Two-term Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh was charitable and civil, qualities too often lacking in politics today, Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson said Monday.
“The governor was not strident in any of his races. He was a true gentleman,” said Robertson, who was first elected commissioner two years into Atiyeh’s eight years as governor.
Atiyeh died Sunday at a Portland hospital of complications from renal failure at the age of 91. Atiyeh, in office from 1979 to 1987, remains Oregon’s last Republican governor.
Robertson said he doesn’t think the passage of time has made him misty-eyed about Atiyeh’s style.
Atiyeh was in the mold of politicians, such as Mark Hatfield, who would be misplaced in an environment poisoned by anonymous social media rants, said Robertson, who will retire in nine days after more than 33 years as county commissioner.
“What’s changed is our means of communication,” he said. “The heart of the issue is the character of the people who served then. They wouldn’t be engaged in the toxic rhetoric we see today. I believe that.”
Atiyeh ran for governor in 1974, where he lost to Democrat Bob Straub. He came back four years later and faced former Gov. Tom McCall in the Republican primary.
McCall was attempting a comeback, and Robertson, then a Roseburg city councilor, was his Douglas County campaign chairman.
“I came at that point in time to recognize traits in Gov. Atiyeh. He was very thoughtful, very decent fellow, even in the throes of a political campaign,” Robertson said.
Atiyeh beat McCall in the primary and unseated Straub in the fall. Four years later, he was re-elected by a landslide, even though the state was in a deep recession. In Douglas County, he received 61 percent of the vote against the Democratic challenger, Ted Kulongoski.
Atiyeh already had been a state legislator for a decade when Bill Markham was elected to the House in 1968 and began a 28-year career in the Legislature.
Markham, who resides in Roseburg and lived in Riddle while in the Legislature, became close friends with Atiyeh.
“Vic was a good guy. He had his head screwed on right,” Markham said Monday. “He understood the political world from both sides of the aisle.”
Markham, 91, recalled fishing in British Columbia with Atiyeh and hooking a trout an inch shorter than Atiyeh’s best catch of the day. Two years later in Grants Pass, a hunting club hosted a black-powder shooting contest and Markham’s best shot beat Atiyeh’s by an inch. “We used to kid about it,” Markham said.
The same year Atiyeh beat Straub, Douglas Community Hospital emergency room physician John Kitzhaber was elected to the Legislature.
“He was the first governor under whom I served when I was first elected to the Legislature in 1978, and he was both a mentor and a friend,” Gov. Kitzhaber said Monday in a statement.
Kitzhaber credited Atiyeh with leading Oregon out of the recession and making international trade a cornerstone of Oregon’s economy.
“He will be greatly missed, yet his steady leadership, gentle spirit and love for our state lives on in the many contributions he made to Oregon,” Kitzhaber said.
Atiyeh’s tenure was marked by a bruising re-election campaign and tax reform proposals. He called Kulongoski dangerous and after being re-elected proposed a 5 percent sales tax while cutting property taxes.
Atiyeh openly regretted governing during hard economic times. “I picked the wrong eight years,” he once said.
During a sit-down interview in Salem with The News-Review midway through his second term, Atiyeh lamented being unable to tackle social problems more aggressively.
“When I came in as governor, I really wanted to turn government around and get us more involved in preventative measures, rather than just take care of the tragedies of life, which state government has been the receptacle of,” he said. “Because of the times, I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted to do.”
With the state perpetually short of money, Atiyeh settled for making the mundane levers of government work better.
The state’s last Republican governor left office criticizing the incoming governor, Neil Goldschmidt, for putting down state employees during the campaign. “The idea of candidates going out and bashing bureaucrats is unforgivable to me, absolutely unforgivable,” Atiyeh said.
Markham said Atiyeh had to work hard as governor to get through the tough times. Still, Markham said, “I think he enjoyed it immensely.”
The state constitution barred Atiyeh from seeking a third term as governor, but he was active in many causes after leaving elective politics.
He became an elder statesman for the Republican Party. He campaigned in 2010 for the GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley, tapping a radio ad in which he said he was disappointed by the “unfair ads” from Kitzhaber’s campaign “personally attacking” Dudley.
“It’s time we finally turn the page on the politics of the past,” he said.
Robertson said he saw Atiyeh at a fundraiser in Portland last month for a foundation that supports fish and wildlife projects.
“He was frail, but we had a good conversation,” Robertson said.
• City Editor Don Jenkins can be reached at 541-957-4201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.