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Buckley's enthusiasm catches on in Salem


Peter Buckley knows the importance of following a script.

As an actor, director and producer, he memorized his lines, hoping to convey the nuances of each scene to his audiences. Now, as a member of the Oregon House of Representatives, the Ashland Democrat not only studies his own lines, but also tries to predict what his colleagues and critics will say.

Leaning back in his chair, his shirtsleeves rolled up, necktie loosened, the 49-year-old Buckley sat engaged, often animatedly so, recently during a lengthy interview in his Capitol office.

"I'm having a blast; I love the work, and I actually think I'm making progress on a lot of things that are extremely important to my district," said Buckley, who represents Ashland, Ruch, Phoenix, Talent and a portion of southwest Medford.

Known around the Capitol for his spontaneous outpourings of optimism, the charismatic Buckley makes no bones about his left-leaning politics, described by some as Clintonesque, with their progressive, seize-the-day look.

"I am a passionate liberal Democrat," he said with a beaming smile. "I believe that there is such a thing as good government, and that's one reason why I am here &

to make government work."

After catching the attention of House Speaker Jeff Merkley &

who saw in Buckley an articulate, circumspect man ready to delve into the issues &

Buckley's second term has largely been spent in the spotlight, as chairman of the Education Committee and as Assistant Majority Leader.

"Peter is a joy to work with and he's a very capable leader," said Merkley, D-Portland. "He just has a way about him that makes it very hard to feel disagreeable; he makes his points clearly and does so graciously."

Since taking office, education has indisputably emerged as Buckley's focus.

"We have a great opportunity to start to reinvest in education and restructure how we offer education in the state," he said. "Each year, students seem to be given less; it's time to start giving them more each year."

Hoping to boost the state education budget by a third to fully fund Head Start and help put more Oregon high school graduates into college, Buckley continues to rally people around Gov. Ted Kulongoski's so-called "shared responsibility model."

The governor's office says the proposal would "create a partnership among students, their families, the federal government and the state to meet college costs," something Buckley said will allow students to work their way through college.

"The bottom line is that any kid graduating from an Oregon high school that is willing to work at least 15 hours a week would be able to go to an Oregon college or university," he said. "But we have to have new revenue to do that."

Supported by the Oregon Business Council, the plan is contingent on raising the corporate income tax from the current $10 minimum, which will require Republicans, who balk at the slightest mention of tax hikes, to offer the necessary votes.

"It's been at $10 since 1931," Buckley said. "The corporate community has to pay its fair share."

He points the tumultuous recession of 2002-03 to make his case. Those years, state revenues plummeted forcing lawmakers to make significant cuts to public services, all the while, Buckley said, corporations including Enron Corp. and Portland General Electric Co. were paying only the minimum ten bucks.

An early start

A California native, Buckley cut his political teeth at the precocious age of 14, campaigning for Rep. Pete McCloskey, widely known as the first Republican member of Congress to call publicly for the impeachment of former President Nixon after the Watergate scandal.

In the years afterward, Buckley attended the University of Santa Clara in the Silicon Valley, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in theatre.

While working behind the scenes in progressive politics, he managed several non-profit organizations, including Democracy's Edge, which formed in 2004 "in an optimistic attempt to counteract the right-wing movement in the United States," according to the group's Web site.

Buckley was also vice president of the Blue Lake Chamber of Commerce in Humboldt County, Calif., and a Jefferson Public Radio commentator.

Despite never having held local office, Buckley decided to enter the often rough-and-tumble world of state politics after realizing that the educational opportunities that his oldest son had at Ashland High School were not there for his younger two children due in large measure from state funding cuts.

"The state was going in the wrong direction," Buckley said. "I couldn't sit by and watch as public education was being dismantled."

In his first bid for public office, frustrated by the escalating war in Iraq, Buckley ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2002, challenging Rep. Greg Walden of Hood River in the heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District.

Then, benefiting from a political shuffle, Buckley decided to run for the state House of Representatives after then-Rep. Alan Bates of Ashland decided to run for the state Senate seat vacated by Lenn Hannon, who after 30 years in the state Legislature, was appointed to the state parole board.

Buckley narrowly won the Democratic primary against political stalwart and three-term former state representative Judy Uherbelau in 2000. That victory pitted him in the General Election against Republican Joanna Lofaso, whom he beat soundly with 61 percent of the vote. In 2006, Buckley ran unopposed, becoming a mainstay and popular figure in Ashland's political circuit.

Local Odd Couple

Bruised and beaten during the 2006 legislative session when Republicans led the House and stymied many of his ideas, Buckley said once Democrats gained control this session he felt a swell of optimism.

"It is extremely important that we have discussion and debate and come up with solutions. We didn't have that last session; we were really dysfunctional," he said. "This session ideas are being heard, good ideas are going to be debated and voted on."

But long before anyone knew there would be the seismic power shift in the House, Buckley and Republican Rep. Sal Esquivel of Medford were exploring how to "bring some statesmanship back and depoliticize" the 60-member chamber, which is often beset by partisanship.

Known in Capitol circles as the "political Odd Couple," Buckley and Esquivel drafted rules that were later adopted to ensure that each House member is able to bring at least two ideas forth and have them debated in committee, no matter which party is in power, so long as the bill has two sponsors from each party.

"Each of us represents 57,000 people," Buckley said. "Each one of us deserves to have the ideas and the needs of that district presented."

The relationship with Esquivel has helped some Rogue Valley Republicans, too, speak well of Buckley. Even detractors are careful not to disparaging in their assessment of him personally.

Bryan Platt, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, said Buckley "seems like a reasonable person, and always has a smile on his face," but, "he's a typical Democrat."

Platt, an Eagle Point businessman and self-described conservative, said: "As a Republican, I believe government needs to be smaller and that the private sector is much better able to solve society's problems and Peter Buckley believes the opposite."

To Esquivel, who describes himself more of a moderate Republican, much of the success Buckley has had in Salem is not because of his likability or political prowess, but because he is honest and straightforward.

"His word is as good as gold," Esquivel said, "and as long as that's the fact, Peter Buckley has a great future in the state of Oregon."

Nice guys don't finish last

all accounts, Buckley is affable, oftentimes sounding more like a concerned father than a policy wonk.

"He is a polite and respectful leader," said L. Otto Schell of the Oregon PTA. "But you can tell that he takes his (Education) committee chair job seriously, and he understands that what we're doing in Salem ends up affecting the kids in his district and the kids in every other district."

As a division manager at the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, Ron Fox first encountered Buckley during the 2005 session.

Buckley, a member then of the House Committee on Business and Economic Development, "listened intently, gathered information and then used that information as a part of his decision-making process," said Fox, now the executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc.

"That is a fine characteristic, I think, for a good legislator," Fox said from his Medford office, adding that Buckley was "very open and supportive of well thought-out and focused business initiatives, ideas that created good jobs for Oregonians."

He readily admits life as a part-time legislator is not as easy it may look. Among the challenges, Buckley said, is the toll being in Salem takes on his wife, Joan Langley, and his three children, ages 8, 17 and 20.

"It's hard on my wife, and it's hard on my kids, and it's hard on me to be separated from them. That is the hard part of the job," Buckley said. "I do love the work, but I am concerned about the impact it has on my family."

Despite the strain, Buckley's star continues to rise, such that Republicans like Esquival, not to mention his fellow Dems, see his potential.

Esquivel said Buckley could be elected someday House Speaker or Majority Leader.

"He could fill those shoes," Esquivel said. "There is no doubt in my mind about that &

he's intelligent enough and he's savvy enough."

Buckley quickly deflects questions about his political aspirations, saying for the time being he is committed to leading the House Education Committee, but hedged: "I really don't know what the path forward will be."