Les AuCoin, a former congressman and longtime Southern Oregon University teacher, is leaving Southern Oregon so he and his wife, Sue, can be near family in Bozeman, Mont.

Les AuCoin, a former congressman and longtime Southern Oregon University teacher, is leaving Southern Oregon so he and his wife, Sue, can be near family in Bozeman, Mont.

AuCoin, 67, a Democrat, came to the Rogue Valley after a narrow loss in the 1992 race for U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood's seat — a vitriolic and expensive bout that, soon afterward, saw Packwood censured and ejected from the Senate for sexual misconduct and misstatements during the campaign.

"That would be the major disappointment of my career," he said, "that I'd reached the status as one of the most powerful legislators in the Northwest but had the poor sense of timing to run in a year when voters were in an anti-insider politician mood."

AuCoin served in Congress from 1975 to 1993, working on such advances as Portland's light rail system, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, refurbishing Crater Lake Lodge, getting F-16 fighters for the Oregon National Guard and, in 1984, doubling Oregon's wilderness areas.

His most proud moment, he said in an interview, was a ban on flight-testing of anti-satellite weapons, provided the Soviets did likewise. The ban passed in 1985 over the opposition of the Reagan administration.

"We kept weapons out of space," AuCoin said as he paused from packing for the move to be near daughter Stacy, a graduate student in social work, and grandchildren Morgan and Nicole.

AuCoin said he authored the first offshore oil drilling moratorium for the Pacific Coast, going toe-to-toe with new Interior Secretary James Watt, an ardent supporter of resource extraction.

"Watt came to town swaggering that he was going to open up the whole West Coast and I stopped him," said AuCoin.

Reflecting on political events since leaving Washington, AuCoin said, "Congress is in a mess ... It's a running food fight at best. It reflects the venomous divisions in our population as a whole; so much of it is what's wrong with us. All you have to do is look at the blogosphere and cable TV.

"People are no longer arguing over opinions; they're arguing over facts, as you see in the Sherrod affair. We're a deeply divided country."

Possibly the only way out of the impasse, AuCoin noted, is reform of Congressional redistricting, so it's done by an "absolutely nonpartisan" panel, not by the parties in power.

Under the present system, he said, only about a fourth of Congressional seats are truly competitive, while the uniformity of the other districts "only magnifies the problem. The Republicans are from the extreme right and the Democrats are even more extreme left. With that, you're going to have warfare, not cooperation."

As for the collapse of the economy two years ago, AuCoin attributed it to repeal of the Glass-Steagall bill, which "tore down the fire wall between commerce and banking, set the stage for the greed of Wall Street and hedge fund speculation and turned banks into casinos — this compounded with the huge deficits of the Bush years." Present debt levels, he warned, could lead to hyper-inflation and the historic danger of electing a persuasive but harmful "man on a white horse."

AuCoin campaigned for President Obama in Ohio, but expressed surprise at how Obama "has turned off the charisma switch and become a tutor instead of a leader. People are having trouble being emotionally moved by his programs."

However, AuCoin added, there's no Republican in sight who can beat Obama.

In his nearly four decades on the Oregon political scene, AuCoin said his most admired politicians are Gov. Tom McCall and Sen. Mark Hatfield, both Republicans; House Speaker and Portland Mayor Vera Katz; and State Rep. Keith Skelton and his wife, Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts. All sprang from Portland.

The move to Montana will be AuCoin's first departure from his home state. He was raised by a single mom in Madras, worked as a journalist in the Army, graduated in journalism from Pacific University in Forest Grove, became that school's public information director, then was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1972, where he worked for the landmark bottle bill and land-use planning legislation. Four years later, he went to Congress.

"It's been a long, great career, a great run. We were trying to divide our time between two Edens, Bozeman and the Rogue Valley, and having tasted their lives (his family), we are going to sit down to the feast. We did a lot in that 24-year political career and all the people we've met in Oregon will always be in our hearts."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.