© 2024 KLCC

136 W 8th Ave
Eugene OR 97401

Contact Us

FCC Applications
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

With recalls and citizen petitions, local organizing gets a boost ahead of 2024 elections

 Rosenelle Florencechild speaks to a voter about ballot measures in Eagle Point, OR.
Jane Vaughan
Rosenelle Florencechild speaks to a voter about ballot measures in Eagle Point, OR.

At noon on a Monday, Rosenelle Florencechild is sitting on a blue camp chair in the parking lot of a Ray’s grocery store in Eagle Point, Oregon.

“Excuse me, sir,” she hails one shopper. “Are you registered to vote in Jackson County?”

Florencechild is a volunteer with the group Jackson County for All of Us. Today, she’s gathering signatures in an effort to get three measures on Oregon’s May ballot regarding the county commissioner positions and their salaries.

It’s Florencechild’s first time volunteering for an effort like this, and she’s enjoying it.

“Government is more approachable at the local level. And it affects us personally, and it’s something that we can do,” she said.

 Rosenelle Florencechild displays Jackson County For All of Us's sign up sheets.
Jane Vaughan
Rosenelle Florencechild displays Jackson County For All of Us's sign up sheets.

The Jackson County measures are just a few of the many grassroots organizing efforts that have taken hold in the region recently. Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol survived a recall attempt last fall, after some citizens disagreed with her handling of the city’s homeless crisis and claimed she wasn’t representing her constituents’ conservative values. The coastal city of Brookings successfully recalled two city councilors and the mayor in November. And a group in Josephine County has put a proposal on the ballot to change the county’s charter.

In some ways, this political organizing is not new. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 Presidential Election, the dysfunction playing out in Washington D.C. and another impending presidential election, it makes sense that people are feeling frustrated and disillusioned with national politics.

But, rather than turning away from politics entirely, some now seem to be turning from the national level to the local level to make change.

“People are starting to see, hey, the school board makes a lot of decisions about the curriculum that our kids are learning about. And the city council has a huge impact on city regulations, as do county commissioners,” said Christopher Stout, a political science professor at Oregon State University. “People realize you can probably have more of an impact for less of an investment at the local level.”

This local-level work is something people can do to feel like they’re making a difference, Florencechild said.

“Sometimes, Washington [D.C] is really far out there,” she said. “This is a way you can make your voice heard.”

Interestingly, this mobilization does not seem confined to one party. In recent years, conservative groups have targeted school boards over issues like critical race theory and COVID mask mandates. But now, liberal groups are similarly focusing on local issues.

“I think nationally, conservatives were quicker to realize that you need to invest more in local-level offices,” Stout said. “And now I think liberal groups are starting to kind of counter mobilize.”

National divisiveness becomes local 

The problem, Stout said, is that the animosity of national politics can divide local communities, too.

“The bad thing is that it becomes really political. And where we used to trust our local elected officials, as that becomes more partisan and polarized, then decisions that they make that people in communities could generally rally behind then lead to more divisiveness,” he said.

Mary Rickert has seen such divisiveness. She’s a supervisor in Shasta County, CA, where a supervisor recall effort is underway, the second supervisor recall on the ballot in two years.

 Shasta County Supervisor Mary Rickert.
Shasta County
Shasta County Supervisor Mary Rickert.

Their supervisors’ meetings have become fraught with chaos, including shouting, arguments and verbal attacks. The board’s right-wing majority has pushed through a variety of controversial measures, including last year’s decision to hand count election ballots, which was later overturned by the state. Some say this climate is to blame for the top county staff who have recently left their positions.

In Rickert’s view, political organizing by a far-right group of citizens has been distracting and wasted time the county should have spent on more important issues.

“The combination of [COVID and Trump’s 2020 loss] has really resulted in a much more tumultuous world in terms of local politics because there’s been this movement on a national level to make basically all politics local and to basically try and gain control, in quotation marks, of local government,” she said.

Some local residents are looking for more control. Mike Oliver added his signature to get the Jackson County measures on the ballot. Oliver, who lives in Eagle Point, said he doesn’t feel his vote matters at the state or national level.

“I think people are frustrated. I think most people are frustrated with the way that the government’s going, period,” he said.

Mike Rice of Eagle Point also signed. He’s frustrated and “disturbed with the way the country’s going” but sees local organizing like this as the path forward.

“I think you’ve got to start at the local level if you’re going to change anything. Once you get a wave started, then expand it,” he said.

‘A trickle up’

This recent groundswell of public participation seems to have paid off for Jackson County for All of Us. The group originally planned to get the measures on the ballot in November but has been so successful, they now say they have enough signatures for the May ballot.

Denise Krause, one of the chief filers who previously ran for the Board of County Commissioners as a Democrat, said this effort has been discussed for 30 years and never got off the ground until now.

“We’re grateful that we have a democracy where we can do this, we can do the work. If we want it bad enough, we can do it. We can make it happen. The people do have the power, if they can only know it,” she said.

Of course, not all ballot measures or recalls are successful. But the triple recall in Brookings was, and the Grants Pass and Shasta County recalls and Josephine County and Jackson County efforts got enough resident signatures to appear on the ballot.

What’s most important, Krause said, is not letting disillusionment at the national level keep people from working to improve things in their hometowns.

“I still feel hope for the local level that my gosh, we’re neighbors, we’re friends. We live together here in this area. Aren’t we all tired of partisanship when it comes to issues that have nothing to do with that? We need to be working together,” she said.

In the Ray’s parking lot, Rosenelle Florencechild has added about a dozen signatures to her sign-up sheets in less than two hours.

“Maybe there’s more of a trickle up than we think,” she said. “I think if we become active locally, we’re going to be more active and thoughtful at the state level and then at the federal level.”

California will hold its primary election on March 5, and Oregon will hold its primary election on May 21.

Copyright 2024 Jefferson Public Radio.

Jane Vaughan