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The Passing of an Oregon Hero

The passing of former Oregon Victor Atiyeh earlier this week has prompted an outpouring of positive comments about the last Republican governor in Oregon, both for his accomplishments as well as for the positive way he conducted himself while he held the state's top political job.

Memories abound for me because I had the privilege of serving in the Atiyeh Administration and did a stint as the Governor's press secretary. 

Senator Peter Courtney captured the man well in his tribute:  "Governor Vic Atiyeh was a kind and gentle man. He had a great smile and a great way of dealing with people. He was the ultimate public servant in the truest sense of the word. There was no greater role model.  He led our state during the most difficult of times. He found a way to make things work when everything was going against us. He brought out the best in people by appealing to the best in each and every person. He never focused on the negative. Oregon is saying goodbye to one of its greatest statesmen and one of its most remarkable citizens."

Here is a quick collection of my own memories:

Coming back to Oregon:  After working in Washington, D.C., for a Democratic Congressman Les AuCoin, I returned to Oregon and joined the Republican Atiyeh administration.  Like AuCoin before him, Victor — as we sometimes called the Governor — never asked me or any other staff member about political affiliation.  The only question was whether I could do the job. (AuCoin didn't ask about my political affiliation, either, in what was in the 1980s a far different political moment.)

The governor's favorite sayings:  His staff heard certain phrases repeatedly, so much so that they stick in my mind today, 30 years later. He liked to say, "Well, that's just part of the great pageant of life."  Or:  "There never are any problems — just opportunities." Or, as The Oregonian paraphrased this week, "You can do a lot if you don't care who gets the credit." 

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Knopp's Political Star on the Rise

Senator Tim Knopp may be moving to the front of the pack of up-and-coming Republicans in Oregon, as his colleagues in the Oregon Senate GOP caucus added the freshman senator from Bend this week to its leadership team.

Knopp isn't really a freshman. He served three terms in the Oregon House, the last as majority leader, before leaving the legislature in 2005. He returned to the legislature after successfully challenging incumbent GOP Senator Chris Telfer in 2012 and easily gliding to victory in the general election in a GOP-leaning district.

In his race against Telfer, Knopp positioned himself to her political right and challenged her record on job creation. At the time, Knopp worked for the Central Oregon Builders Association and was a member of the Bend Chamber of Commerce board.

Knopp can come across as neo-conservative, but his reputation inside the Capitol would be better described as a business conservative. His manner is direct and his approach to issues leans more toward getting something done than toeing an ideological line. 

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Political ID-ology

While the political bases on the far right and far left seem to be hardening, there is a growing group of voters who find themselves alienated from both major political parties — and even the political process itself.

Signs of polarization are everywhere. A recent Pew Research survey showed there is a growing gap between dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans on a wide array of issues. There is evidence people are voting with their feet, preferring to live in either a blue or red state, depending on their own political viewpoint.

One contributing factor to partisanship — a byproduct of polarization — is how congressional and legislative districts are drawn. Increasingly, district boundaries have been contoured to make congressional and legislative seats politically "safe" for Democrats or Republicans.

An excellent example of the impact of partisan redistricting is the U.S. House, where many GOP members represent safe districts, often with relatively few Hispanic voters. They don't worry about Republicans winning the White House; they fear being challenged by a more conservative opponent in the next primary, as happened to several Oregon legislators in the May primary.

Which brings us

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Voters Enmeshed Again in GMO Politics

Oregonians will likely vote again this fall on genetically modified crops, an issue that many view with passion and others with fear and loathing.

The battle over GMO crops pits farmers against farmers, threatens to upset the balance of trade and raises suspicions among consumers and the hackles of agrochemical companies such as Monsanto. It is better than a reality TV show. And it often has the same level of loud discourse. 

Some have tried to encourage peaceful co-existence among farmers with so-called engineered crops and farmers with non-engineered crops. Advocates of this approach say it requires adequate buffers between the two kinds of crops so organic fields aren't infiltrated and cross-pollinated. The only way to establish buffers is to know where GMO crops are being grown, and that's apparently the rub.

The Associated Press carried a story indicating some seed associations around the nation are carrying out mapping, with varying levels of support from biotech companies. But AP reports the mapping is voluntary and spotty. The information is only shared among fellow growers to avoid what biotech companies warn could be a map for agricultural vigilantes bent on crop sabotage.

Robert Purdy, who grows genetically engineered sugar beets in the Willamette Valley on mapped farmland, agrees. "If mapping were made public," he told AP, "nothing could stop people from pulling out those sugar beet plants." 

Organic farmers, whose livelihood depends on crop purity, or at least the perception of purity, say mapping made public is crucial to successful co-existence. "Mapping would bring transparency to a system that's extremely opaque," according to the Portland-based Center for Food Safety.

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Hats and Cattle, Saddles and Horses

Clever political campaign phrases with a bite have been known to influence elections. It's possible a clever catch phrase will have an impact on the 2014 Oregon gubernatorial election.

Walter Mondale turned the popular advertising slogan of his day — "Where's the beef?" — into a political jab at Democratic presidential primary rival Gary Hart. The question halted Hart's momentum and helped Mondale earn his party's nomination in 1984.

Lloyd Bentsen skewered Dan Quayle in their 1988 vice presidential debate after the Indiana senator likened his political experience to that of former President John F. Kennedy. Bentsen replied, "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Bentsen won the debate and even though Quayle became vice president, he never factored seriously into GOP presidential politics again.

Ross Perot, running as an independent for President, struck a nerve when he said, "I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt." An exasperated Perot struck a different kind of nerve later when he would screech, "Let me finish!" Comedian Dana Carvey never let the phrase die a graceful death as Perot's popularity plummeted.

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Inching Closer to the "K" Word

It's amazing how quickly you can forget something like the personal kicker, the obscure Oregon income tax provision that can suddenly rain on the parade of an economic recovery for state government.

State economists gave lawmakers this week their latest quarterly estimate of economic progress and state tax collections. The news was good, maybe a little too good. Net proceeds for the State were projected upward by $54 million as a result of more people working, especially on housing. That means no budget cuts to existing state agency budgets.

But the latest uptick in state revenue is precariously close — about $72 million — from the trigger that would require the return of the entire surplus of $290 million or more to state personal income taxpayers, leaving an unanticipated hole in budget planning.

The personal and corporate income tax kickers were instituted by lawmakers to prevent lawmakers from spending "surplus" revenues that exceeded by 2 percent projections on which spending bills were based. The kickers were akin to a financial chastity belt to avoid legislative spending sprees during economic good times that couldn't be sustained in the inevitable economic bad times. 

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A Ho-Hum Election with Interesting Implications

In an election overshadowed by a court ruling outlawing same-sex marriage discrimination, only three out of 10 Oregonians bothered to fill out and send in ballots. For Democrats, it was a ho-hum primary, but for Republicans, it was a battle for what some called "the soul of the GOP."

Little unexpected occurred at the state level, but there were some dramatic and interesting decisions at the local level. Clackamas County voters retained two commissioners facing a challenge, Multnomah County voters overwhelmingly elected a new chair and commissioner. Washington County voters returned three incumbent commissioners, including two who faced vigorous challengers from the political left.

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Kitzhaber to the Rescue — Again

John Kitzhaber has some notable political advantages heading into his re-election this fall to an unprecedented fourth term. Now he has added rescuing a woman in distress.

As first reported by KGW-TV, Kitzhaber was on his way to dinner in Portland, saw a woman lying on a sidewalk and ordered his driver to pull over. The former emergency room doctor administered CPR to the unconscious woman and ordered his driver to call for paramedics who arrived minutes later and used a defibrillator to restart the woman's heart.

The unidentified woman was taken to OHSU and is reportedly out of serious danger, the Portland Fire Bureau told The Oregonian. Emergency responders credited Kitzhaber with possibly saving the woman's life. The first six minutes after someone's heart stops are critical to their survival, emergency personnel said.

The paramedic who worked alongside Kitzhaber said it was "pretty neat" to see the governor calmly aiding the woman. He said it was surprising to be working with a governor on a rescue mission.

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Kitzhaber Keeps Pressing Health Care Reforms

Governor Kitzhaber and Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson agree the health care business model is broken and one major reason why is the separation of care for physical and mental illnesses.

Appearing together at the Portland Business Alliance's annual breakfast, Kitzhaber and Tyson stressed the need to move from a "volume-driven" approach to a model that offers better care at more affordable prices.

The Portland Business Journal quoted Tyson as saying, "There is a mental health challenge we're working on, how to reattach the head to the body." Tyson said physical and mental illness is treated in separate locations, using separate records, even though 45 percent of physical health visits indicate a need for mental health services.

Tyson also said fee-for-service medicine needs to be "thrown out the window."

Kitzhaber touted the benefits being achieved through coordinated care organizations, which he credited for shrinking annual cost increases in care from 5.4 percent to 3.4 percent. The governor noted the 16 current CCOs care for 900,000 lower income Oregonians and are engaged in integrating physical, mental and dental care. He said he next wants to expand CCO cover to public employees and teachers and ultimately to the entire health insurance market.

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Lobbyist Memory of Gene Timms

The death of former Senator Gene Timms, R-Burns, reported Wednesday by The Oregonian, brought back a lot of memories for me.

Gino, as some of us lobbyists called him, though never in public, represented Eastern Oregon for 18 years, then was turned out by a term limits law in 2000.  As Oregonian reporter Harry Esteve put it in his story on Timms' passing: "During Timms years in the legislature, he became known as a fierce advocate for his sprawling eastern Oregon district, and as a hedge against runaway budgets.  Genial and soft-spoken, Timms made friends on both sides of the political aisle in Salem, and worked his way into leadership positions. He was co-chairman of the Legislature's powerful budget committee, and was Senate minority leader."

His role as Senate co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee allowed Gino to play a key role on a variety of funding issues.  As a conservative, he was frugal with the state budget, but also felt a sense of compassion for less fortunate citizens who needed government help.  

Timms fought for Eastern Oregon where he lived and ran Big County Distributors, delivering beverages to stores and taverns along many remote Oregon roads.

One of my fondest memories of Gino dates back to the mid-1990s when, on behalf of Port of Portland, I was seeking the first installment of funds to pay Oregon's share of costs to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel.

Digging the channel from 40 feet to 43 feet along the full 90-mile transit from Portland to Astoria was a critical economic development tool for Oregon. Gino saw the statewide benefit, including for grain shippers in Eastern Oregon who relied on the Port of Portland to get their product to markets overseas.

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