The city of Independence wants to be free — of this state lawmaker
A handful of emails that landed in Kathleen Mason’s inbox this month filled her with dread.
As the executive director and sole staffer at the Monmouth-Independence Chamber of Commerce, it’s Mason’s job to worry about anything that might hurt business in Independence, a city of roughly 10,000 people southwest of Salem.
The riverside town has its share of charm — as Mason, the mayor, and any local businessperson will readily attest — but the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a pall, shuttering restaurants and slowing the burgeoning tourism sector.
It’s another foe, however, that Mason and other Independence boosters have found themselves grappling in recent weeks: A state representative who, they must stress, does not represent them.
“I received two separate emails stating that people would not be doing business with Independence,” Mason said last week. “One person stated he was very concerned about relocating to the Independence-Monmouth area because of the news.”
That “news” relates to a December incident in which far-right demonstrators breached the locked Oregon state Capitol, scuffling with police and spurring widespread security concerns. On Jan. 7, OPB first reported that the incursion was attributable to a state lawmaker: Rep. Mike Nearman, a Republican whose mailing address lists Independence as his home.
Coming as it did on the heels of an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building, the news of Nearman’s involvement generated national interest. Soon outlets around the country were showing surveillance footage of the lawmaker walking out a side door of the Oregon Capitol, appearing to purposefully allow demonstrators inside.
OPB and other newsrooms followed journalistic convention by identifying Nearman as a Republican from Independence. And it didn’t take long for outrage to make it back to the town.
“We’ve had people that have lost business,” said John McArdle, the mayor of Independence for more than two decades. “We’ve had people who have canceled reservations. We have people who said, ‘We were going to come visit your community, but we’re not going to because of the actions of that person.’”
McArdle said it wasn’t the first time he’s heard rumblings about Nearman from outsiders. The ultra-conservative lawmaker is associated with groups that oppose undocumented immigrants and organized labor, and not a stranger to controversy.
But with Nearman’s latest publicity quickly making rounds, Independence took an extraordinary step. The city’s manager quickly issued a statement chiding journalists for how they’d labeled Nearman. The lawmaker might technically have a mailing address that says Independence, but he actually lives about two miles outside of the city limits.
“Rep. Mike Nearman is NOT the elected state representative for Independence,” City Manager Tom Pessemier wrote. “Rep. Nearman lives in rural Polk County, and receives his mail through the Independence post office; hence the Independence address. He does not live in the city.”
The people of Independence went further than just a press release, too. Mark Keller, whose company manages the boutique Independence Hotel, began emailing journalists, requesting that they clarify Nearman doesn’t represent the city. Keller told OPB his company had heard from five separate people concerned about the lawmaker’s actions.
“We’ve received comments from our customers who are concerned about potential violence in the State Capitol in Salem, associate the actions of State Representative Nearman with our City, and therefore don’t want to visit or support businesses in Independence,” Keller said in an email.
Independence residents also started appealing to the person who does represent them in the House, Democratic state Rep. Paul Evans, of Monmouth.
“I’ve had people just come up to me on the street very vocally asking why we haven’t already expelled him, asking why he gets to be called representative from Independence,” Evans said.
Evans’ district, he conceded, is more conservative than many Democratically held seats — one reason he’s repeatedly faced competitive general election races. “But part of that conservatism is not necessarily ideology, but rather ways of doing things,” he said. “Nobody in our town wants to be known as the troublemaker.”
Nearman faces serious potential consequences for allowing demonstrators into the Capitol. He’s already had his access to the building partly revoked, and he could face expulsion from the Legislature once an investigation is concluded. He’s also the subject of a criminal inquiry in the matter.
But the four-term lawmaker has refused to back down or even express regret. Asked about the reaction from Independence officials, he chalked the situation up to political gamesmanship.
“It’s surprising to me that some people would go so far as this to maximize the personal and political damage done to me,” he said in an email. “It affirms my view that much of this reaction is about politics, not safety. I think other cities — Portland comes to mind — have a larger problem with their reputation due to violence than Independence does because their post office services my home.”
In short, Nearman has no plans to go anywhere. And with plenty more publicity likely coming his way, the defenders of Independence might have to remain vigilant.
“We have done everything we can to show that we’re a wonderful and inclusive and inviting community,” said Mason, the chamber of commerce director. “I did relay that back to the people who wrote to us. I invited them to come out and see what we’re all about and left it at that.”
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting