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Our Opinion: Gov. Vic Atiyeh's style would be welcome in Oregon today

The Oregon former Gov. Vic Atiyeh led when he took office in January 1979 was a much different place than today.

Timber was still the state’s economic king. The symbiotic relationship between rural and urban Oregon remained strong, and the politics of Atiyeh’s time were much less defined by partisan ambitions.

Atiyeh, who died July 20 at 91, took office just before a deep recession and major economic dislocations shook this state. He is rightly remembered as one of the state’s finest leaders for his success in guiding Oregon through a challenging time and for envisioning a better future that included a diversified economic base. He was a Republican governor willing to work with Democrats, but who didn’t shirk from a fight. His principal goal was not to make his party more powerful, but instead to make Oregon a better place.

During the economic downturn in the early 1980s, when unemployment rates rose to double digits, Atiyeh called the Legislature back into session three times in order to pass a budget whose revenues had been decimated by the recession. The governor negotiated with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to cut spending and raise taxes to achieve a balanced budget. Atiyeh and legislative leaders promised Oregonians a surcharge on income taxes would only be temporary. True to their word, the charge was allowed to expire in 1985.

Atiyeh recognized the need to diversify the state’s economy and make Oregon less dependent on the ups and downs of the timber industry. He fought to revise some of the state’s land use laws and reduce workers’ compensation premiums. He led overseas trade missions to let investors know Oregon wanted their business. He foresaw the potential of the Silicon Forest and placed a special emphasis on bringing high-tech industries to Oregon.

The work Atiyeh did to put Oregon on a new course was for a time overshadowed by his flashy successor — the young Neil Goldschmidt, who also championed economic development. We now know far too much about Goldschmidt’s character defects, and can gain a greater appreciation for Atiyeh’s quiet style and enduring effectiveness.

To date, Atiyeh is the last Republican to have served as governor, and while he is remembered for his business sense, his achievements were about more than money. He worked to establish Oregon’s first statewide food bank, and he supported federal legislation designating the Columbia River Gorge as a National Scenic Area. Atiyeh heightened awareness and established new laws against drunken driving.

His success can be attributed in large part to his approach: moderate and statesman-like. We can

only wonder, if Atiyeh had been in office today, if there would have been different outcomes for important state priorities, such as a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River or a functioning health care website.

The state of Oregon and its residents have changed dramatically since Vic Atiyeh was governor, but a collective desire for a prosperous economy, preservation of natural wonders and civic responsibility has not. In the end, the measure of a governor’s effectiveness is his or her ability to get things done to benefit the state — even when it’s inconvenient for personal political ambitions.

Atiyeh demonstrated an ability to do what was necessary to lead Oregon out of an economic downturn and put the state on a course of greater economic diversity. As John Stuart Mill once said: “A great statesman is he who knows when to depart from traditions, as well as when to adhere to them.”

Gov. Vic Atiyeh embodied that sentiment, and he set an example today’s leaders would do well to emulate.



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