to get any business done in the last session. And it's not clear what the next session is going to look like. On a local level, many things are going in the right direction. In the Multnomah County area, we're talking about housing and homelessness and things I believe will go in the right direction with the passage of the supportive housing services measure.
Pulliam: I think what we just heard here was an elected leader from the left say that she believes that things are going for the most part in the wrong direction. And when I think back on who's had control of this state for the last three decades, we've only had one party in control of the governor's office for the vast majority of that time. You know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Oregonians are tired of being last in everything.
Jayapal: You are putting words in my mouth that I did not speak. I said things were going in a difficult direction at the Legislature because of the walkout by the Republicans.
WW: Mayor, do you, as someone who lives in Sandy, feel safe when you come to Portland? And Commissioner, as someone who lives in Portland, do you feel physically safe when you go out to Clackamas County?
Pulliam: Yeah, I feel safe when I go into Portland. Then again, I'm only traveling to Portland during certain times and hours. But I certainly feel safe.
Jayapal: There are parts of Oregon and parts of the country where I would not feel safe. I would not feel safe because I would be very conscious of the fact that I am an immigrant and I am brown. We can't shy away from the ugliness that does exist in the country. It's not because of the kind of violence or behaviors that we've been talking about on the streets of Portland. It's because of race-based anger and violence.
Pulliam: I think we all want a state where people don't feel fearful. I think we want family-wage jobs and economic prosperity while also balancing that with a healthy and vibrant environment. And if we could just back up and go to that thousand-foot view, we would find that, as a country and as the people, we get along a lot more than we disagree.
Jayapal: I'm an immigrant. I chose to come to the United States, and I then chose to become a citizen of the United States. And so that does reflect optimism. I think it reflects some of what Stan was talking about—that we can be better and that we can continue to make progress to being that vision of ourselves. I think I see much more of the division because of my identity and because of who I am. So I see the obstacles to coming together pretty clearly as well.
Correction: The print edition of this story misstates the month when Stan Pulliam spoke to The New York Times. It was last September, not August. WW regrets the error.