Rep. Mark Owens: Building Personal Relationships in an Impersonal World

If we can work together as friends, we can serve as role models to a state that deserves people to come before politics. 

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Representative Mark Owens is the Republican State Representative for Oregon’s House District 60 which includes all of Baker, Grant, Harney, and Malheur Counties and parts of Lake County. Mark is a local farmer, small business owner, Crane School Board Member, recent Harney County Commissioner, and husband and father. During the 2021 Legislative Session, Mark serves as Vice-Chair of the House Committee on Water, and on the House Education, Energy and Environment, and Human Services Committees.

Three days before the short legislative session began in 2020, I was sworn in as State Representative for House District 60. I took an oath to protect our Constitution and represent my constituents, and made clear my priority was to build relationships—authentic, genuine, bipartisan relationships. On my to-do list: meet everyone in the building, get to know them as people—not just legislators, and work together on serious issues, regardless of their party or district number.

That quickly became challenging. Within weeks of the 2020 session starting, legislative negotiations came to a halt, legislators parted ways to their districts, and the session ended in a tense and terse manner. Shortly thereafter, the Coronavirus pandemic came to Oregon in full swing, closing the state, shuttering our businesses and schools, and sending us home to serve and lead the state from our living rooms during the most difficult time our state has ever faced.

One year in, not much has changed. Sure, we’ve adapted and learned new methods to connect and developed innovative ways to get some work done, but not nearly enough and certainly not enough to connect nor legislate well.

While serving Eastern Oregon, with limited travel to Salem, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to fully connect with my colleagues, even on an official level. As I started the 2021 session, a year into being a State Representative, I requested a meeting with the Chair of one of our committees to discuss our policy agenda for the session. Ten minutes into the conversation, this colleague asked who I was—was I parent? A teacher? A constituent? No. I was a fellow State Representative and had been for over a year.

Our inability to connect puts a cap on our ability to govern. Good public policy requires public involvement. Great public policy requires personal relationships.

Remote meetings are not conducive to personal relationships. You can’t read body language through a screen or get to know someone in 15 minutes over the phone. But the session goes on. We’re scheduled for 12-hour days at our computers in virtual meetings or on video conference calls. And, despite the fact that some of us have never met before in person, we’re collectively charged with determining the best policies for the future of our state and the people who depend on us to get it right.

Personal relationships are especially important to collaborating across party lines. That’s why bipartisanship becomes even more difficult in these circumstances. If and when we do get a chance to break away from virtual committees or statewide conference calls that time is spent with our Caucus or Caucus members working in silos to see how we’ll handle the next twist and turn. There’s literally no time in the day to reach out to the other side. It’s not on purpose and it’s not political—it’s just the only system we have right now.

We literally can’t reach across the aisle and even though I truly believe the majority of us want to build those relationships. And, the many of us try, but our efforts are often thwarted—inevitably we’re interrupted and, invariably, there’s another 15-minute meeting waiting for us at the top of the hour.

Bipartisanship now hinges on the strength of our Internet connection and our willingness to spend even more time on a computer. Simply put, though bipartisan was never easy—it’s become a heck of a lot harder. I long for the days when I can walk the halls with my colleagues, pop into their office, bring them a coffee, and hash out a pragmatic response to an issue we’re facing.

As I said great public policy requires personal relationships – not only with other officials, but also with the public. In addition to our own challenges of working together as legislators, are the challenges of working with the public. The building is closed to the public for the time being, and while it’s touted somewhat fairly that virtual platforms mean increased access for those Oregonians who couldn’t normally drive the distance or afford time off work to testify, that’s only when the virtual platform actually works, and that Oregonian actually has sufficient Internet.

All this adds up to substantial barriers to creating great public policy. We now function in a world of black boxes, misused mute buttons, fake backgrounds, sometimes with faces and mostly with names or phone numbers on a screen, and that’s if the technology is working for everyone that day. What we’ve increased in virtual efficiency, we’ve lost in interpersonal relationships. What we’ve gained in the ability to quickly connect, we’ve lost in depth of those connections.

All hope isn’t lost, and it isn’t all bad. Great public policy is still possible but requires greater intentionality in reaching other Oregonians. Over the last ten months, me and two other legislators have held bi-monthly or monthly live virtual town halls that have reached thousands of Oregonians, far exceeding what would have been possible had we been hosting them in-person.

I know several of my constituents have been able to utilize technology to testify and engage with legislative committees in ways they hadn’t before. Hopefully, these extra measures will not be required for too much longer. Safety precautions have been implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 and it’s slowing. We’re hoping the Capitol can open to the public sometime later this spring. These are all good things.

We’ve learned a lot over the course of navigating this pandemic. Importantly, I think we’ve learned we previously undervalued the power of personal relationships and underestimated the need for them in authentic policy making. We assume legislating is a rigid duty, one of paper-pushing and legal debate, meeting agendas and complex amendments, pushing the red or green buttons when it’s time to vote.

Certainly, those are elements, but public policy is much more than that. The real heart of legislating comes in building trust, having conversations, and working together to put Oregon on the best path forward.

When "Zoom times" end, we will have an opportunity to also end the idea that our Caucuses are the extent of our Capitol community. Consider this an open invitation to host a town hall (virtual or personal) with any member of the State Legislature when "normal times" resume.

We, as legislators, need to mirror to Oregonians what personal relationships in politics look like. If we can work together as friends, we can serve as role models to a state that deserves people to come before politics. 

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