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Memoir describes politics as it once was

Les AuCoin’s political career stretched from the 1968 presidential election, when he organized the Oregon primary campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, to the election of 1992 when, as a nine-term congressman from Oregon’s 1st District, he lost a bitter battle to unseat Sen. Bob Packwood.

Along the way, he took part in some of the most consequential issues of his time, starting in the Oregon Legislature, where he was instrumental in passing the Oregon Bottle Bill, enacting Senate Bill 100, which established statewide land-use planning, and converting the state Highway Department into the Oregon Department of Transportation. In Congress, he rose in rank to 84th in seniority, was dean of the Oregon House delegation, worked with Sen. Mark Hatfield to pass the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act and co-sponsored the Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers expansion and the Columbia Gorge Scenic Protection Act.

AuCoin details many of these milestones in his newly released memoir, “Catch and Release,” the title of which references his love of fly-fishing as well as his approach to politics: reaching for the prize, the successful piece of legislation, and relishing the victory when it came or picking up and carrying on when the cast fell short or snagged on an overhanging branch.

The book is well written and easy to read, thanks to AuCoin’s background in journalism. He spent time as a sports writer and editor early in life and, much later, wrote a weekly opinion column for the Mail Tribune while teaching political science at Southern Oregon University. Now living in Portland, he continues to serve on the SOU Board of Trustees.

AuCoin describes a culture of politics that no longer exists, either on the state level or in Washington, D.C.: a collegial atmosphere in which political foes jousted for position but also came together to craft meaningful legislation of mutual benefit. A world where winning a campaign depended more on issues and connecting with voters at their doorsteps than on raising vast sums of money.

His first Congressional campaign cost $150,000. Then a court ruling struck down Oregon’s campaign spending limits, and within 10 years, he was spending $1 million to retain the same seat. Now, after the 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, the cost has ballooned from there. AuCoin notes that Rep. Greg Walden raised $3.275 million for his 2016 reelection campaign.

AuCoin was and remains a liberal Democrat, but he was able to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle who were more conservative. He describes the pivotal role played by conservative Republican Stafford Hansell in 1973, when Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Displaying bottles of liquor, beer and wine, cigarettes and over-the-counter pain relievers on his desk on the House floor, Hansell noted that all were completely legal, but toxic in excess quantities, while one marijuana cigarette could bring a $2,500 fine and five years in prison.

“The day when Stafford Hansell spoke still lives in my memory,” AuCoin writes. “It reminds me that in American politics, giants once roamed. Fact-based discourse transcended partisanship.

“As unlikely as it may seem in this age,” he continues, “I have to believe both will return.”

We can only hope.