Merkley and I sat down to chat around 11 am on a Friday at the Subway restaurant on Gateway Street in Springfield — a quick lunch stop in between his various other appointments and meetings for the day. (His Subway order was a six-inch Italian BMT and a Dr. Pepper, if you’re curious.)
It can be easy to forget about the scope of Merkley’s political work when talking with him. He may be busy, but there’s nothing inherently rushed about him. Though he’s clearly far from unprofessional, Merkley has an air of casualness to him. Dressed in a nice button-up shirt paired with jeans and cowboy boots, he talked before we formally began our interview about a recent trip to the coast with his 13-year-old Airedale terrier, Sadie.
When he’s not in Oregon, Merkley also does a lot of important national work — most notably, as of late, visiting a detention center in Brownsville, Texas, to reveal the visceral truths of immigrant parents and children’s separation under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. The viral video of Merkley visiting the detention center gained him a profile in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, along with other spots in national media.
When he is in Oregon, Merkley makes sure to have time for locals. During that August day in Springfield when we met, Merkley did three media interviews, sat down with the interim director of the Veterans Administration in Roseburg, met with leaders of Lowell, Westfir and Oakridge, held a Eugene small business roundtable, gathered with local union members and held a campaign event.
His days are usually scheduled this tightly, he says.
In many ways, Merkley is just a normal Oregonian who has gone on to do very extraordinary things.
Growing up in Myrtle Creek, then Roseburg, before moving to Portland as a kid, Sen. Merkley never envisioned going into politics. He says he definitely never dreamed about ever becoming president. But now, after 20 years in Oregon politics, he just might be taking that plunge into the presidential run come late this fall.
“I’m exploring the possibility of running for the presidency,” Merkley says. “I’ve been in the early primary states and been well-received.”
He says he and his wife, Mary, will make a decision on it sometime after November. For now, he’s still doing all he can in his position as a U.S. senator.
Merkley might not be all-in for the presidential run yet, but he has a lot of people who believe in him, in Oregon and across the states, thanks to his vocal opposition to President Donald Trump, his adherence to a progressive stance and his worldview.
In fact, though Merkley never saw himself in politics, he’s always held the big-picture idea of making the world better.
“The philosophy I grew up with — and it was embedded certainly through my church, through Boy Scouts, through my parents — was to take your life on this planet and make the world a better place,” Merkley says. “And so that does mean confronting injustice, and unfortunately there is a lot of injustice to confront.”
Merkley has been concerned with tackling broad issues while serving as a politician — health care, civil rights, foreign policy and his small town origins have inspired a lot of his work. One issue we discussed at length was economic injustice and restoring the American Dream in the face of the current administration.
Both his mother and father grew up poor, Merkley says, yet they were able to afford a house on a single income.
“My parents’ generation saw, from 1945-1975, this incredible improvement of the position of working families,” he says. “It was a steady curve of productivity. The entire wealth of the country grew, but workers got a fair share of that growth. From 1975 till now, we have not gotten a share of that wealth — that wealth has been flat or declining.”
That idea of being able to build wealth from nothing is scarcely achievable anymore, Merkley says.
“What we have seen over the decades is just an absolute oppression of the middle class, squeezing them for the benefit of the wealthy, and we see that in this administration more than anything we’ve seen before,” he says.
“For example, last year, in 2017, a main mission was to do a tax bill — it’s a tax scam — that borrowed a trillion and a half dollars and gave it almost all to the wealthiest Americans,” Merkley says. “It’s the most unbelievable bank heist of the national treasure. This is something that happens in corrupt nations where there’s a government colluding with the wealthy and well-connected.”
Merkley says he’s working to strengthen the middle class by crafting legislation regarding job growth and affordable housing, among other things.
“That’s a big battle, but I’m continuously immersed in it,” he says.
As a U.S. senator from Oregon, along with tackling local and national issues, Merkley adheres to that idea of making the world better, and he’s worked globally as well — all while making sure to tie his international trips back to the U.S., and specifically to what the Trump administration can be doing to help and what it hasn’t been doing.
That global mindset came naturally. Before his career in politics, he traveled to Ghana as a high school exchange student and later worked in villages in Mexico and India.
Last year, Merkley took a trip to Myanmar on a fact-finding mission for an update on the Rohingya genocide.
“I organized a congressional delegation to go in November of last year to find out what had gone on,” Merkley says. “We did see some things in Myanmar that were powerful, like seeing a Muslim quarter, which was a section of the city which the residents were not allowed to leave, and there were police stations at the end of the streets, and it gives you shivers down your spine. It’s like an early-stage Warsaw ghetto.”
Merkley also visited some intensely crowded Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, something he says the U.S. needs to be paying more attention to and shining a light on.
“So what are these refugees to do? The U.S. president has not said one word,” Merkley says. “So the anniversary is coming up, one year on Aug. 25, of the start of the ethnic cleansing or genocide. It would be a perfect time for the State Department to release these reports. So I’m calling on the State Department to release this report and for the president, our president, President Trump, to take this as an occasion to speak to the world about the importance of holding Myanmar accountable.”
A few months ago, in May, Merkley visited Puerto Rico to check on recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria. Though it’s a U.S. territory, he says, the Trump administration has not treated Puerto Rico as its own.
“It’s abysmal,” Merkley says. “This administration has really done a terrible job at helping families recover.
“This is like the pace of recovery you would expect in a third world country, not the United States of America,” he says. “It made me feel like people who live in U.S. territories who are U.S. citizens should have voting representation in the Senate in some form, because I can’t imagine if they had somebody who could represent them and had the clout of having a vote, that they would’ve been ignored or neglected like that.”
He adds: “If there were other things that I knew about that were going on that I could shine a light on, I’d travel there and do it. So, stay tuned.”
A resident of Portland, Merkley is very invested in issues here in Oregon, regardless of the amount of recent national attention he’s gotten and speculations as to a presidential run.
Though he can be counted as a progressive, as far as the U.S. Senate goes — he was the only senator to endorse Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries — he spends a lot of his time talking to conservatives when he’s in the Beaver State.
Each year, Merkley visits every county in Oregon for a town hall meeting with its residents. “We have 36 counties in Oregon. Many of them, the majority, are actually quite red.”
“It’s possible to build bridges,” Merkley says of the political tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats.
“I’m constantly reaching out to my Republican colleagues to say, ‘Hey, will you join me in this?’ It’s possible on more modest pieces of legislation,” he says. “On the things that have become deeply polarized through the difference of the split in the national media, it gets much harder. Much, much harder.”
One hot-button issue he discusses with his conservative constituents in Oregon is health care. And he’s even gone so far as to mention universal health care. Though a lot of the citizens Merkley talks with say they hate the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it’s usually an opinion based on misconceptions of how the health care reform act works, along with assumptions across partisan lines.
“I found that with the ACA, for example, people would ask me, ‘Why are you supporting this government takeover and why aren’t you listening to us?’” Merkley says. In these situations, he says, he makes a point to explain some of the main features of the ACA, such as the coverage of pre-existing conditions at the same price as anyone else and a website where you can easily compare plans.
“By the time I finished, people in the room were going, ‘We knew we didn’t like this Obamacare thing, but we’re not sure why,’” Merkley says. “And I think it’s widely understood and felt by people on both sides of the aisle that we have a system of health care that’s way too complicated and that we need to have a system that’s much simpler, where you have health care when you need it just by virtue of living here in the United States of America.”
He adds: “Maybe there are progressives representing it, but those ideas — when they’re presented as the reality of, ‘Would you like that opportunity to be part of that?’ — people say ‘Yes’ on both sides of the aisle.”
Merkley has been working on legislation to eventually make health care available to all Americans.
In April, he sponsored a bill in Congress called the “Choose Medicare Act.” It would establish Part E, meaning Medicare that is available for everyone, not only those 65 and over.
Regarding the Choose Medicare Act, Merkley says, “You can go to the exchange [health care marketplace], you can choose a public option, a Medicare policy that would not be subsidized.”
The Choose Medicare Act would be available to individuals as well as employers as an option to offer to their employees.
In a press release on the act, Merkley says that it would put “consumers and businesses in the driver’s seat on the pathway to universal health care.”
The bill has been read twice in the Senate and has been referred to the Senate Committee on Finance, which may or may not release the bill to be voted on.
With Merkley considering a presidential run in 2020, those who have known him throughout his political career say it would not be a surprising move.
From the late ’90s into the early 2000s, former Oregon Sen. Tony Corcoran was in the Oregon Senate, while Merkley was serving in the House. Corcoran writes the column “Hot Air Society” for this paper.
Corcoran says even early in Merkley’s political career, the senator was highly motivated.
“I wasn’t surprised that he ascended so quickly,” he says. “I think that he’s the Senate equivalent of Peter DeFazio in so many ways, in terms of people having respect for his position. He’s not a flake, and he’s consistent.”
Corcoran says a presidential run requires a good amount of planning. If Merkley does run, it most likely will be pretty obvious in November.
“I wouldn’t be surprised because, I mean, I think that that consideration occurs when a whole bunch of ducks line up in a row,” Corcoran says. “It’s early. You don’t have this discussion earnestly until November.”
He adds: “Once you throw your hat in the ring like that, it’ll just be about keeping an eye on who encourages him and supports him and so forth.”
And it seems Merkley has been doing some planning. In recent months he’s visited Iowa and New Hampshire — popular early-primary states for presidential candidates to make names for themselves.
Merkley has gained national attention for his determined opposition to injustice, especially that of the Trump administration, as well as his creation and endorsement of Bernie Sanders-esque progressive legislation.
But he’ll still have his work cut out for him against well-known Democratic darlings like senators Elizabeth Warren and Sanders, if either of them decides to run.
Jack Roberts, former Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries commissioner, one-time political columnist for The Oregonian and local Republican pundit, says Merkley winning in a presidential race might be kind of an outside chance, but still a possibility.
“I think it’s a long shot, but looking ahead to 2020, there’s no immediate frontrunner, so it’s possible,” he says. “In my lifetime, the only real outsider who has gone through and gotten the nomination and won has been Jimmy Carter, and that’s been quite a while ago.”
Roberts says some more well-known potential candidates like Sanders, or even potentially Joe Biden, may have better chances, but age is a factor that might be taken into account — since both of them would be in their late 70s in 2020. Merkley, however, will be 64 come the 2020 election. “Some of the best known and most promising potential candidates would also be the oldest presidents ever elected, breaking the record just set by Trump,” Roberts says. “So I don’t know how the voters as a whole feel about continuing to elect older people to serve.”
A safer, more probable option for Merkley, Roberts says, might be running as a vice presidential candidate. Regardless, Roberts says, Merkley will have to weigh both those options as he is up for re-election in the U.S. Senate in 2020 and can only run in one of those races. According to the Oregon Constitution, “No person holding a lucrative office, or appointment under the United States or under this State, shall be eligible to a seat in the Legislative Assembly; nor shall any person hold more than one lucrative office at the same time.”
Roberts says, “If he’s on the ballot either as a president or vice presidential candidate, which I think frankly, I don’t know if this is his intention, but I think of him more as a candidate for vice president, either way he wouldn’t be able to stay in the Senate.”
If he does take the plunge to run, Roberts says the biggest thing Merkley can do right now is gain more recognition and distinguish himself as a candidate.
“It’s hard for me to say exactly how Merkley distinguishes himself from the rest of the field, but in a strange environment like we have today, anything’s possible,” Roberts says. “The first challenge is getting the nomination, and I don’t think he’ll be the only progressive Democrat running in the race.”
He adds: “I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge. What are you going to tell people that you have to offer that the other candidates don’t?”
Merkley doesn’t seem to be motivated so much by winning, per se, as he is by the idea of genuinely doing the right thing. It’s what propelled him into politics in the first place, from his work in developing countries and then in the nonprofit sphere — the feeling that the right things weren’t getting done, so he would have to get in there and do them himself.
That, it seems, is what has always motivated Merkley, and he hopes that same desire for good is motivating everyday citizens right now in the current political climate. He says the biggest thing to do is to get involved and inspire others to do the same.
“Right now it’s really important to reach out to your friends and family in other states and say to them, ‘It’s important you call your senator and weigh in,’” Merkley says. “It’s important to be off the sidelines. That could mean getting engaged through volunteering for a nonprofit, getting engaged by writing letters to the editor.”
He says this is the only way to truly make America, and the world, a better place.
“America is in big trouble. We’re in a really dark place,” he says. “And we basically have a government under assault from three powerful corrupting forces: one is dark money in campaigns, one is gerrymandering and one is voter suppression. And the only way to counter that is citizen engagement.”
He adds: “Our vision of our Constitution is all about a government that would reflect the will of the people. Right now, through those forces, we have a system that produces laws for the powerful and the privileged, so if we’re going to reclaim the vision that our nation was founded on, we have to be engaged.”
Regardless of what Merkley decides come November, expect to hear his name pop up more and more in the coming months.
For example, he says, a book about his life and work might not be off the table. “There’s still time left this year,” Merkley says about publishing something in preparation for a presidential run. “I have noticed that virtually everybody running or thinking about running has a book.”
Sitting in that Springfield Subway, he asked me and my colleague, EW staff writer Henry Houston, what the title and cover of his book should be. All the advice I had to give was to make sure to make the title something snappy and memorable. Henry suggested to Merkley that he and his dog, Sadie, be on the cover.
So, if next time you’re walking by Smith Family Books and you see a book in the window with Merkley and an Airedale terrier on the front, you may want to pick it up. Because, who knows? The man might be our next president.