In the Capitol
From a speech delivered at this weekend’s Oregon Republican Dorchester conference at Seaside.
Once upon a time, there was a political party in a state that was so far out of power for so long, it was literally lost in the wilderness. Let me elaborate.
Out of 90 total legislative seats, this party and its members held only 15. It had not controlled the Legislature for 75 years. Some counties in this state hadn’t sent a member of that party to the Legislature in almost 85 years. That’s most peoples’ entire lifetimes.
This party didn’t have much luck with statewide offices, either — out of the state’s past 10 governors, eight had been from the opposite party. They didn’t fare any better with federal offices, as the party hadn’t elected a U.S. Senator in almost 40 years.
The party I’m talking about is the Democrats, and the state I’m talking about is Oregon.
That’s right, folks — Oregon was once a one-party state, as it arguably is now, but with Republicans completely in charge of everything.
We get so caught up in the here and now that we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture and the long-term historical perspective. But the fact is, Democrats in Oregon were much further out of power, and for much longer, than Republicans are now.
This was the political landscape approximately 62 years ago, at the start of the 1953 legislative session.
It’s hard to imagine what must have happened between then and now. It begs the question: How did the Democrats turn it around? What did they do?
Well, for starters, they recognized that they had a problem and decided to do things differently. They placed greater emphasis on things like candidate recruitment, succession planning and crafting a message that resonates with the average Oregonian.
The results were almost instantaneous.
In the 1954 elections, Oregon Democrats went from 11 seats in the House to 24. They picked up some seats in the Senate.
At the federal level, they gained a Congressional seat when Edith Green defeated a young newscaster by the name of Tom McCall.
The next cycle, in 1956, could very well be remembered as the year that they turned it all around.
They took control of the House and forced a 15-15 split in the Senate. At the statewide level, they elected their first governor in almost 20 years, Robert Holmes.
The federal level proved equally successful, as they took two more Congressional seats, giving them three out of four. They also held both of Oregon’s U.S. Senate seats after that election.
The sole Republican exception to this route? Mark O. Hatfield, 34-year-old state legislator who was elected Secretary of State.
The truth is, Oregon Republicans have a strong and proud tradition of leadership. It’s a tremendous legacy, to say the least.
We follow in the footsteps of many great men. They include Charles McNary, a longtime U.S. Senator who ran for Vice President in 1940.
There’s also Doug McKay, who served as governor and was later Secretary of the Interior under my favorite president, Dwight Eisenhower. He was our last governor to resign, and did so to take that position. That’s quite a contrast from recent events.
There’s the aforementioned Mark Hatfield, who was governor and U.S. Senator, and Oregon’s most famous governor, Tom McCall.
Then there’s our last Republican governor, Vic Atiyeh … though he didn’t like that phrase. He preferred “most recent,” in the hopes that we will again, someday, have another Republican governor.
I was fortunate enough to conduct a series of interviews with Governor Atiyeh before he passed away last July. Transcripts of those talks comprise the bulk of my book, Conversations with Atiyeh, which is available on Amazon.
Let me tell you a little bit of what I was able to learn from our “most recent” Republican governor.
Vic was a first-generation American of Syrian heritage, who grew up during the Great Depression in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Portland.
While attending Washington High School, he was nominated by his fellow students to represent them in student government, and did.
Something similar happened many years later, in 1958, when his fellow citizens asked him to run for the Oregon House.
For his first race, he raised under $400, and had $100 left over by the time it was over. He and his supporters even made their own lawn signs.
Throughout his entire six-year stint in the House, he and the Republicans were in the minority. They eventually regained the majority in the House, but by then, Vic had moved over to the Senate … where he was again a member of the minority party.
In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and the disastrous 1976 election, Republicans in the Oregon Senate became a super-minority….more like a super-duper minority.
The 1977 legislative session was the year of the famed “phone booth caucus,” where there were so few Republicans in the Senate that they could literally and physically fit inside a phone booth.
I work in the Senate. I’m there every day. And I guarantee you that our current caucus could not fit in a phone booth.
When I asked Governor Atiyeh what his favorite memory of serving in the legislature was, he replied that it was as a member of the phone booth caucus.
He told me that despite being in the super-duper minority, he and his fellow Senate Republicans were still able to have a positive impact on that session. They didn’t pick fights they couldn’t win; they knuckled down and did the hard work in committee to make bad bills better, and stopped the really bad ones from becoming law.
More importantly, though, he and the other members of his caucus went on to do great things. Aside from a future governor, that group produced a Congressman, a state treasurer and state Supreme Court justice.
By that point, Vic had already had what would be his first, last and only loss, when he ran for governor against Robert Straub in 1974. He won their rematch four years later, though, and assumed the state’s highest office in 1979.
The state and the nation were in pretty bad shape economically at that point. High interest rates had the effect of crippling the housing market, which in turn devastated Oregon’s timber-dependent economy. Governor Atiyeh made it a point to diversify our economy, and placed particular emphasis on areas like tourism, viticulture, international trade and technology. All of these industries continue to thrive in this state to this very day.
He decided to run for a second term as governor in 1982. That year, he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature faced multiple special sessions, in which they had to make very surgical budget cuts and raise taxes to balance the budget.
Those were the circumstances when he won re-election, in a landslide. I asked him, 32 years later, how he pulled it off.
He told me that he was honest with the public about what was going on and what was being done to fix it all. And if the results of the election are any indicator, they believed him.
Just over a year ago, Governor Atiyeh was the keynote speaker at an event put on by the North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce. The theme of his speech was “How to Use Statesmanship and Compromise.” I was able to attend, and captured his remarks. They comprise a full chapter in my book.
Governor Atiyeh provided much good advice that day, all of which is applicable to the present as well as the future.
He said that once you’re elected, you should approach every decision as if you never plan to run for anything again. Doing that makes it much easier to determine if a law, bill or a policy is good for the public and the people you are representing.
In our conversations, Governor Atiyeh told me that if people perceive that you want a position too badly when you’re running for it, that you are very likely to lose because of that. Similarly, if you think you can’t lose, you run a very high risk of losing.
Much of the wisdom Governor Atiyeh shared with me was based on common sense, which now seems so rare as to be some sort of superpower.
A lot of people don’t know this, but as a young man, Vic Atiyeh had received an offer to play professional football for the Green Bay Packers. This was following his career as a lineman for Washington High and for the University of Oregon Ducks.
But he ultimately turned it down. His father had passed away by then, and his twin brothers were overseas fighting in World War II. It was up to Vic to run the family business, and it never occurred to him to do otherwise, because it was the right thing to do.
Here’s something else to keep in mind. One of the things that inspired Vic to run for state representative was this legislative newsletter that was put together for business owners. It stated that nothing would be done about a particular problem because it was an election year. This upset Vic, who took the position that if something is a problem, you should solve it, and it shouldn’t matter if it’s an election year or not.
There’s one last bit of his wisdom that I would like to share with you.
The story I started off with was from the biography of former Oregon Governor Robert Straub. He dealt Vic Atiyeh the only electoral loss of his entire career when he won the governorship in 1974. The two faced off again four years later, in 1978, but Vic won their rematch.
Yet despite all of that, who do you suppose it was that wrote the foreword for the Straub biography? None other than Vic Atiyeh. That’s because he never viewed Straub as the enemy; they were both simply running for the same office at the same time.
Now that I’ve covered the past, I want to shift gears and talk about the present.
The 2015 legislative session is underway. Democrats have a supermajority in the Senate and a 35-25 majority in the House, one seat shy of a supermajority. Democrats also, at this point in time, hold every single statewide elected office and all but one of our five Congressional seats.
How did we get here, and what are we doing wrong?
Well, I have a few theories.
One is that the same messaging that we’ve been using for years is not resonating with the average Oregonian, and never will. My theory about this was reinforced last spring, when I was part of a team that did focus groups all over the state, and saw firsthand the reactions that people of all demographics had to that messaging.
Put quite simply, we cannot continue to be oblivious to the fact that we have been tone deaf to the electorate.
Telling poor people that they’re poor because they’re lazy is not working, and we need to stop.
When we talk about jobs and the economy, the public has been conditioned, by the Democrats, to hear that we’re saying that we want more tax cuts for the rich and big corporations. We reinforce this perception by talking about such legislative priorities as cutting the capital gains tax.
What if we instead talked about those same issues by using phrases like workforce development or labor force participation?
We all know that the unemployment rate is not a true indicator of what is really going on. It has gone down. But the labor force participation rate is still very low.
We keep talking about food stamps. But how about the real problem—hunger? We have one of the highest hunger rates in the entire nation! That needs to be the focus of our messaging, not food stamps. A lot of people throughout this state have relied on them, and are relying on them to survive. It makes us look disconnected from their struggles when we talk about food stamps instead of hunger.
Messaging is one problem. Another is that we don’t even try to engage the minority population anymore.
Democrats do, even though their policies hurt minorities, especially the poor ones. All indications are that the Democrats are completely taking them for granted. But you know what? They at least show up to have that conversation with them. We don’t. We just ignore them.
This one’s pretty easy. We really, really, really need to stop fighting each other.
Eating our own also isn’t working. We tend to beat each other bloody in every single primary election. The victor who eventually emerges becomes easy pickings for the Democrat, whose opposition research has already been done for them.
While we were all busy fighting each other, the Democrats defied national trends and actually made gains.
So this is the bottom line about the present. This legislative session is very likely to be very awful. Bad bills are going to pass and be signed into law, and none of us are going to like it.
Low carbon fuel standards is specifically and directly mentioned in a federal subpoena. Yet it’s been rammed through by Democrats anyway.
But you know what? Laws can be changed. Bad laws previously passed can be repealed. New laws can be passed to limit and restrict the power of government, restore the rights of citizens and protect them from overzealous agencies.
None of this will happen until we start winning elections.
Now that I’ve covered the past and the present, I would like to discuss the future. It has the potential to be bright, because there is a new generation of conservative leaders emerging here in Oregon and beyond.
This was the subject of my first book, Transition. It detailed the struggles that I went through, and saw everyone I know go through, as a result of the Great Recession. However, those grim realities were offset by a sense of optimism that I obtained by watching people my age and younger get elected to public office.
One of the central figures of that book is former state Rep. Wally Hicks from Grants Pass, a dear friend of mine.
Locally, my own state Representative, John Davis, is younger than I am.
There are other young leaders, like Medford City Councilor Eli Matthews, another friend. Washington State Representative Brandon Vick is another.
Some of these young leaders have even appeared here at the Dorchester Conference in recent years. One is Congresswoman Jamie Herrera Beutler from Washington.
The 2014 elections saw a continuation of this trend. Southern Oregon is now represented in the Legislature by Dallas Heard and Duane Stark.
A 24-year-old by the name of Melanie Stambaugh is starting her first term in the Washington Legislature after knocking off a five-term incumbent. An 18-year-old woman won a seat in the West Virginia legislature in a landslide to an opponent more than twice her age. She’s now the youngest lawmaker in the country.
There are more.
Aundre Bumgardner is 20 and serves in the Connecticut legislature. AJ Edgecomb is in the Maine Legislature. There’s Drew Christensen from Minnesota, Kayla Kessinger from West Virginia, Avery Bourne from Illinois, Alex Looysen from North Dakota, Jennifer Sullivan from Florida and Sarah Lazloffy from Montana.
They were all born in the 1990s.
There’s 30-year-old Elise Stefanik from New York. She is now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
What do these young leaders have in common? They are all Republicans, each and every one of them.
This is a great example of something that is working that we need to keep doing. Instead of simply assuming that young people will vote Democrat, we need to reach out to them and make them part of the process, and part of the solution.
In a nutshell, here’s more of what we need to do.
We need to do a better job of recruiting quality candidates who are a good fit for their districts. We need to develop succession planning, so we can ensure good candidates for all those districts far into the future.
We need to come up with better messaging and new issues.
How about affordable housing? It’s reaching a crisis point in places like Bend, and is a real bread-and-butter pocketbook issue that has been made worse by policies insisted upon by the Democrats.
Do you suppose that deliberately restricting the amount of buildable land through the use of an invisible line called an Urban Growth Boundary might have something to do with artificially high housing costs?
We need to articulate what we would do differently than the Democrats once elected. Criticizing their ideas hasn’t really gotten us anywhere. We need to do something different.
We need to come up with a vision, and then start to tell voters about it.
So what will be the future of the Republican Party in Oregon? It depends.
We could learn from our mistakes and change our course, just like the Democrats did here in the 1950s. Or we could become irrelevant, and go the way of past political parties like the Federalists or the Whigs.
The truth is, the future is ultimately up to each and every one of us, and depends on what we’re all willing to do to support Republican candidates.
Nobody likes losing, and I understand that some of you may be demoralized after the last election. But we’ve had the last few months to lick our wounds.
Now it’s time to get back at it, and let me tell you, nothing is more motivating than a bad legislative session, in which the other party completely dominates the process.
At the end of the day, we need to provide a better alternative than the other guys. We need to build our candidates up. We should be able to win based on the strength and merits of our ideas, because they are better.
I’m going to use a sports metaphor.
There are some similarities between football and politics. Both are full-contact sports, though bad behavior tends to be penalized in football these days, along with just about everything else.
But when the season starts to really take off, there are two paths a team can take.
One is to depend on the failures of other teams. If they lose, it improves your position, and maybe, just maybe, you can get into the playoffs if enough other teams play poorly enough for long enough that this strategy works.
The alternative is to control your own destiny, to be so good that it doesn’t matter if your conference rivals win or lose, because you left them in the dust long ago.
We need our candidates to run for office, instead of just running against the Democrats.
I’m going to close with a personal story of sorts.
There’s a part of my wallet where I keep the things that are most dear to me. This includes pictures of my wife and kids, like the ultrasound of my son, who is now 7.
It also includes a horoscope from a 2012 Free Will Astrology that’s featured in every issue of Willamette Week. Here’s what it says:
The most likely way to beat your competitors is not to fight them, but rather to ignore them and compete only against yourself.
Perhaps we could take this approach?
Republicans in Oregon are at a crossroads after a string of stinging losses. We can either adapt, learn from those losses, cultivate our next generation of leaders, give them the support they deserve, and bring them up to be principled and willing to do what is right by this state and its people, rather than what’s convenient for the pursuit of power. That’s one path.
The other is to go the way of the past political parties that exist only in the pages of our history books.
We all have to be willing to do what it takes to change our fortunes.
Once upon a time, the Democrats were way worse off than we are. And look at them now.
We can turn it around, but we have to work together to make that happen.
Right now, this state is not living up to its potential. We all know it. This has been because of a lack of leadership and a resulting culture of complacency.
I don’t know about you, but I would like to see Oregon lead the nation in something other than hunger!
Our state is considered poor—but there’s no reason for that. We have an abundance of resources here, and our state could, and should, become prosperous beyond our wildest imagination.
But in order for that to happen, we need to lead by example, cultivate true leadership, create a positive new vision and get this state back on track once and for all.
We have the ability to change history. It’s happened before, and it can happen again, so let’s get started!