Name: Jeff Merkley
Political Affiliation: Democrat
City: Portland, OR
Occupation: Oregon U.S. Senator
Political Experience: Senate Appropriations Committee; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; Environment and Public Works Committee; State Representative, 1998 – 2008; Oregon House Speaker 2007-2008
Family Status: Married to nurse Mary Sorteberg; children Jonathon and Brynne
Education: Stanford University: bachelor’s degree, international relations (1979); Princeton University: master’s degree, public policy, Woodrow Wilson School (1982)
PORTLAND, Ore. - Running virtually unopposed, Oregon U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley has not formally campaigned for the May 20 Primary Election. But he has been at work on something that may appeal to student voters in the Nov. 4 General Election.
The first-term senator recently teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to introduce legislation that will promote college affordability and reduce student loan debt. The Bank On Students Emergency Loans Refinancing Act will allow students paying high interest rates on student loans to refinance public and private federal loans at a fixed, lower interest rate. This will help make college more affordable, with a goal of increasing the amount of students attending college.
Two Democratic challengers are listed with Merkley on the May 20 Primary Ballot. But one of them is William Bryk, an attorney living in New York who has not campaigned for the post and is simultaneously running for U.S. Senate in Alaska and Idaho. Also on the ballot is Pavel Goberman, a perennial candidate from Beaverton who did not respond to a UO student’s interview request. His Website describes him as a “fitness guru” and touts sales of books he has published on health.
Merkley worked with President Barack Obama and Senate leadership to increase funding for Pell Grants as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The 2010 law redirected over $60 billion to such grants, increasing the number of recipients and raising grant caps to $6,000 by 2017. The law also included $2.5 billion for colleges serving minorities and improved the terms of student loan forgiveness plans to make repayment more manageable. Merkley has also proposed legislation replacing federal loans with a reduction or elimination of college costs in exchange for the students’ commitment to pay a small percentage of their future income back for a set number of years after graduation.
Many University of Oregon students have identified civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other sexual minorities as another important election issue.
As a state legislative leader, Merkley championed the Oregon Equality Act.
“Everyone deserves the right to work hard and earn a living,” he said in an emailed response to interview questions for this profile. “No one should be fired for who they love. When I was Speaker in 2007, I passed a bill that ended discrimination in the workplace for our LGBT friends and family.”
When he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Merkley said, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked him to lead this battle nationally.
“I am pleased to report the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed the Senate late last year for the first time ever.” Merkley said in the interview. “The House must take up the bill so it can be passed into law. In 29 states you can still be fired for being gay. That's just wrong.”
Merkley also has worked to create more jobs and add energy-saving requirements to facilities to create more construction jobs. Merkley was the author of the Job Creation Through Energy Efficient Manufacturing Act, which helps manufacturers access low-cost loans to make their facilities more energy efficient. This will lower costs for manufacturers and create more jobs in the long run. Merkley also introduced the Small Business Jobs Act, which helps banks lend more to small businesses and boosts innovative small business lending programs.
Merkley is also pushing to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation.
“With a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour, people would be paid more fairly for the work they do,” he said in a recent statement on his Website. “They would be better able to support themselves without public assistance. And parents would be able to provide a better foundation for their children.”
Merkley also cosponsored the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by President Barack Obama. The act restores fairness in the workplace by allowing victims of discrimination to seek compensation. Merkley said he is also working to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would close loopholes that allow employment discrimination to go unchecked. It improves remedies available and prohibits retaliation by employers.
Merkley has called affordable and quality health care a human right. As an Oregon lawmaker, he worked to lower prescription drug prices by expanding the state’s bulk prescription drug purchasing program.
As a U.S. Senator, Merkley voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which allows young adults to stay on their parent’s healthcare plans until the age of 26.
Merkley serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and helped pass the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which direct the FDA to study the public health effects of tobacco candy.
In a case recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the retail chain Hobby Lobby argued that the government should not force them to cover certain contraceptives they consider a form of abortion, which they oppose.
In response to an interview question, Merkley said college students should be concerned because “right now, a woman’s right to contraceptive care is being threatened. The Supreme Court heard a court case that has the potential to allow bosses to make birth control decisions for their employees. Coming between a woman and her doctor is just plain wrong and its bad for women’s health.”
He said that 99 percent of women will use contraception at some point in their lives, whether for family planning or medical reasons and that more than half of all women between the ages of 18 and 34 have struggled to afford it.
“We should treat birth control like any other preventive medical care, like we already do here in Oregon, “ Merkley said. “If your boss doesn't think birth control is right for him and his family, that's his decision. It’s offensive for him to think he has right to impose his personal religious values on his employees. These decisions could directly harm the health of women. We know that contraception is basic essential health care for women, and the decision whether to use it should be between a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss.”
Merkley has been active in energy efficiency opportunities in the United States. He introduced a bipartisan bill to increase production and use of electronic cars. He also sponsored legislation to allow homeowners and business owners to receive low-interest loans that can be paid back from the money they save on energy bills. Similarly, he introduced legislation to provide low-cost loans for energy-saving investments in manufacturing facilities.
As of May 12, Merkley had raised $5.2 million in contributions for his 2014 campaign. Among major contributors were former California Senator, Alan Sieroty; film producer/director, J.J. Abrams; and singer/actress, Barbara Streisand.
Oregon’s most influential donors include Junki and Linda Yoshida, multimillionaire cancer research supporters and owners of a teriyaki sauce company, who donated $5,200 to the campaign.
Other top Northwest contributors include Thomas and Sonya Campion. Thomas is the founder/Chairman of the Board at Zumiez, Inc. in Seattle. He is on the Board of Alaska Wilderness League and the Board of Conservation in the Northwest.
Lynn Kahle, a sports marketing professor at the University of Oregon, has also contributed to Merkley’s campaign.
“I support most of Sen. Merkley's positions and believe that he represents Oregon well,” Kahle said ”His work to minimize the impact of the filibuster and his efforts on health care are especially significant.”
Merkley did not respond to other interview questions on topics including job creation and marijuana legalization due to time limitations, his staff said.
UO mathematics professor Dev Sinha, who also contributed to Merkley’s campaign, cited his intelligence and political strategies.
"Good evidence is his emphasis on procedural reform, particularly around the filibuster“ Sinha said, “By focusing on such battles-- which Merkley doesn’t get nearly enough credit for -- it makes other battles down the road consistently easier. That’s good strategy - maximizing the impact of time and effort. There wasn’t enough reform, but it is a credit to Merkley and a few others working with him that now the federal government’s work cannot be obstructed by not appointing the people needed to lead that work.”