It's a Contest Between Two Millionaires in Race For Oregon's Senate Seat

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Perched out in the Pacific Northwest, with more wildlife and cattle than people, Oregon doesn't usually make a lot of national electoral news.

But the state's congressional contests this year include replacing two of the country's most senior lawmakers - perhaps along with one of its most junior. And with an unusual amount of political and personal drama, two of the three races have involved serious ethical issues.

The results of this week's primary also indicate that the Democrats may have an opportunity to pick up a House seat in Congress. But in the Senate race, frozen-food tycoon Gordon Smith, who easily captured the Republican primary, is favored to win.

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In any case, 57 years of combined seniority in the Senate will be replaced by two neophyte federal lawmakers. Republican Bob Packwood already has been forced out by sexual and official misconduct, replaced in a special January election by former congressman Ron Wyden (D).

Mr. Packwood, Oregon's "junior" senator (with 27 years' seniority) was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. The state's senior senator (with 30 years on Capitol Hill) is Mark Hatfield (R), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Between them, Packwood and Mr. Hatfield were in charge of raising and spending federal dollars - considerable clout for a state with barely 3 million people. Hatfield's name adorns public works projects around Oregon, including a marine sciences center on the coast and a natural history museum here in the state's southern mountains. Just this week, he took partial credit for President Clinton's sending $186 million in emergency flood relief to Oregon.

But Hatfield is retiring, and the race to replace him involves two millionaires - one of whom lost the recent contest over Packwood's seat by a razor-thin margin.

Mr. Smith, president of the state Senate and owner of a family food-processing business, is well-known in Oregon. He will run against Democrat Tom Bruggere, a political novice who made a fortune with his computer-software company.

Having just won a hard-fought statewide campaign that left his reputation and stature intact, Smith is the favorite at this point. He may have been helped this week by the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn a Colorado law perceived as anti-gay rights.

In the past, Smith had accepted the backing of the conservative Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA). Although he has since distanced himself from that organization (in fact, its leader ran against Smith in the primary), the OCA is making its third attempt to get a measure on the ballot here that would limit gay rights. This week's court decision just about eliminates the chance that this measure - potentially an embarrassment to Smith - will go to the voters.

Meanwhile, freshman Rep. Wes Cooley (R) faces a string of ethical questions raised in recent months over his academic record (he was not a member of Phi Beta Kappa as his campaign literature claimed); his military record (he was not a combatant in the Korean War as he had indicated); the conduct of his business (failure to get permits and inspections); late child-support payment; and whether or not he resided in his state legislative district.

The most serious charge centers on whether he and his second wife misrepresented their marital status in a way that enabled her to keep receiving federal benefits as the widow of a military pilot who had died in a crash.

The rural Oregon lawmaker won himself no public relations points when he threatened to clobber an obviously pregnant newspaper reporter. So far, he has avoided answering the charges in detail. He promises to face the press here in his district next week.

Republican leaders have hinted that Representative Cooley needs to thoroughly rebut the charges or step down as the GOP candidate. His district - spread over millions of acres of mostly ranch and timber land - has been in Republican hands for years.

The tally from Tuesday's Republican primary, in which Cooley faced no opposition, indicated an unusually high "undervote" - ballots left blank or with another name written in. Whether or not Cooley withdraws, this may be the best chance in a long time for Democrats - with a respected district attorney as their candidate - to reclaim the seat.

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