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Opinion » Editorial

Ben Westlund: A Life Lived Well

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If somebody designed a prototype of the perfect politician, it would be a lot like Ben Westlund. And we mean that as a compliment.

Westlund had all the natural gifts that go into making a great politician - an outgoing, gregarious personality, a remarkable memory for names and faces, a ready way with words.

But beyond that, there was something else that made him special: He was real. The friendliness, the concern for the problems of other people, the passion for making his state better - all that wasn't just a façade that Westlund erected to impress voters. It was who Ben Westlund was.

Elected to the state Legislature in 1996, Westlund at first was pretty much your standard-issue Republican - a supporter of small government and tax cuts, an opponent of social programs, regulation and gay rights.

Most young politicians start out as idealists and turn into cynics; Ben Westlund moved in the opposite direction after he got to Salem. As he learned more about the problems and pain of his fellow Oregonians - people going without medical care, kids being abused, families living in their cars - his compassion took fire. The experience caused him to "change my understanding of the world," he once told an Oregonian reporter.

"Over the years I worked in the Legislature, I saw plenty of members go from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader," said Greg Chaimov, former chief legislative counsel. "Ben was one of the few who traveled that path in reverse."

In 2003, Westlund was diagnosed with lung cancer. Upon his return to the legislature after surgery he gave an impassioned speech pleading with his colleagues to reform the state's archaic tax system. "Oregon is facing its own life and death struggle, and it's not up to some gifted surgeon to save her - it is up to us," he told them.

The legislators didn't listen, but Westlund kept trying to be heard. Moving up to the state Senate, he increasingly found himself fighting his fellow Republicans on issues from gay rights to tax policy to environmental protection. In 2006 he officially broke with the party to run for governor as an independent. The following year he completed the transformation and became a Democrat; in 2008 he was elected state treasurer.

Last Sunday the cancer that Westlund had been fighting for seven years finally won, taking his life at age 60. In his too-brief career, Westlund racked up impressive achievements: improving the Oregon Health Plan, creating the Oregon Cultural Trust, establishing a state "rainy day" fund, bringing OSU-Cascades to Central Oregon and putting the Oregon College Savings Plan back on a solid footing.

But after they can no longer recite the list of his achievements, Oregonians - especially Central Oregonians - will remember Ben Westlund the man. As he said at the conclusion of that memorable speech in 2003: "Colleagues, nothing survives but the way we live our lives." We'll miss you, Ben. Catch you down the trail.

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