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MailTribune.com
  • Former colleagues laud Atiyeh's 'practical' leadership

    Former governor created 'an open conversation' among lawmakers; he died Sunday at 91
  • Southern Oregonians remember the late Gov. Vic Atiyeh as a two-term head of state who helped pull the economy out of a bad recession, built many bridges for Far East trade and had the rare ability to overcome partisanship to "solve problems that affect everyone."
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  • Southern Oregonians remember the late Gov. Vic Atiyeh as a two-term head of state who helped pull the economy out of a bad recession, built many bridges for Far East trade and had the rare ability to overcome partisanship to "solve problems that affect everyone."
    Atiyeh, the first Arab-American elected governor in the U.S., died Sunday at 91. He was elected governor in 1978, defeating ex-Gov. Tom McCall in the Republican primary and followed that by defeating incumbent Gov. Bob Straub in the 1978 general election and future Gov. Ted Kulongoski in 1982.
    "It's a very, very sad loss of a great Oregonian and a great governor," said Leigh Johnson, who served as a Republican in the Legislature with Atiyeh from 1970 to 1975, representing Ashland.
    "One of Vic's best achievements was his ability to pull everyone together to work with everyone, even though not everyone agreed all the time," said Johnson. "He got people communicating on really critical issues to the state, no matter if you were Republican or Democrat, and that doesn't happen much anymore. He created an open conversation and confidence in the legislative process." As a state senator, Atiyeh mentored Johnson, who was elected at age 26.
    "He certainly helped me be a better legislator," said Johnson.
    Al Densmore of Medford, a Democratic House member from 1971-77, called it "a joy" to work with Atiyeh.
    "Of course, it was a much different time in Oregon politics," he said. "Very few issues had party overtones back then. With Vic, it didn't matter what your politics were.
    "He had a very practical approach to solving problems that affect everyone," Densmore said.
    Densmore recalled that in his first session in Salem, when he was only 24 and from the opposing party, he approached Atiyeh for help on open space legislation, typically seen as a liberal issue and "he was very easy to work with."
    Atiyeh's greatest accomplishment was his leadership in pulling Oregon out of one of its worst recessions in the early 1980s, said Densmore, and resolving huge budget deficits during a time of major revenue shortfalls.
    Chuck Heauser, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, was just starting a business when that recession hit and recalls "what impressed me was Atiyeh's attitude."
    "Though times were bleak, he focused on turning the state around," Heauser said. "Those were tough years for my business and unemployment was horrendous, but the prosperity that followed can be attributed directly to his efforts. He tried to be even-handed and made it clear ... that what's really important is the outcome, not who achieved it."
    Former U.S. Rep. Bob Smith of Medford, who also served 22 years in the Legislature, said Atiyeh was respected and revered as "a businessman elected as a Republican in Portland, which is quite a feat."
    "He was a businessman, and he ran government as a business," Smith said. "What he said, he did and without anyone questioning his veracity. He worked with Democrats religiously, recognizing this is a two-party system. He valued people on the basis of their word and their actions. He was not a partisan person."
    Smith said he had lost a dear friend and Oregon an outstanding leader, one who wasn't afraid to raise taxes during a bad recession, but when times got better, lowered them and locked them into statute so they couldn't be raised again.
    "I used to tell Vic that if people can't spell your name, you can't get elected, but when he beat Kulongoski, I said I'd changed my mind," said Smith.
    Current U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, also a former state legislator, noted in a statement that Atiyeh "... will go down in history as one of Oregon's greatest statesmen.
    "His steady hand guided our state through turbulent times," Walden said. "... His life of service will impact generations of Oregonians to come. Vic Atiyeh was not only a giant, though. He was also a mentor for me and a very close friend.
    John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.
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