They say you can’t go home again, but if you grew up outside of the National Capital Region, sometimes it’s good to get out of the white-hot center of global politics, and reconnect with family and old friends. When you leave behind the intensities of life in Northern Virginia, you might get a broader understanding why there is such “national grumpiness” in public discourse today. On the other hand, you might find that no one else has figured it out either.
Eugene, Oregon is a college town, also known as “Tracktown USA” because of its hosting of Olympic track and field trials, and other noted track meets. As a university town, Eugene has many well-educated residents but, centered in the Willamette Valley, Eugene also has been an important agricultural and timber center, which formed the backbone of its economy for decades. Like many communities, those traditional economies are changing, or even dying. These disparate groups make for interesting conversations, and perplexing perspectives, especially in this presidential election year.
A look at the daily paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, reveals issues that are common to most local governments: road and bridge repairs that will disrupt traffic, but only until the end of September; housing and services for an estimated homeless population of 12,000 in a county of about 360,000; and managing rates for trash disposal, raising prices and shutting down one transfer station. An unexpected parallel to the name change controversy for J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County is a similar campaign to change the name of Deady Hall, the oldest building on campus and named for a founder of the university, because of racist remarks made in the 1870s or earlier.
Unlike news in our region, coverage of the national campaigns is sparse in Eugene. No headlines; go to page 3 or 4 to find any articles about national politics. But the choices for president prompt energetic discussion, nonetheless.
One woman was incredulous that Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, but also told me that many men in her tiny traditional timber town east of Eugene supported him. Another woman, who is active with several counter-culture groups, was distrustful of most people in elective office, but said she would support Hillary Clinton, even though she preferred Bernie Sanders in the primary. A couple of frustrated Republicans quietly shared that they would not be voting Republican in November. They also had lots of questions about how “we” (America) got into this predicament. Some blamed a do-nothing Congress, and some letters to the editor blamed both corporate America and public pension systems.
At the end of our visit, it was apparent that, although many wanted to hear news from the Capital, national politics ranked pretty far down the ladder in everyday conversation. Of greater import were health, wellness, and exercise (Oregon is a great outdoors state), drought and fire danger, and affordability of just about everything. Voting for any candidate, or not voting at all, seems a decision still far off for many.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.