The Legend of Mae Yih

Stories of the dimunitiuve, irrepressible former Senator Mae Yih abound with any long-of-tooth Oregon lobbyist.

Mae YihThe most oft-told story involves a Ways and Means hearing at which Yih was listening intently to a state bureaucrat defend a spending request. In his opening comments, the bureaucrat said the amount requested was $500,000, but later he referred to the amount as a half million dollars, prompting Yih to interrupt and demand to know, “Which is it, $500,000 or half a million?”

Maybe the funniest and most telling Mae Yih story dealt with her first attempt in 1977 at stumping for office in her semi-rural Mid-Willamette Valley district. Yih, wife of the CEO of Wah Chang, then a major employer in the area, reportedly went “door-to-door” with a driver in her Rolls Royce.

Friendly supporters tipped off Democratic campaign officials who faced the delicate task of explaining to Yih that it might raise voter eyebrows to see her driving around in a car fit for nobility. Yih, after all, was running as a Democrat.

Yih said she was embarrassed by such a beginner’s mistake. From then on, she drove around the district on her own in a sleek Mercedes sports car. Nobody seemed to care.

Former GOP Senate President Gene Derfler, who had an unruly and undependable caucus, frequently needed Yih’s independent vote to get a bill out of committee or off the Senate floor. Each vote required an intense negotiation, Derfler recalled. “She was the most expensive vote I ever had to buy.” Yih, of course, didn’t barter for personal gain. It was always for a project in her district, which is why Yih easily won re-election time after time over her 26-year legislative career.

No legislator was more diligent than Yih in pursuing constituent interests – or complaints. When a clump of constituents called her office to complain about not getting the evening news on a Portland TV channel, Yih sat me down in her office with firm, clear instructions to fix the problem.

Representing Oregon broadcasters, I understood why she called on me. But the problem involved a dispute between the TV station’s network and a satellite dish company. Throwing around Senator Yih’s name wasn’t going to work. What did work was my suggestion that Yih call the TV station manager and explain how upset she was – and how unlikely she would be to consider any legislation put forward by the broadcasters. Before long, the problem disappeared. Whether it was a factor or not, Yih believed she had saved the day for her constituents. Her news-consuming constituents did too.

My personal favorite Maw Yih story occurred when I was meeting with her on her home turf to review my legislative issues. We met in a local restaurant just off I-5 in Albany where everyone called Yih and she addressed everyone by their first name. As we were talking, a waitress approached our table with a distressed look on her face.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, Senator Yih,” said the waitress, “but we just found out the restaurant has been sold.”

“Sold?” Yih declared. “To who?”

“That’s the worst part,” the waitress continued, “the new owner wants to turn this place into some kind of sex store.”

Yih’s expression turned ashen. Her friends at the eatery would lose their jobs and there would be a sex shop in her backyard. It was hard to tell which she dreaded the most.

The senator quickly excused herself from our meeting and jumped into action. I eventually left as Yih was on the phone demanding answers, as only she could.

That was my last meeting with Senator Yih. Soon afterward, she bowed out of politics. I always wondered whether her sorrow over failing to stop the sale of the local restaurant played a role in her decision.

And I can’t help thinking fondly about Senator Yih every time I drive by the “Adult Store” still occupying that former restaurant just off I-5 in Albany.