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With long hours and teamwork, the brainy guy can win the day

FACTBOX

Monday, November 13, 2006
JANIE HAR

Three years ago, Oregon House Democrats chose Portlander Jeff Merkley as their leader -- much to the skepticism of some in his party who wanted a tested strategist to battle Republicans.

They privately questioned whether Merkley was too cerebral, too much of a policy wonk. The former nonprofit director had no record in raising campaign cash. And he didn't seem tough enough to chart the party's takeover of a house that Democrats had not controlled since the first President Bush was in the White House.

But last week, Democrats picked up four seats and took control of the Oregon House for the first time in 16 years, giving the party command of both halves of the Legislature and the governor's office. On Sunday, the 31 House Democrats unanimously elected Merkley as speaker of the House when the Legislature convenes in January.

With Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Senate President Peter Courtney, Merkley will be responsible for setting a two-year budget projected to go beyond $12 billion to pay for schools, roads, police and state services. Democrats are under pressure to deliver after years of complaining that House Republicans blocked their proposals.

House Democrats have pledged health care for all uninsured children, smaller class sizes and a longer school year, and greater investment in higher education. Republicans warn that such spending will mean higher taxes for the average Oregonian, but Democrats counter that they want to shift the burden from individuals by raising the corporate minimum tax and getting rid of the corporate kicker.

Merkley, 50, was raised in east Portland, the son of a secretary and a heavy-equipment mechanic. He decided early on that public policy was the way to better people's lives.

House Democrats rode the blue wave last week that flipped several state chambers across the country, but supporters also give Merkley credit for laying the groundwork to take advantage of rising anti-Republican sentiment.

"It's the revenge of the nerds," says longtime Portland Democratic activist Steve Novick. "All of us groaned when he was chosen, and all of us were wrong."

Beating the odds

Two days after the election, Merkley has too many phone calls to return as he strides into his office at the Capitol.

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