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.

Courtesy of Jason Atkinson
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.

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.

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.

“We’d just come off some extremely contentious debates where Republicans completely belittled the Democrats in campaign ads, and Democrats did scare-tactic campaigning stuff,” going so far as to put cross-hairs on abortion doctors and to suggest what electing Republicans would lead to, Atkinson remembers.

“I called both sides on the carpet,” he says. “The fallout was amazing.”

His office filled with hate mail, even threats.

“I actually had to have the sheriff park outside our home for about six weeks,” he remembers. “Almost all of the anger came from my party, and I was just dumbfounded. ‘Did you guys not listen? What’s the deal?’ But that’s politics. It’s sad, but that’s politics.”

So you’d think anyone with Atkinson’s “rebellious or romantic” idea of public service would give it up.

“I just believe in being in the arena,” he says. “It costs huge amounts of opportunity for me … but it’s done good things. I guess believing in it for me is enough.”

And it’s that word, he thinks, we need more of in our national political conversation -- not just for civility, but for the politicians themselves to do the job that we choose them to do.

“If you look at politics right now,” he says, “whoever’s running for whatever, they’re not enough. They’re not conservative enough, they’re not moderate enough, they’re not environmental enough, they don’t have enough experience. Whatever it is, they’re not enough. And if you’re not careful, those are traps for the candidate, on a personal level after the campaign is over.”

So what does it take to overcome those traps? How much, really, is enough?

Atkinson says it isn’t very much it all.

“My premise is that 10 percent holds the other 90 percent together,” he insists. He’s been running an experiment on this idea for almost a decade, asking students at the end a graduate seminar he teaches to agree or disagree with his premise.

“It’s the easiest pass/fail you’ll ever have,” he laughs. “But if you write yes, you have to tell me who they are.”

Almost all of his students say yes – and almost none of them list a politician the rest of us have ever heard of.

“It’s almost never the grand-standers or the people who would sell their own mother for a headline,” he says. “There is a 10 percent, and I would bet no one’s ever heard of them.”

Jason Atkinson blogs about public service at therecoveringpolitician.com.

Jina Moore met Atkinson at ACT II, a conference of AGLN alumni, on a trip to Aspen, Colo., whose airfare and accommodations were financed by the AGLN.

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