Profile: Walden hopes to snag May 19 GOP primary win

Greg Walden, center, hob-nobs at a recent Rotary meeting in Medford with Rep. Bob Smith, R-Medford, right, and others.

When Greg Walden emerges from the Republican primary May 19, he hopes a victory will banish some of the political shadows lingering over him in the 2nd District congressional race.

He's been the owner of a radio station for 12 years, a congressional aide for six years, and a state legislator for eight years.

When I hire somebody, I check the resume and the references because I want to hire the most qualified person I can, Walden said. That is somebody who does not need on-the-job training, and somebody I can believe in and trust to do what is right for my country.

The words are eerily reminiscent of those uttered by Wes Cooley, whose primary campaign Walden managed in 1994 -- and who is attempting a comeback after his felony conviction last year for lying about his military record in the Voters' Pamphlet.

The difference this time is that you can believe Greg, says Brady Adams of Grants Pass, president of the Oregon Senate and one of many former colleagues who have endorsed Walden.

In addition to the Republican establishment of the district that covers Southern Oregon and east of the Cascades, Walden boasts endorsements from the man he hopes to succeed -- Bob Smith of Medford, formerly of Burns -- and from an array of business and natural resources groups. He's raised almost three times as much as his nearest rival, Perry Atkinson of Medford, who has never been elected to public office.

But Perry has been on the radio here for 15 years, been active in the party's central committee and evangelical community -- and he's very quotable, Walden said.

Smith, who's ending 36 years in public office, said his own name familiarity in Southern Oregon was 6 percent when he first ran in the 2nd District 16 years ago.

If people do not know the messenger, they will not hear the message, Smith said. So I can open some doors for him here.

Walden said he rejects accusations by Atkinson that he is insufficiently conservative.

I think I am pragmatic about solving problems -- to listen to people I disagree with and try to build a consensus, he said. I am willing to fight the good fight and lose. But I try and pick my battles.

Despite his age, and a face that makes him look even younger than his 41 years, Greg Walden has had plenty of experience in broadcasting and politics.

He did a lot on his own, said Paul Walden, his father, who turns 81 next month. All of it was fine by me.

Greg Walden explored broadcasting at his father's radio station in Hood River and in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he was a radio announcer and TV news producer while the Alaska oil pipeline was being built in the mid-1970s. There were tremendous opportunities there for anybody who had any experience -- and I was just 17, he said.

He left Alaska after a year and ended up at the University of Oregon, where he eventually earned a degree in journalism.

But politics began to pull in Walden as he worked for a succession of Republicans who knew his father, a state representative for three terms in the 1970s. He answered press inquiries in two campaigns for governor in 1978.

For four or five months (in 1979 and 1980), I talked to him about coming to work for me, because I needed a press secretary and he had a press background, said Denny Smith, who in 1980 unseated 24-year Democrat Al Ullman in Oregon's 2nd District. So I hired him.

A 1981 redrawing moved Jackson and Josephine counties into the 2nd -- and the mid-Willamette Valley, including Smith's home in Salem, into the new 5th.

Walden became Smith's chief of staff in 1985. He often counseled pragmatism when Smith preferred a more ideological approach.

Philosophically, I think he's more liberal than I am, no doubt about that, said Smith, then and now a newspaper publisher. But he's got his own voting record that you can determine whether he is a conservative or liberal. Whatever he did for me was at my request -- but he did a good job.

Though they met while in Salem, Walden's future wife, Mylene, worked as a legislative aide first for Smith and then for U.S. Rep. Gene Chappie, a Republican from Northern California's 2nd District who retired in 1986.

We'd been thinking about what we really wanted to do and whether we wanted to continue in staff roles in Congress, Walden said. Then my father wrote me saying he was going to sell the family business. I got the hint that if I ever had an interest in getting into radio, this would be the time.

Greg and Mylene Walden bought the station in April 1986, but he stayed with Smith in Washington, D.C., until Smith was re-elected that year.

Larry Campbell, then the House Republican leader, recruited Walden in 1988 for the Oregon House seat that Walden's father lost to Wayne Fawbush in 1976 and failed to regain in 1978.

Greg Walden never had to face Fawbush, who was elected to the Oregon Senate but lost to Republican Wes Cooley in 1992. But Walden spent almost $100,000 in his victory for the open seat.

Walden drew attention in his first session in 1989, when he spoke against a requirement for businesses to provide health insurance to their workers under the Oregon Health Plan being forged by John Kitzhaber, then the Senate president. Walden lost that round but eventually won the fight against the requirement in 1996.

That speech probably was a watershed for me, he said. I had been around enough to know that members who get up and talk all the time lose their effectiveness.

Though he was among the few Republicans who voted for it, Rep. Eldon Johnson of Central Point said Walden's opposition was well-reasoned.

He's a quick study on any issue he tackles, Johnson said last week. He's taken tough issues and built good legislation by working out the details.

In 1990, when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in two decades, Campbell became speaker and Walden became majority leader.

During a session, the majority leader rounds up votes for high-priority bills and keeps party members informed.

We realized we had to govern now, Walden said. We had to balance the budget; we had to run the committees. It's different from when your party is in the minority and you can just vote no. But I think we delivered good legislation out of those sessions and showed we could function effectively.

During an election year, the majority leader helps raise money for and coordinates campaigns of party candidates.

House Republicans under Walden maintained their majority in 1992. The only Republican incumbent to lose that year, by just 148 votes of almost 26,000 cast, was one-term Rep. Jerry Barnes of Ashland, who said he has lingering criticisms about how things were done under Walden.

I was not new to politics, Barnes said. But I felt they treated me like a little child. They would conduct surveys, but they wouldn't share them with me. They got money through Project 92 (House Republican campaign committee) that was supposed to come to me, but they kept it.

Barnes said he has no problem with Walden, but Perry Atkinson understands this area better than Greg does -- and I think Perry would be firmer with his convictions than Greg would, though compromise is part of politics.

In 1993, Walden helped broker an 11th-hour compromise that began Oregon Health Plan coverage for low-income families, using general-fund contributions and higher cigarette taxes.

Walden planned in the fall of 1993 to announce a race for governor when he and his wife learned that the baby boy she was expecting had a severe heart defect and would require a transplant. Garrison Daniel Walden died barely a day after his birth.

I remember vividly that long period in the hospital, walking down the hall and out to the car, he said. I was supposed to speak somewhere, but before I got to the car, I said we've got to pull the plug on this campaign.

Walden did not seek re-election in 1994, but he was appointed to the Oregon Senate seat that Wes Cooley vacated in 1995 when Cooley succeeded Bob Smith in Congress. He was Cooley's manager in the 1994 primary but parted before the general election.

When Cooley refused to withdraw as the Republican nominee for re-election in 1996 after newspaper disclosures about Cooley's military record and marriage, Medford businessman Bill Thorndike pushed to qualify Walden as a third-party candidate.

Then it was simply a matter of providing a choice, because I thought there wasn't any, said Thorndike, who also supports his current bid. He exhibits those attributes of involvement in a community that I think develop good leadership skills.

Walden said even though he entered with Bob Smith's encouragement, he knew he was taking a risk.

I think once we realized what had happened and how he (Cooley) had let us down, I felt compelled to do something about it, because we'd all played a role in getting him there, he said.

When Cooley withdrew, Walden sought the Republican nomination but yielded to Smith, who came out of retirement to win the seat. Now Smith is returning the favor.

I've run on my record, because it is solid, and expanded on it by earning the support of a wide range of groups, Walden said. But I'm going to rely on that endorsement, you bet.


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