By Talon Reporter Nat Needham
HRV Senior Nat Needham sat down with Paul Blackburn, mayor of Hood River, for an interview at Blackburn’s weekly Pie with the Mayor session, which is held on Wednesdays at varying locations. This is part 1 of 2.
Needham: Do you consider yourself a politician?
Blackburn: Somebody taught me that “politician” comes from the Latin root for “power.” I spend a lot of energy in my life paying attention to who has what power, because there’s just nothing sadder than watching somebody try to exercise power when they don’t have it. So noticing what power I do and don’t have and what power other people do and don’t have, I think, is a really healthy and enjoyable thing to do. So in that literal meaning, I would say I am. I think I am also very thoughtful and inclusive in my leadership style, which is not the only way to be; some people are more like, “My way! Here we go!” and I think that’s smart politics as well. I’m certainly not a professional politician; this job pays $100 a month. So this is designed to be a hobby.
N: Why did you want to become the mayor?
B: We’ve lived here for fifteen years, We’ve raised our kids here. This is our home. It’s a great town. And one of the things that makes it great is people show up to help out with important things and it seemed like something I could do to help our town and I’m happy to do it.
N: What have you done to benefit Hood River in your first year as Mayor?
B: [laughter] I think I’ve provided a steady, thoughtful hand on the tiller, that I haven’t tried to drive my agenda; I think I have the best interests of our town in mind and I think that’s really important because someone will always be in this chair and the choices that person makes can have an effect on our town and I think I’ve provided thoughtful, considerate decision making and leadership. I think I’ve done a nice job facilitating the discussions at council so that all seven councillors can be really involved in making decisions, and I think that’s a really smart way to do it. I think I’ve done a good job of outreach to Latinos and Native Americans and folks who are not necessarily powerful in parts of our community. I think that’s a really important moral thing to do and I’m really pleased with the success we’ve had there. I think that this Pie with the Mayor has really caught people’s fancy as a very open and honest opportunity for folks to approach me and I think that sets a nice tone for our city government and I’m pleased with that.
N: When you were my age or in college, did you ever expect or want to have a position in public office?
B: It’s so different depending on the size of the town. You know, if you’re going to be the mayor of Portland or something like that, that’s like… You gotta sort of start mapping that career out at your age. In a tiny town like this, it’s designed to be just regular folks who have the positions. The previous mayors–I’m a stay at home dad. The mayor before me was an independent electrical engineer. The mayor before him was a cell phone store owner. The mayor before her was an auto mechanic. I mean, you can see the long term–it’s not like Barack Obama, Jeb Bush…
N: It’s not all lawyers and doctors.
B: It’s not all lawyers and doctors. So, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, to be fair about that, but it was a pretty natural segway for me. I worked as a staffer with some nonprofits providing social justice and poverty relief, and then from there it was pretty natural to go from being on the staff of those organizations to being on the board of those organizations, and in a town like Hood River, that’s then the kind of circle of folks who are trying their best to help the community, and so then it was a pretty natural step to city council and then to mayor.
N: You mentioned that you work with Latinos and Native Americans; is one of your concerns housing for those people? Because there is a housing gap in Hood River.
B: That is definitely one of the main concerns and in fact, every year, the city council gets together to kind of come up with some specific goals for the year. Because we’re always running the police department and the fire department–you know, running the basic city–but also sort of some strategic ideas of things we’d like to try to make progress in, and last year at that goal setting session, the number one priority, the one that everyone felt most strongly about, by far, was housing. For all kinds of reasons; for the health of our big employers; like the hospital and Insitu and the school district, they’ve all told us that we should try to do something–if we can–about housing. And on the more individual level–
The waiter interrupts to take my pie order. I order apple and am told they are out of apple. Silently disappointed, I order peach.
B: And on the personal side, you know, from the perspective of the individual, it’s tough to have to drive from Klickitat to a job here in town. There are a lot of different reasons why housing’s important and one of them is from the vulnerable citizen’s perspective.
N: Is it a concern that so many of the houses in Hood River are bought as vacation homes and not as year-round residences?
B: There are a lot of facets to the issue. One of the easiest to see is the vacation/rental. The estimate is about 10% of the homes in Hood River are basically off the market. It’s like they burned down. They’re just out of the market. Hundreds and hundreds of houses are not available! Well, if there were more of them, you know, supply and demand tells us that prices would be–I don’t think it’s gonna make suddenly all the houses in Hood River are gonna be under $200,000 but it certainly will have an impact. Another interesting thing, just one other facet, is that compared to other towns and cities, we don’t have very many apartment buildings. Many cities have more apartment buildings and those are, you know, relatively less expensive places to live. If we had more apartments, there would be more affordable places to live. That has nothing to do with short term rentals, that’s just another area we’re working on.
N: What are your plans and priorities for the next year?
B: So we talked about that goal setting session. I was looking back on it–okay, what did we say we wanted to do? How are we doing on that? And on a number of items we’ve made progress. In addition to housing, one of the top priorities was outreach. And frankly, I think I’ve done a good job on Latino outreach. And this (Pie with the Mayor) has been popular like I said, so does that mean, okay, check it off the list, no more pie next year? No, you kind of keep doing some of that. One of the things that’s very important is not to try to do everything. This is true in all levels of politics because there’s only so many things you can do. And to some extent choosing to focus on A means you’re not going to do B. So we’re having our next goal-setting session this month and I’m really interested to see where folks are at. Do we feel like we can check some things off and move on to other things? Or do we keep doing on these things. Housing’s not done. Housing’s not done by any means. So I hope we continue to focus on that for the coming year. That’s still a huge issue–Hood River’s become, if anything, less affordable in the last year. So we’ll keep working on that. On the outreach, something I’m really pleased to say about that–I was invited to speak at a state conference of mayors on Latino outreach and I was told in that process that I am the only mayor in Oregon that speaks Spanish.
N: That’s actually really surprising considering there are so many Latinos in this state that are Spanish-speaking only…
B: It’s kind of a terrifying statement of power. Like there are a lot of Latinos, but they’re not the ones with the power. So part of my goal, which is kind of a joke and not completely serious, is to have there be a Latino mayor. How cool would that be? That would solve a lot of the issues we’ve identified. That’s a different perspective. And this is why I formed the Latino advisory council. Just last week I was in a very intense session with folks talking about how they were losing their businesses for lack of a driver’s license and how they couldn’t afford to live here and the challenges… You know, native-born anglos don’t have that perspective. So I’m glad at least I’m asking about that.
N: Right. Well, you said earlier that it’s different being Mayor of a small town vs. a city like Portland but do you think it’s easier in a sense? Or harder?
B: It’s hard for me to say because I wouldn’t want to live in Portland, let alone be the mayor of it. There’s more time. If it’s your full time job, then you’ve got time to do it. But I’m squeezing it in around the edges of my other life. It’s just so different… I would say it’s easier. Like I said, this is an awesome town. And we can kind of get our hands around it. I was visiting family in Baltimore–can you imagine trying to do good in Baltimore with the huge amounts of racial inequality and poverty–
N: I almost feel like they should split it up into sections and have a mayor for each section.
B: Totally, right? I mean, Hood River is manageable. But still, I’m well acquainted with some sectors of our town and I’m sure there’s other sectors of our town that are like, “Pfft, that guy has no idea.” I’ve had pie here, and at Oak Street, at Betty’s, and at Pine Street, and these are three very different places. I haven’t had it at a Latino owned place yet and I would like to. I’m trying to figure out like… That place (gesturing to Guadalajara) doesn’t serve pie. Maybe I should get over the pie thing and make it like, taco or something. And another funny thing about it is, people have no idea where the city line is. People who live on Country Club are like, “Oh I voted for you!” I’m like, “No you didn’t. You’re not in the city.” The city is really small! Next Door, right over here, and the Tire Factory, that’s outside the city. Elliot is the edge, right? So the high school isn’t in the city. There’s a funny thing where people identify with Hood River who aren’t in Hood River.
N: Yeah, it’s really funny. You’re going down Country Club and right after you get off Wine Country it says “Hood River City Limits.” And it’s like, wait a second–I live right there!
B: Yeah, there’s a lot of that. I mean, even in Odell there’s not a post office so it says on packages “AGA Rd, Hood River.” And that’s not Hood River.
N: It’s a county, but it’s really treated more like a town.
B: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
N: So obviously when you decided to become mayor you knew there would be challenges, but what are some unexpected challenges you encountered?
B: The hardest part is dealing with folks who are unhappy about something, and as I listen to them I realize, y’know what, they’re unhappy about something I don’t think we should change. It’s not like it’s wrong, it’s just that they are experiencing being on the short end of that stick and they don’t like that. But it’s good for the city, it’s best for the city. This rule is a good rule, and I’m sorry that they’re unhappy, but I get that call. Because I want to make people happy. I want to facilitate, and I realize, “Oh, there’s no–the best situation for our town is to not compromise on this but to say, ‘I’m sorry you don’t like that but we have parking meters and parking meters are important.” What do you mean you went downtown and you were offended because there’s parking meters? Really? Offended? Let’s talk about Syria, man. So that’s a little bit precious sometimes.
N: Do you have any advice for high school students?
B: One of the things I would tell a high school student, thinking back to myself when I was your age, is high school is a lot different than the regular world. And if you’re frustrated by things that are happening, just wait a little while. It’ll be so different when you’re out. There are a lot more ways to be a grownup than there are to be a kid. What’s the Cat Stevens song? “Take your time, think a lot.” Life is long; it’ll change. And I would encourage every kid who grows up here to get out and go see some other stuff, because this is quite a particular place. And it’s not really possible to have a good perspective on this place–or any place! Without seeing other–you know, travel is really very broadening, they say. But here it’s especially true because it’s a very unusual place. You have to figure out whether this is a good place for you. Just go somewhere else and you’ll find out.
N: Our teachers are always telling us that kind of stuff, like “This place is… different than everywhere else.” And before you go somewhere else for a while you don’t really understand that. I’ve been to Italy, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and a bunch of places around America, and just being in all those different places convinced me that yeah, Hood River is special. It’s very special.
B: And “special” makes it sound better, but this is just a different place. It’s just that you have to go check things out, and to the extent that you can, make choices. The sad thing is the person who never gets to experience those things. A metaphor I’ve heard that I think is very beautiful is, “An old fish swims by two young fish. It says, ‘Hey boys! How’s the water?’ and swims off. One fish says to the other, ‘What’s water?’” You don’t even know you’re in it when you’re in it. So you gotta go see somewhere else. And then come back if you can manage it.
Part 2 will be posted on Monday, January 18. Pie with the Mayor is held every Wednesday at varying locations such as Shari’s and Pine Street Bakery.