Oregon’s Progressive Ideas Get on the Bus

Jim Hightower celebrates the Oregon Bus Project, an example of grassroots activism on the road, in this extract from his Swim Against the Current: Even Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.

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Jim Hightower. Photo by Willy Ritch.
Jim Hightower. Photo by Willy Ritch.

It began as a mundane discussion on how to transport young volunteers to Oregon swing districts to help progressive candidates. “We’ll just rent a bus,” said Jefferson Smith. “You know,” chimed in Charles Lewis, “you can buy one a lot cheaper than you can rent one.” Okay, our own bus! That’s cool.

For a decade, the state had been beset by a double-barreled Republican legislature. The public education system, a point of tremendous pride in Oregon, was being taken apart by the legislature’s religious extremists and privatization ideologues. Also, lawmakers had been taking a chain saw to the conservation laws that had carefully protected the state’s invaluable natural beauty, turning these public resources over to the whims of profiteers, even though polls showed that this was not at all what the people wanted.

Smith and Jefferson were among a loose group of politically frustrated young Oregonians that gathered in 2001 to talk about fomenting a little rebellion in the politics of their state. The bus gave them more than wheels—it gave them a name: the Oregon Bus Project. Just quirky enough to cause people to ask, “The what?” It also gave them a symbol connected to the inspiring history of Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders. Plus, it provided a big, visible, mobile presence, physically representing democracy in motion, while offering volunteers the bonding experience of what the Bus Project calls “community in a vehicle.”

It was welcoming, fun, idealistic, and important—four elements that appeal to young people … and to people of all ages, for that matter.

But would they really come?

The Oregon Bus Project. Photo by Lawrence Wolf.
The Oregon Bus Project. Photo by Lawrence Wolf.

The kickoff trip was scheduled for June 15, 2002. The Bus Project had contacted a couple of Senate candidates who said, “Yeah, if you can bring us a few kids to go door-to-door with us on Saturday, that’d be swell.” The organizers flung out a net to activist groups, circles of friends, and colleges, asking for volunteers. They also made use of something that, at the time, was new to politics, e-mail, creating the first political e-mail list in the state. They got to the staging area at seven in the morning, hung the big “Get on the Bus” banner, put out the coffee and doughnuts—and hoped. A car arrived, then another … and finally more than 150 people rolled in. The only ones more pleasantly surprised than the organizers were the candidates.

The Bus Project has brought thousands of new people into politics, knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors, and had an impact that its first young organizers would not dared to have imagined. In the 2002 and 2004 elections, the Bus Project focused on the Oregon Senate, targeting a total of ten races. Their candidates won nine, taking control of the Senate out of right-wing hands! In 2006, the Bus Project turned to the House, targeting races in ten swing districts. Again, their candidates won nine, moving the House out of right-wing control!

The impact goes beyond legislative realignment to the personal. The Bus Project bought no ads, hired no consultants, and did no mass mailings or auto-dial phone calling. It was all volunteer power—face-to-face, honest, doorstep politicking. The Oregon Bus Project’s approach empowered ordinary people to be the difference makers.


Excerpt from Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow, by Jim Hightower with Susan DeMarco. Copyright © 2008 by Jim Hightower and Susan DeMarco. Reprinted by permission of the author. This excerpt appeared in A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine.

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