PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a quirky but deeply respected figure in Oregon politics for decades, has decided not to seek reelection after 27 years in Congress, citing turmoil on Capitol Hill and a desire to be more involved in addressing the challenges facing his hometown of Portland.
Known for donning a bow tie and bicycle pin, Blumenauer, 75, has served roughly five decades in public office at the local, state and federal level. Emblematic of the cycling culture and green living that Portland has come to be known for, he worries that the city's identity, which he helped forge during his time in City Hall, is being overshadowed by the homelessness and mental health issues gripping its streets.
“We’ve got serious problems," he told The Associated Press. “I spent a career working to make Portland the most livable city in the country. And I don’t think many people would say we’re the most livable city now.”
Blumenauer said his decision to reconnect on a deeper level with his hometown was partly motivated by the recent chaos stemming from the ouster of Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the bitter GOP infighting that's consumed the House.
“This is increasingly dysfunctional around here. It was an embarrassment,” he said.
“It’s not a good way for me to spend my time, running for reelection and then staying here for another two years," he added.
"I’d rather work on things that matter to me, my family and the community.”
Blumenauer's political career launched in 1973 when he began his first term in the Oregon House at age 24. He would go on to serve as a commissioner in Multnomah County, home to Portland, and on the Portland City Council before being elected to the U.S. House in 1996. Since then, he has represented Oregon's 3rd Congressional District, which includes north and much of southeast Portland as well as western portions of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.
He became known for his passion for cycling early on in his career and cemented his role as an advocate while overseeing transportation on Portland City Council, where he served from 1987 to 1996. His legacy remains visible today — a bike and pedestrian bridge that opened in the city last year bears his name.
“He really helped set into motion the modern-day reputation of Portland as the best cycling city in America," said Jonathan Maus, editor and publisher of BikePortland, a news outlet that covers cycling. “For Portlanders who care about cycling, he made it seem like it was OK to really love this stuff and be passionate about it and devote yourself to advocacy. To have the most cycling-oriented congressman in America come from our city and show up at our events — it meant a lot to people.”
In Washington, Blumenauer continued to champion what he describes as “the most efficient form of transportation designed" and used it as a means to bring lawmakers together.
“As the founder of the Congressional Bike Caucus, Rep. Blumenauer turned his passion for cycling into a movement for safer streets in Washington D.C., Portland and beyond,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a statement. “Earl and his bicycle pins will be greatly missed after the conclusion of this term and I wish him and his family the best as he begins this next chapter.”
In Congress, Blumenauer also pushed for legislation related to green energy, climate change, the environment and cannabis reform, among other things.
He served on the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee, where he played a role in shaping some of the most significant pieces of legislation passed by Congress in recent years, particularly the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
The act, viewed as the most consequential climate change law in American history, aims to accelerate the expansion of green energy, such as wind and solar power, and the manufacturing of batteries and electric vehicles to quicken the transition away from the oil, coal and gas that largely cause climate change. Since being signed into law last August, it has prompted companies to announce hundreds of billions of dollars in investments in those sectors, according to the White House.
The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law represented another historic investment, directing money toward roads, bridges, ports, rail transit, safe water, the power grid, broadband internet and more. Of special importance to Blumenauer — the 2021 law’s increased funding for bike and pedestrian transportation and its creation of the Safe Streets & Roads for All program.
"The last couple years have been arguably my most productive ever,” Blumenauer said. “So I’m leaving on a high note.”
Blumenauer also co-founded the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Looking forward to what comes next, Blumenauer said he wanted to be a resource and adviser of sorts for local officials and advocates who are grappling with Portland's most pressing issues. He said he is hopeful that revenue from a regional tax approved by voters to fund homeless services, and Oregon’s plan to use federal Medicaid dollars for housing assistance, would help officials navigate the city’s challenges.
“There are bright spots,” he said.
“If we put the pieces together right, I think we can make some significant progress.”