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Opinion » Editorial

Vic Atiyeh: The gold standard

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Perhaps it is overly romantic nostalgia to think that politicians were once more fair and balanced, and that they once followed their hearts more than their party lines. But even if that is a rose-colored look at the past, it only makes Vic Atiyeh an even more remarkable politician—and man. The state's governor from 1979 to 1987, Atiyeh died on Sunday at the age 91. It is worth noting that like Tom McCall, who preceded him by one term, Atiyeh was Republican. (Yes, McCall, arguably the person in Oregon most responsible for land conservation and environmental sensitivities, via the Bottle Bill, was a Republican.)

Although over the course of the state's 160-year history, the balance between Republican and Democrats has been pretty even (20 versus 21), Atiyeh's term that ended in 1987 was the last time a Republican sat in the governor's office. Atiyeh's party affiliation is important to note because Atiyeh was not necessarily defined by his party affiliation, at least not in the way that current politicians are.

Atiyeh was the type of politician so sorely missing in the era of Tea Party extremes and political retaliations, like petty bridge closures (e.g., Chris Christie): Yes, Atiyeh was decidedly a Republican, but he was a leader instead of following the party line or being enslaved to its ideals. For example, while he did lead the legislature in cutting welfare, a move his contemporary Republican leaders like Ronald Reagan favored, he also pushed to create the Oregon Food Bank, the first such state-wide food bank in the country. He also was first and foremost reasonable; as fiscally conservative as any other Republican, he looked at the reality of his constituents' lives rather than keeping his eye on party approval. During his tenure, working with Democrats, he hiked cigarette taxes and curbed business tax deductions to help fund state programs.

Atiyeh was a class apart from the current spate of Republican governors, most notably New Jersey's Chris Christie and Wisconsin's Scott Walker, who have favored antagonistic fights and handing out favors to party lackeys rather than shaping policy to favor the entire population.

That is not to say Atiyeh did not make mistakes: He did. When he took office, the state budget was benefiting from a record $600 million surplus. In that context, he approved a legislatively-driven tax relief program, which included the short-sighted idea to slash some property taxes by 30 percent. But when the economy soured the very year after he took office, that decision crimped cash flow. In 1980, the state's budget was nearly $700 million short. Atiyeh was not too proud to defend his decision, and accepted responsibility to shepherd the state's elected officials through some of Oregon's worst economic times—and he did so with dignity and integrity.

It is those qualities, not his political victories, that are lasting—and it is for that reason that Atiyeh stands as the gold standard for how a politician—Democrat or Republican—should represent both his own ideals and beliefs, as well as the interest of all citizens. "We need to nurture, protect and respect how important each and every one of us is in a system of government," he once said, and those words are now memorialized on a plaque at the Portland airport.

Since leaving office in 1987, Atiyeh has roundly been considered one of the state's most upstanding and fair governors and, in the days after his death, those sentiments were reaffirmed. Current Gov. John Kitzhaber referred to him as a "mentor and friend." In a TV interview, Gov. Barbara Roberts said he was a "gentleman," and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek released a press statement gushing that "Oregon has lost a true statesman," sprinkling the statement with words like "integrity," "steady," and "fairness."

And, it is worth noting that those are all Democrats singing his praise.

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