I give Les Zaitz, the editor of Salem's online-only news outlet, the Salem Reporter, a lot of credit for raising good questions in a commentary today, "Salem has to find a way to restore civility, to turn aside the meanness."
After talking about some of the issues that foment divisiveness in our city -- Black Lives Matter protests, student activism with the Salem-Keizer school board, COVID pandemic -- Zaitz asks for ideas.
Nothing in my decades of journalism has prepared me to manage so many crosscurrents at once. I feel like I’m in a row boat trying to cross the Columbia River bar in a raging gale.
With your help and together, we’ll find a way to safe harbor. We have to.
Unless we find a way to do so, Salem is in for even rougher times. Together, let’s find a way to arrest the meanness and anger. Let’s find a way to work together to repair our community – its government, its schools, its businesses and the health of its people.
Share with me your worries about where Salem is headed. Share with me who should be leading right now. Share with me what information Salem Reporter can provide to help you be of service to our community.
None of us can give up. None of us can retreat. None of us can afford to stay sidelined.
Salem, let’s stop the behavior tearing us apart and work, instead, to find shared values and solutions. At Salem Reporter, we’re ready to be your partner.
Les Zaitz is editor of Salem Reporter and can be reached by email at [email protected].
Here's my initial response to the three share with me requests Zaitz lays out. I'll email them to him, as requested. I invite you to share your own ideas with Zaitz.
My worries about where Salem is headed. First, my optimism: if Donald Trump is prevented from inflicting a second term on the country, and Joe Biden becomes president, this will help a lot to tamp down the anger, helplessness, and sadness so many people feel today.
A basic problem, both here in Salem and nationally, is that the Republican party has tilted rightward much more than the Democratic party has moved leftward. So I reject any notion, which seemed to be somewhat implied in Zaitz's piece, that both sides of the political spectrum have to meet in the middle in a kumbaya moment.
The stark reality is that most Americans favor core progressive/liberal policies. Locally, there's no doubt that Salem is a liberal town. Results of the past two presidential elections demonstrate this, as does the fact that six of the eight city councilors are progressives.
But Mayor Bennett leans conservative, and City of Salem leadership definitely can't be accused of being raging liberals. Conservatives also dominate the Salem-Keizer school board after Oregon Right to Life and other conservative groups pumped loads of money into the last low-turnout election for school board members.
Two Latinx candidates ran for school board seats, but well-funded right-wingers beat them. Those candidates would say, "The school board has nobody who looks like me." It still doesn't. This goes a long way toward explaining the frustration of Latinx student activists with the current board.
So there's a disconnect between the progressive attitudes of most people in Salem, and the conservatives who still exercise a degree of power in this town out of proportion to how their ideas and policies are embraced by citizens.
Until power is returned to the people rather than special interests (placing limits on contributions to campaigns for local office would help a lot), anger among those who are on the outside of the halls of power looking in will continue.
Who should be leading right now. Ideally, a Mayor who isn't Chuck Bennett. As noted above, Bennett is more conservative than the city he is mayor of.
Plus, Bennett lacks the passion and charisma needed for effective leadership. Much like City Manager Steve Powers, Bennett is adept at maintaining a low-key don't-rock-the-boat persona that is better suited to calm times rather than the turbulent one we are in now. Hopefully a better mayor than Bennett will be elected in 2022.
Until then, the progressive city councilors will do their best to fill Salem's leadership void.
A big problem, though, is that the City of Salem has a strong city manager/weak city council model. So City Manager Powers could be a strong leader, but that isn't either his personality or management style. The progressive city councilors, being elected officials, are better suited for leadership, but they lack the "army" to back them up.
They aren't paid. They have no staff. They have no real media presence other than Facebook. Thus those who should be leading Salem toward a desirable future aren't, and those who want to lead can't.
How Salem Reporter can be of service to our community. First, and most obvious, keep on doing what you're doing. Salem Reporter is doing a great job at covering stories that the Statesman Journal isn't, or is doing a poor job with.
Beyond that status quo, here's a few ideas.
If possible, do more in-depth investigative reporting on local issues, especially concerning city government. For example, I've tried to cast a light on some disturbing goings-on with Urban Renewal funds. Too often Urban Renewal has become a sort of slush fund that benefits the already rich and powerful, not the general interest.
I believe Portland has an independent Urban Renewal agency that is insulated from local politics. Digging deep into how Urban Renewal money is used in Salem could help inform how wisely and appropriately these funds are being spent.
I'd like to see more vibrant and inclusive opinion writing in Salem. Most of what is on the Statesman Journal opinion page these days is boring and safe, not provocative and edgy. Salem Reporter has no opinion section at all, aside from occasional commentaries like the one Zaitz has written.
A while back a fellow activist and I spent some time planning an online opinion forum we were calling Salem Soapbox. It never got off the ground, but the idea is still worth a test flight: offer a place where anyone can submit opinion pieces about issues they're passionate about.
Sure, there would need to be a selection process and some editing. Not every opinion would warrant being spoken from the Salem Soapbox. We simply felt that there should be a way for the voiceless in Salem to have a voice, for issues to be debated, for comments to be submitted.
Regarding comments, Salem Reporter doesn't allow them on stories. There's pros and cons regarding this. Having been a blogger for seventeen years, with tens of thousands of comments on my posts, I fully realize how difficult it is to tread the line between free speech and inappropriate speech. Still, it is something for Salem Reporter to consider.
Lastly, I'll pitch an idea of mine that, like so many of my great ideas, has gotten nowhere in the Great Wide Skeptical World: have an annual roast of sorts where people on opposite sides of a political, religious, or whatever spectrum come together to have fun, drink, raise money for a good cause, and bridge divides.
I've described this idea in a couple of 2017 blog posts: