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Jason Atkinson seeks to place public service above partisanship

'We have to turn off ... the idea that I am right, and you are evil,' the Oregon politician says.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / August 31, 2011

Oregon state Sen. Jason Atkinson seeks to tone down partisan politics. 'My premise is that 10 percent [of people] holds the other 90 percent together,' he says.

Courtesy of Jason Atkinson

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There’s something unnervingly genuine about Jason Atkinson. Unnerving because he’s a politician – once a member of the Oregon House of Representatives, today a member of its Senate, in between a determined but failed candidate for governor – but he doesn’t sound anything like one.

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His speech lacks curated sound bites, and he tends to talk about solving problems, rather than who’s to blame for them.

This could be subjective. I met Mr. Atkinson only once; we had several conversations over four days this summer at the Aspen Global Leadership Network’s ACT II conference. (The AGLN paid for my travel and accommodations.)

He is an Oregonian, and I’m an East Coaster, far more comfortable with irony than sincerity.

But with all the blather on cable news, what explains his reasons for practicing politics in a time of intense partisanship like this?

“I used to tell people that I was the guy who actually believed the commencement speech,” he says.

Atkinson, a Republican, has taken some stands considered controversial in Oregon political circles; by his account, that’s at least in part because he thinks of public service before politics. For a long time, these were important but mostly invisible battles guys like him waged in their hearts and souls – or in the proverbial back rooms where political deals are cut.

That changed, for Atkinson, in January, when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona was shot at a “town hall” style meeting. Atkinson knew Ms. Giffords – the two had been in the inaugural class of the ALGN’s Rodel Fellowship in Public Service.

He also knew what it means to recover from being shot; a friend’s gun had accidentally gone off, sending a bullet into his leg, and he nearly bled to death.

Atkinson spearheaded an editorial, signed by his Rodel Fellowship class. “We know that democracy demands vigorous and honest debate. And we know that neither violence nor the threat of violence has any place in that debate,” they wrote.

But Atkinson had more to say. He delivered a speech on the Senate floor accusing both parties of incivility and trying to chart a way forward.

"We have to turn off the national appetite for bad news," Atkinson said in his speech, "the idea that I am right, and you are evil."
It was a message he thought Oregon really needed.

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