Big Boss Man: From home builder to state representative to county commissioner, Dennis Luke has left his mark on Deschutes County | Local News | Bend | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

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Big Boss Man: From home builder to state representative to county commissioner, Dennis Luke has left his mark on Deschutes County



Imagine the Flintstones without Fred, Smith without Wesson, Bo without Luke. And for anyone who has been around county government for the last ten years, Deschutes County without Dennis Luke. Just a few years ago it seemed like an unlikely proposition, but the senior statesman will preside over his last meeting sometime in December. With another run at office unlikely for the 64-year-old Luke, it could be the final chapter in his political career, which began almost 20 years ago and included three terms as an Oregon legislator and ten years as a Deschutes County commissioner.

After losing to a political newcomer from within his own party in the May primary, Luke is now staring improbably at an early retirement, at least by his standards. A consummate conservative who continually frustrated some of the more liberal elements of the community on issues like land use and the environment, Luke could be an enigma. Derided by some critics as a member of the good old boy club (he was president of the Oregon Home Builders Association before he served as a state legislator), Luke is at the same time a stickler for public process and government accountability. He was an unabashed supporter of destination resorts who once lobbied for the creation of a contentious resort at Smith Rock that was ultimately vetoed by then-governor John Kitzhaber. Yet it was Luke who cast the lone no-vote on perhaps the biggest resort proposal to date, the massive Thornburgh Resort at Cline Buttes. A "pro-business" conservative who's partially responsible for the lack of builders' fees in rural Deschutes County, Luke has, nonetheless, managed to keep county government in the black while the city of Bend hemorrhages red ink and sheds staff.

Luke's legacy is a complicated one, but his mark on county government over the past decade is indisputable. His mastery of politics and policy is unparalleled, even if it hasn't always made him the most popular politician, among the public or his peers. That's fine with Luke who has always been more about policy than public perception. However, those who know and have worked with Luke say his sometimes rough exterior unfairly overshadows a more compassionate side. Luke, in fact, cites his work with troubled youth as a founder and board member of the Oregon Youth Challenge in Deschutes County as one of his most significant accomplishments.

Dennis is pretty unique. When you first meet him he may appear kind of gruff and standoffish, but you get to know him and it's kind of just an outer shell," said former county administrator Mike Maier.

Within his comfort zone, which includes the entire county offices and any public meeting where he's holding the gavel, Luke is quick with a smile and a wry crack - oftentimes aimed at his fellow commissioners. Maier, who retired five years ago but spent more than 25 years as the Deschutes County administrator, said it took some time for Luke to develop that sense of comfort with staff. The age and years in office have softened some of Luke's harder edges, which has endeared him to some of the staff who now know Luke to be a staunch defender of their work.

"He used to treat people like they were a bunch of framers," said Maier, referring to Luke's time as a homebuilder. "It was, 'You do this and you do that.' And it was a carry over into government and it was a transition that Dennis made over time. He learned that you don't treat people like framers."

Luke came by his construction mentality honestly. He's a fourth generation carpenter and builder who dropped out of college at Oregon State University to work in the homebuilding business in Corvallis. He eventually started his own contracting business and, on the advice of a friend moved to Deschutes County in the 1970s. Luke spent three decades building homes and commercial properties around Central Oregon, including Bend, Sunriver and Crooked River Ranch. It was his experience as a builder that led to his first foray into government when he was elected the president of the Central Oregon Builders Association and eventually Oregon Home Builders. It was that position that gave him his first taste of the legislative process, both locally and in Salem.

But it was another prominent politician who ultimately prodded Luke to take the plunge. Luke recalls that he got the call in 1992 from then state Sen. Bev Clarno, asking him to run for Bend's house seat. He ran against another former Deschutes County Commissioner, Barry Slaughter, that November and won. Luke served three terms in the Statehouse before term-limiting out. It was during Luke's tenure in the Legislature that he became interested in transportation and land use issues, areas that have continued to command his attention as a county commissioner. However, Luke says the biggest thing that he took from his time in the Legislature was the importance of having a broad network of contacts and understanding how the system works. Luke learned quickly that it's not just what you know, but who you know. And it's not just what you want, but how you ask for it that determines your effectiveness.

"When people came to me they knew that I didn't necessarily have the answer, but I knew who to call," Luke said.

He cites the recent example of a complaint surrounding the use of the La Pine Senior Center by a state agency. According to Luke, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality had organized a meeting at the Senior Center, a gathering that could be interpreted as a violation of the terms of the federal grant that was used to construct the center. Under the terms of that grant, the use of the center is limited to activities for seniors, Luke said. That didn't seem to make much sense to Luke who knew that the state was paying for its use of the building. He picked up the phone and called Rep. Greg Walden's office in Medford. Walden, who served as the Oregon House majority leader while Luke was in Salem, didn't take long to get back to Luke with an answer. According to Walden's staff, the state was interpreting the federal guidelines too strictly. Problem solved.

"I didn't do anything," said Luke. "Oh well, kind of I did," says Luke in a sort of typical fashion in which he's quick to point out his essential role in some happening or another, then feign modesty before again claiming credit.

But credit is due where credit is due and plenty of people give Luke credit for putting the county on a solid footing both administratively and financially over the past decade. Former commission colleague Mike Daly gives Luke accolades for pushing the county to create a rainy day reserve and keeping a lid on discretionary spending during the halcyon days of the building boom when revenue was pouring into Deschutes County and other jurisdictions were spending liberally on things like master plans for high-tech parks and downtown real estate. Now, on the other side of the boom, the city of Bend is faced with the prospect of yet another round of staff cuts and is staring down the barrel of an ever-widening budget shortfall. The county, though not without its challenges, is faring much better thanks to its more austere approach that Luke insisted upon over the last decade.

"Dennis was a stickler for getting these reserves that the county has in these tough times," said Daly, whom despite his own conservative credentials, admitted that he, at times, had some other ideas about how to use that money.

"But putting money back and saving it for the future is paying off," Daly added.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing for the two commissioners during their overlapping terms. To the contrary, the pair - despite being cut from the same conservative cloth - often clashed, with Luke sometimes publicly and privately deriding Daly in his typically biting fashion.

"There were a couple of times that we had some screaming matches in the office. I can think of some heavy discussions that broke out of the room we were in," Daly said.

For his part, Daly said he has no hard feelings toward his former colleague. He said that he respected the fact that he and Luke could continue to work together productively despite their differences.

"I look back and I have respect for Dennis - for his knowledge and abilities. He did know government and how it worked. And he had some really good ideas," Daly said.

Those who have known and worked with Luke over the past few decades know that it's part of the package. You get the wealth of knowledge, but also his unvarnished opinions on just about any topic of your choosing.

"He's a Type A personality for sure," said wife Joanne Luke.

But there's another side of Luke that Joanne says not everyone sees. She and Dennis met as undergraduate students at Oregon State University. She was a third generation Central Oregonian whose grandfather drove a wagon train from Shaniko to Deschutes County during the wool mill era. On campus, in the early 1960s, Dennis was tutoring some young women in Joanne's dormitory. But they first spoke at a dance at the student union. Joanne had gone by herself, but Dennis spotted her and soon approached, asking her dance. They spent the night dancing and talking. He walked her home to her dorm, pausing at the crosswalks and exchanging places so he would walk between her and the direction of traffic, as gentlemen once did for ladies. Joanne said it didn't dawn on her until later what he was doing.

"I grew up on a dairy farm. I didn't know," she said with a laugh during a recent interview.

She realized later the significance of the gesture. They've been married for 42 years now. Much has changed during that time, but Dennis remains the consummate gentleman, said Joanne. To this day he goes out of his way to walk unaccompanied women safely to their cars after public events at places like the Riverhouse, she said. He also listens and hears what other people are saying and not just while he's presiding over a hearing. Joanne said it's not uncommon for Dennis to surprise her with a gift on a special occasion that catches her off guard because it was something that she mentioned only in passing months before.

"He listens and he remembers that stuff," she said.

It is Luke's ability to listen and understand that has sometimes earned him friends in unlikely places. When Luke lost the May primary, one of the people who sent him a note was local land use attorney Paul Dewey, a man who has been at odds with many of the policies crafted by Luke and the county staff.

Dewey is quick to point out that he and Luke don't necessarily share the same values when it comes to land use and conservation, particularly with regard to rural development. However, Dewey said he always respected Luke's expertise, his thoroughness and his ability to think through complicated issues - even if they came to different conclusions.

"He's always been the one who knew more about the land use system - the underlying policies as well as the requirements - than any other commissioner. So I learned right away, you better be prepared for him."

While it's been a necessarily adversarial relationship at times, there's also been a grudging respect that has emerged from their interactions. That probably shouldn't come as a great surprise. After all, they're a couple of policy junkies who speak the same language, even if they translate it differently.

"I could tell that he was understanding or could at least appreciate the arguments I was raising," Dewey said. "He was somebody that I could present a theory to and assume he understood it. He may not agree with it... but Dennis understood the system. So it was a matter of persuading him."

Looking forward, Luke said he isn't sure how he will put some of that expertise to work. He's been approached about representing some the local interest groups in Salem because of his contacts in the Statehouse. But he eschews the idea of becoming a regular around the Capitol.

"Lobbyist is such a dirty word," said Luke with a chuckle.

In the short term, he plans on traveling back East to see his son, who serves in the Navy, and his grandchildren. Next year, he'll play some more golf and get his fishing boat out more on the local lakes. He doesn't see himself returning to contracting, either. Ideally, he sees himself overseeing a small non-profit or trade organization, similar to his former role with the builders. Such a job would help him put to use his planning skills, strategic expertise and extensive Rolodex of contacts.

"I like building things and not necessarily houses. There will be things to do." Luke said.

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