Oregon Senators Face New Foes
As state's population and industry shift, its liberal Republicans must strengthen alliances. OLD GUARD, NEW TIMES
ASHLAND, ORE. — FOR more than two decades, Oregon has been represented in the United States Senate by a pair of maverick Republicans: Mark Hatfield, who on weapons and war is as dovish as any liberal Democrat. And Bob Packwood, the darling of the pro-choice movement who fought for women's right to abortion when much of his party was kowtowing to the New Right. Now, the two are in major fights - Mr. Hatfield defending his reputation, Mr. Packwood protecting his future. Both situations illustrate the changing political nature of the state as Oregon shifts from rural to urban, from resource industries to high tech, from natives to newcomers.
Hatfield is a deeply religious man known for his principled stands. He is allied with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts in trying to stop nuclear-weapons testing, and he stood virtually alone among GOP lawmakers in opposing President Bush's policy in the Persian Gulf. But lately the man some call "St. Mark" has begun to see his "halo tarnished," as a local headline writer put it recently.
He failed to report $9,300 in gifts (art objects) from the former president of the University of South Carolina, given at a time when Hatfield was in a key position to approve a $16.3 million federal grant to the institution. Around this time, too, the senator's son was given a full scholarship by the university president.
That revelation preceded reports that the Oregon Health Services University in Portland (to which Hatfield had helped funnel $90 million over the years) had admitted the lawmaker's daughter under a special program for medical students. There was little doubt that Elizabeth Hatfield Keller (a registered nurse) was qualified for medical school. But two members of the university's admissions committee resigned over the incident.
"If it were just about any other politician, the reaction would have been that it's a routine fly ball," says Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch. "But with Hatfield, there's this rather jarring discontinuity between the public image of rectitude that he has and these recent developments."
These reports also remind Oregonians that Hatfield had an earlier ethical brush. In 1984, his wife received $55,000 in "real estate services" from a Greek financier looking for Senate help in promoting a trans-Africa oil pipeline. The senator was cleared of wrongdoing, but the Hatfields donated the money to charity.
Unlike many senators, Hatfield is not a millionaire; he thus defends his heavy reliance on speaking fees from special interests and on campaign contributions from political-action committees.
Hatfield, who is said to feel he's been the target of unfair piling-on by the news media, is back in Oregon this week to defend his reputation and to explain how he intends to change his policy on accepting gifts.
Packwood, meanwhile, has been amassing a very large reelection war chest in anticipation of what is expected to be one of the heaviest Democratic attacks next year. This strategy of "campaign fund-raising as intimidation," as one close observer calls it, is intended to discourage both Democratic congressmen like Peter DeFazio and any third-party or independent candidate.
In last year's gubernatorial race, Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer (R) lost to Secretary of State Barbara Roberts in a three-way race that saw conservative votes siphoned off by anti-abortion activist Al Mobely.
To prevent a replay of that scenario, Packwood reportedly has made a deal with the conservative Oregon Citizens Alliance: The pro-choice senator will funnel campaign contributions to the organization and the group won't run a candidate against him. Meanwhile, Packwood is nurturing his close ties to the National Abortion Rights Action League.
And the senator, to separate himself from any likely Democratic challenger, also has been loudly trumpeting his support for George Bush's policy in the Gulf in contrast to Oregon lawmakers who voted against the war.
Both Packwood and Hatfield, according to The Almanac of American Politics, are notable for their "considerable intellect, character, and distinctive views." As senior Republicans (respectively) on the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committees, they carry substantial political weight.
But there's another problem: Oregon is not only growing at a healthy clip, says Professor Lunch, but "one type of Oregonian is leaving and another kind is coming in." Computer programmers and engineers are replacing loggers and millworkers; as natives increasingly move out-of-state for schooling or jobs, retirees (especially Californians) move in. One indicator of the changing political climate: After 16 years in Congress Rep. Les AuCoin (D) this month shucked "the ideological straitjacket that a Nation al Rifle Association seal of approval can be" and pronounced support for gun control.
The demographic changes mean that Hatfield's and Packwood's reservoir of goodwill and widespread recognition among voters has to be replenished. Hatfield had a tough reelection fight last year. Packwood obviously is taking no chances for 1992.
During the Easter break, both senators have been touring the state - reminding voters of their clout back in Washington and their independence in contrast to "typical" politicians. That message, they hope, will keep them effective - and in office.