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Capital Chatter: Who's in charge?

If Gov. Brown is THE face of Oregon's pandemic response, her communications strategy has been puzzling.

Who's in charge of Oregon's coronavirus response?

Unlike some governors, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown did not appoint a czar to lead the state's work on COVID-19. Instead, she named a panel of medical experts to advise and assist her in decision-making.

Members of the Governor's COVID-19 Medical Advisory Panel have told me that Brown and her staff do listen to their advice.

It remains unclear how much influence such groups as the Governor's Coronavirus Economic Advisory Council have had. Watching the council's Zoom meeting last week, it appeared that the participants were expected to react to the governor's staff proposals instead of the council and its subcommittees being the ones developing the "reopening Oregon" policies from the ground up. By the way, I hear this week's council meeting was canceled.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee brought in a retired Navy vice admiral, Dr. Raquel Bono, to head that state's response. A surgeon, Bono had led the Defense Health Agency; and Inslee recognized the need for someone who would command the respect of hospitals, long-term care facilities and others involved in the health-care response. Executives from Amazon and Microsoft were recruited to lend their expertise on procurement and distribution, so as to obtain more personal protective equipment.

Several states also have made the news for enlisting Google and other tech giants to create better ways of handling states' huge influx of unemployment claims. Despite increased staffing, Oregon's unemployment system and ancient computers remain a mess, with people waiting weeks to get claims processed, let alone start receiving benefits.

In response, Oregon House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner of Portland this week called for "bold action" to clear the claims backlog. I wondered whether her statement was to prod the governor, give her cover or something else. By the way, "bold action" is a term that Brown's press releases often use to describe her leadership.

At the behest of the Oregon Employment Department (OED), legislators had been telling constituents that email was the best way to reach the agency. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, says that no longer is the case. Emails have overwhelmed the department.

"The agency has increased the number of team members trained to address the email backlog but for now, we have been advised not to forward you along to that email box until the backlog has been addressed," Burdick wrote in her Thursday constituent newsletter. "In the meantime, we are working to find alternative ways for you to get in touch with OED about specific questions and issues."

Also, The Oregonian reported that department director Kay Erickson has refused interviews for four weeks and noted that Brown "has been mostly silent" on the problems. Brown appointed Erickson in 2016.

If Brown is THE face of Oregon's pandemic response, her communications strategy has been puzzling. Oregon, like the federal government, seemed uncertain and indecisive at first. Brown has held few televised press conferences in comparison with Inslee and some other governors. For a while, she conducted daily telephone media availabilities with journalists. Then Oregon's emergency management director, Andrew Phelps, held online press briefings, primarily about the supply of personal protective equipment. Those, too, have stopped.

This has led to questions from the public and legislators about who's in charge.

Because Oregon lacks the independent, outsider voice that Bono brought to Washington's COVID-19 response, Brown and her staff shoulder an even greater burden to demonstrate expertise in crisis management. That might be an almost impossible task because of how partisan and divided our state, like our nation, has become.

Even before Brown's live-streamed press conference began Thursday morning, people were giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down on YouTube. Clearly, they had their minds made up before hearing what she said. That was reinforced by the bruising back-and-forth comments among viewers in the accompanying online chat.

Polls show that most Oregonians support Brown's stay-home orders. Yet she remains a polarizing figure, despite having had decades of political experience in which to build a positive reputation among rank-and-file Oregonians. Examples of Democrats who have fared better in that regard include Sen. Ron Wyden, nonpartisan Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle and former Gov. John Kitzhaber, whom Brown replaced.

During the 2020 Legislature, which collapsed, the question on the mind of many Democrats and Republicans was, "What would Kitzhaber have done?" Now the question becomes how Dr. Kitzhaber might have governed during this pandemic.

All of this becomes a lesson to keep in mind during this year's Oregon elections — which, in essence, are a hiring process conducted by voters. Competence is the essential criterion, and that competence necessitates a wide range of skills. One is the ability to recruit, hire and retain outstanding staff at all levels. Another is the ability to handle unexpected crises, because undoubtedly some will occur.

Ideology ranks far down the list. Having the correct viewpoint guarantees neither competence nor the ability to convince others of the right course.

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby mostly avoided partisanship during an online town hall this week that she set up for Oregonians to ask members of the governor's staff about reopening Oregon. Several times, Drazan reminded participants that this was an opportunity to hear first-hand from the people making the decisions, not a forum on Republican policy.

Hundreds of Oregonians participated, wanting to ask hundreds of questions during the 90-minute sessions. Democratic legislators have held similar events.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.