Decades of dedication and dreams came to fruition on the morning of Wednesday, August 2 with a celebration honoring the completion of the Peter Courtney Minto Island Bridge in Salem.
Named after Oregon’s senior legislator and longest-serving Senate President, the bridge represents the culmination of countless hours of effort from many in the community.
The ceremony’s original start time was moved to earlier in the morning due to anticipated triple-digit temperatures. That seemed to sit well with those in attendance, including local officials, state senators and other dignitaries.
Songs by the Beatles played as the crowd settled in and a parade made its way to the Riverfront Park Amphitheater. The music was eventually turned off and replaced by the sound of live bagpipes being played by color guard members marching in approach.
In his remarks, Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett credited the agencies and officials who were involved in transforming the pedestrian and bicycle bridge project from an idea to a reality.
Bennett said that Courtney, who began his political career as a member of the Salem city council in the 1970s, contributed to the initial vision and championed it through the legislative process.
So far, Bennett said, over 120,000 people have crossed the bridge. He reminisced about how the surrounding area used to consist largely of factories and blackberry bushes, and said that additional improvements are now planned for it.
“What a wonderful new feature this is for our downtown,” Bennett said. “Our downtown community is seeing the impact of new investment.”
Courtney then approached the podium, wearing his trademark tennis shoes. He started off with a few jokes, like those of us who know him have learned to expect, before giving special recognition to his wife and to family members who came over from Montana for the event.
Also mentioned by Courtney were his Senate colleagues seated in the front row. They looked much happier while sitting together for the first time since the 2017 legislative session ended nearly a month ago than in the days, weeks and months before then.
Senators Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), Lew Frederick (D-Portland), Brian Boquist (R-Dallas), James Manning (D-Eugene), Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin), Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) and Fred Girod (R-Stayton) were joined by Reps. Teresa Alonso Leon (D-Woodburn) and Brian Clem (D-Salem), whose House districts comprise the one represented by Courtney in the Senate.
Courtney, 74, said that people have been texting him pictures of themselves and their families on the bridge. He lamented that the nation and its people are divided, and stated his continued worry for its young people.
However, the metaphor of building bridges was not lost upon Courtney or anyone else in attendance. Neither was the historical significance of the moment.
Representatives of Friends of Two Bridges, a community organization, presented Bennett with an oversized check for over $100,000 to fund amenities at the park adjacent to the bridge. Immediately afterwards, the crowd walked over to the bridge for the official ribbon cutting as the Beatles classic “All You Need is Love” came through the loudspeakers.
Courtney began his legislative career in the House in the mid-1980s before being elected to the Senate in the late 1990s. As Senate President, he has been a steady hand and moderating influence, who typically takes the long view on issues with a sense of pragmatism not always witnessed in the House.
It isn’t just that the offices are bigger in the Senate — they are much larger—but it’s a completely different atmosphere, and one less prone to the kind of partisanship, pettiness, personalities, egos and ambitions seen in the lower chamber. Courtney deserves much of the credit for that.
The 2017 session was characterized by many as being divisive. It certainly was in the House. But it was more harmonious in the Senate, and usually is. That was true at least until July, when temperatures increase and tempers tend to flare throughout the capitol building.
Senators worked through the Fourth of July holiday while House members took a few days off. Both chambers adjourned three days later, but the Senate did so hours before the House. They usually try to do so at the same time and open the doors of both chambers simultaneously, but the Senate and its members were done waiting for the House to conclude its business.
There’s been a lot of speculation since then among capitol insiders and the press as to whether Courtney will seek another term in his seat, which is up in 2018. I don’t know Courtney well enough to have any direct knowledge as to his future plans. However, I have learned a lot from Courtney over the years, just from watching him and the way he operates.
I’ve been lucky to have developed a good working relationship with Courtney and his staff. It probably began in early 2015 when I interviewed him for a local radio show. He may have expected a live, on-air ambush from this Republican operative, but I had enough respect for Courtney and his office to not do that to him, or anybody.
What I do know is that Oregon will never see another Peter Courtney. Hopefully, its residents will recognize how truly fortunate they were to have him in leadership for as long as they have.
I also know that 30 years from now, I’ll be able to say that I knew Courtney and worked with him. I’ve been around long enough to know when I’m in the presence of tomorrow’s historical figures. He’s definitely one of them.
The Peter Courtney Minto Island Bridge should still be standing by then, and for many years after. And if that isn’t a legacy, I don’t know what is.