In case you didn't happen to pick up a copy at the newsstand, this month's AIArchitect magazine includes a fairly extensive interview with Congressman Earl Blumenauer, whose district is comprised largely of east Portland and Multnomah County.
"A staunch advocate of the architecture profession and built environment, the congressman is committed to promoting livable communities at the federal level," the intro goes. "Dubbed the “Johnny Appleseed of Livability,” he has authored and co-sponsored legislation to preserve and protect public lands, shift U.S. energy policy towards renewable energy and energy efficiency, curb global warming, and restore America’s lakes and rivers. In the past 12 years, he has visited more than 100 U.S. communities to help local governments, citizens, and civic organizations build effective partnerships to manage growth, improve the environment, and provide transportation choices."
As it happens, one of the first articles I ever wrote, back in about 1997 for the now defunct Our Town, included an interview with Blumenauer. The piece was about faith-based charities and the question of whether federal social-service funding could be allocated to them without violating the separation of church and state (a nice fluff piece to get started with). Why he wanted to talk to a free downtown weekly I'm not sure, but press not involving scandal or gaffes never hurts an elected official.
Blumenauer is practically a lifer as a politician, but he has used that time to steadily win greater influence not only for his Portland-area district, but also to advance the idea of Portland: the way we put together our built environment and transportation matrix.
Asked a relatively softball question in the interview, about what the architecture community "is doing well" to enhance communities, the Congressman--apparently the owner of many, many frequent flier miles--had this to say:
I try to be in a different community every month. Two weekends ago, we were in Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’m struck by how everywhere, the architecture community is increasingly effective in being part of the community planning process. The [AIA] 2030 Challenge that deals with energy conservation has been seized upon and is being used both in new architectural commissions and in local policies dealing with energy conservation. The architecture community is at the right place at the right time with the right solutions, and they’re being more vocal about it.
Asked about asked architects and political advocacy, he went on:
"I think there’s no better advocate than an architect for tying these pieces together. They understand the role that design principles play, but they also interact with code requirements and comprehensive plan elements. They’re the master weavers and the communicators who talk to the clients, local authorities, and oftentimes people in the community who have concerns about the impact a project will have. The architectural community needs to be willing to engage more broadly in what they do nationally with the AIA and other organizations, including being more aggressive locally and raising the profile of these issues, spotlighting the good stuff, and being constructively critical about outmoded policies and practices. The architect is right in the middle of the most important public policy considerations in any community. The more they understand, appreciate, and act that role, the better off we’ll all be."
Asked later in the interview about what he likes to do in his free time, Blumenauer turns out to be an avid marathoner, completing his 36th earlier this fall. For those politicians able to stay more or less continually in office over the years and (in some cases) decades, without succumbing to scandal or other reasons for backlash, and surviving the ebbs and flows of one party and then another grabbing ahold of the majority, an elected official's career really is a kind of marathon. He's never really the hottest commodity in the cult-of-personality that drives large national media outlets, and he doesn't wield the kind of power that would warrant it anyway. But slowly over time, by consistently carrying his message back and forth between Portland and DC, and to all the other cities he visits, there's no question Earl Blumenauer has had a big effect on Portland's built environment and transportation network.
Now, the bow tie is another matter altogether. But then again, this is not exactly a formally dressing city, and there's probably something appropriate to Blumenauer's look, especially amid the sameness of probably all 544 other elected leaders on Capitol Hill wearing regular ties. (An exception would have been the former Illinois senator and 1988 presidential candidate Paul Simon, but he's no longer in Congress...or alive.) Maybe I'm just jealous that the congressman is being inherently more Portland than I will ever dare.