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News / Northwest

Earl Blumenauer takes his last ride through Congress

Known for biking and bow ties, the longtime Oregon Representative won't run for the House again

By Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call
Published: April 21, 2024, 6:00am
4 Photos
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., left, accompanied by Big Bird and Grover puppets, takes part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, to discuss the future of Public Broadcasting.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., left, accompanied by Big Bird and Grover puppets, takes part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, to discuss the future of Public Broadcasting. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON — Aside from his bike pins and bow ties, and the holiday fruit cakes he delivers to colleagues, Earl Blumenauer has carved out his own niche in the House.

“I’ve got a pretty interesting portfolio of issues,” says the Oregon Democrat, like trying to ease federal cannabis policy. He cites his work on neuroscience and nutrition. He calls “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan his friend. And he preaches the gospel of public transportation to anyone who will listen.

“Not particularly sexy, but important,” says Blumenauer, who has biked to his job at the Capitol for nearly 30 years.

As the Portland native prepares to retire from Congress at the end of this term, he says he’s not done yet. Sporting an orange bike pin on his lapel, he sat down with Roll Call to reflect on his legacy, his most memorable ride in D.C. and the future of bow ties on the Hill.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: How are you seeing your impact as you get ready to leave?

A: I’m not a high-profile member of Congress. I don’t run explosive campaigns. I don’t get on television saying outrageous things, and most of my issues are things you’re not going to read about in The Wall Street Journal or see on MSNBC or Fox News.

But we’re engaging people. I just went to a streetcar summit in Charlotte, and we’ve been working with people trying to develop the reintroduction of the modern streetcar around the country.

On nutrition, we’ve made some progress in highlighting the fact that we’re subsidizing a diet that makes Americans sick. I’ve had extensive conversations and work with my friend Michael Pollan, who’s also in the psilocybin space.

We’re trying to promote greater public understanding and build momentum. Legislation is increasingly difficult, when we’re swamped with social media, and too many colleagues are here for the performative aspects and not digging into the substance.

Q: Are you frustrated, and was that part of your decision?

A: First of all, I spend 14 hours a week on airplanes or in airports. I have better things to do with my life than hang around airports.

As you may know, I spent decades trying to increase the resources for infrastructure, for sewer and water and transportation. Well, we kind of hit the gusher [with the bipartisan infrastructure law in 2021 and the 2022 law known as the Inflation Reduction Act]. But now we’ve got a huge challenge in terms of figuring out how to access it, and then implement. And this is where actually not being in Congress will help me.

I’m in the back nine of life. I don’t want to spend time in pointless meetings, listening to the same points over and over and over again. I want to spend time working with people to actually make it work.

Q: So what’s next for you?

A: People have given me all sorts of suggestions, and I’m listening. But I’m in no hurry to settle on one. I’m going to spend at least half my time back in Portland. For the last 54 years I’ve worked on making my community the most livable in the country, and up until about four years ago, I think people would have said, “That’s the place. Go visit Portland. See what they’re doing with mass transit and housing and environmental protection and bicycles.” We’ve run into a rough patch, and so I want to work with the folks at home.

[In the meantime] I’ve written a series of exit memos. I had a conversation with Dan Kildee, who worked with me on forced labor, and now we’re strategizing about how we hand this issue off to somebody for next Congress.

And I consulted with my colleague Mike Thompson on the Ways and Means Committee, and I’m handing off to him later in the year the Democratic leadership on the Bike Caucus. We already greased the skids for that with the National Bike Summit a few weeks ago and introduced Mike.

Q: How has Congress changed since you came in 1996?

A: It’s harder to do the day-to-day work. I’m not an intensely partisan person. I do a lot of work with the governing wing of the Republican Party in the House, and it’s shrinking, painfully so. And they’re frustrated.

Part of the reason I ran for Congress in the first place is I was appalled at what Newt Gingrich did trying to vilify the opposing party. My first press conference was one about bringing civility back to the House, with [Republican] Ray LaHood and others.

But the imposition of social media on top of this makes it very hard. The attention span is that of a gnat. It is intensely performative, and it’s hard to get people’s attention to just have a substantive discussion. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Q: You’ve biked a lot in D.C. Any memorable moments?

A: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but cycling was at the core of my most embarrassing moment as a member of Congress. [NPR radio host] Ari Shapiro is an Oregonian and grew up just outside my district, and we decided to go on a bike ride and be interviewed at the same time. And I led him down the wrong way on a one-way street and just about killed him and me.

Q: Are there any intersections in the city you avoid when you’re biking?

A: Up around Dupont Circle, we’ve seen horrific crashes. But watching the billions of dollars now that we’re investing in bike safety and bike facilities across the nation is amazingly gratifying. During the pandemic, the explosion of cycling was transformative. We’re looking at city streets differently.

Burning calories instead of fossil fuel is good for the environment, but it’s also good for the soul. You know, we promote “bike-partisanship.” Everybody has a bike story, whether they’re a cyclist or not.

Q: Your signature look is a bow tie. With both you and Patrick McHenry retiring, are you worried about the future of bow ties on the Hill?

A: We’ll be reaching out for new recruits.

Q: Have you prepared an exit memo on that?

A: I’m working on that. When I came here, the only one who wore bow ties regularly was Tom Bliley in the House, and [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan in the Senate.

One of my great friends and mentors was Sen. Mark Hatfield, a Republican giant and a very decent human being. He said, “You often wear a bow tie, don’t you?” I said yeah. He looked at me and said, “Always wear a bow tie.”

How does another middle-aged white guy stand out on Capitol Hill? I mean, I’m kind of pasty-faced, and I don’t dress flashy, and we’ve already established that I’m not charismatic. But wear a bow tie and a bike pin, and you don’t have to be stopped by security. They know who you are.

Quick hits

Favorite bow tie? Patti Simon gave me a bow tie worn by her husband, Paul. We named the Water for the Poor legislation after him, and so periodically when we’re doing an international water event, I’ll pull out my Paul Simon bow tie.

Best friend across the aisle? There are a number of people I deeply respect. Dave Joyce and some of his cannabis work. Bill Huizenga, we trade holiday cakes. I’m sorry Mike Gallagher is leaving. Steve Womack is a thoughtful, even-tempered, hard-nosed conservative. People like that make it a little easier to function around here.

Your least popular opinion? For years I worked to raise the gas tax, but I’ve kind of given up. There’s no political will for it, and because of what we’re doing with electrifying the system, funding transportation based on gallons of fossil fuel consumed is a downward spiral.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? That’s a slippery slope. We are experts at rationalization, but you have to be careful. Principles matter, and if it appears you are unmoored, it undermines your credibility.

One thing you’ll miss about Congress? The setting. I love the city, and the Capitol is majestic. And also some really great people.

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