Might We Become the Party Will Rogers Wouldn’t Recognize Anymore?

By Mary Lyon

 Actor/writer/humorist Will Rogers may have said it best (at least until recently): “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

Indeed, the Democratic Party has long had a reputation for being disorganized. For Clackamas County Democrats Chairman Peter Nordbye, that’s a powerful, overarching and immediate concern: “We have to pull ourselves together as a party because we’ve gotta get Trump out.” Nordbye says this is more urgently true now than ever before, as a voracious pandemic magnifies the current administration’s calamitous excuse for leadership.

Nordbye points to earlier crises the U.S. has surmounted, recovering from a devastating Great Depression, bridging division by rebuilding one-time adversaries Japan, and Europe after World War II. He says we now face another task so vast it calls to us all. “Bring everybody to the table and get that done. We can move toward a can-do society. My job is to figure out some way to come together. We do not want Trump.”

Ironically, the year 2020 seems to be turning Will Rogers’ quote on its ear, as well as easing Nordbye’s deepest worries. At least for now. In the space of a week, only one Democratic presidential candidate remained standing, as Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign, endorsing Joe Biden mere days later. Former President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren quickly followed suit. 

Progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez signaled she’d ultimately be in the presumptive Democratic nominee’s column as well. The media have noted the remarkable and unexpected shift. “What long and drawn-out primary season? Uh, wait, it’s over already?”

And not a moment too soon. Because there’s enough else to do at the moment. Nordbye says the coronavirus has pushed us into “uncharted territory for our families and our party,” a serious concern on both macro- and micro- levels. The effort ahead includes a broad based alignment on larger party goals of taking back the White House and Senate.

It’s also found deep within the minutiae of mechanics involved in problem-solving how we can still meet without physically meeting. Nordbye says the main issue is knowing “all we need to do to make this work for everybody.” Life has grown more complicated at the same time it’s been forcibly simplified by the need to follow statewide “Stay Home. Save Lives” guidelines.

The Clackamas Dems have now entered the brave new world of virtual meetings as a way to do business while maintaining social distancing. The first Zoom conference in April brought Metro President Lynn Peterson and Metro Councilor Christine Lewis live to your screen to discuss Ballot Measure 26-210, funding supportive housing services to reduce homelessness.

 Online conferencing is one thing, but Nordbye says there are no bylaws in place for learning skills at managing 100-people meetings. “The skills are different. There’s a lot to figure out.”

The challenge is even larger, broader and more urgent. Nordbye’s list includes staying informed as the coronavirus changes more aspects of life as we know it, especially since your life actually may depend on it. Fortunately, he says, new facts on the new realities are readily available from credible sources beyond “Dr. Trump’s reality show” which means “we don’t have to listen to him.”

There are also elections demanding our attention – county commissioners and other Democrats near and far, to keep in place or vote into power to solidify more reasonable and rational leadership locally and nationally. Nordbye further stresses the importance of inclusion. “We cannot win in November if we fail to include people from multiple different viewpoints.” And in the end, he says, all roads toward a Better-Everything for this country still lead to ousting Trump.

Nordbye’s background gives him a keen awareness of the proverbial ruts in the road. As a middle school principal, he says, “we had to reach out.” There were attitudes to change, destructive thinking to abolish and common ground to find. Respecting each other was key. No longer were there “good kids and bad kids.”

Nordbye says his academic experience taught him that when people disagree, the best strategy is to bring everyone together and work on solutions. “Whatever problems we addressed, we had to rally around a common vision. In this case, we embraced the necessity that whatever solution(s) we selected, we had to ensure that those solutions benefitted all of our students, our faculty and support staff and the community at large.”

Once that vision was accepted, he says, the solution process became relatively easy. “We began to see a change in attitudes and energy. We were able to establish class schedules, room assignments, elective and activity options that required give-and-take from us all. In that process we became a school and a community.”

Turmoil had to be resolved between the new and the established teachers in the way classes were scheduled, for example. Nordbye recalls veteran teachers who’d pick their favorite students and leave out the others, “because that’s how it always was.” He came, saw and declared “that changes, today.” Thus, each class would become a place where every kid had the opportunity to learn. No parent would have to endure the “bad kid” label any longer. And once attitudes started evolving, he says, “it was amazing what we could accomplish.”

Nordbye admits it’s harder to shape attitudes in a larger community, but he won’t stop trying, for Democrats throughout Clackamas County and beyond. He still has strong feelings, but has redirected his support from the Bernie camp to Joe Biden as the Senator himself has done.

Might this determination to forge and maintain Democratic unity for the sake of the November election have left Will Rogers confused? Perhaps, unless he knew what Peter Nordbye warns the alternative would be if we don’t find a way to unify: It’s destructive enough now, but imagine another four years.…”

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