Former Gov. Vic Atiyeh remembered for leadership

SALEM, Ore. — When Vic Atiyeh was running for governor in 1978, a campaign consultant advised him that Oregon voters were in the mood for oatmeal.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who recalled the story Wednesday at a public memorial service, said that’s not typically how a politician wants to be portrayed.

“And yet,” Walden said of his fellow Republican. “Vic was oatmeal. Darn good oatmeal. Competent. Effective. And very good for the state. A healthy choice for what Oregonians needed during a very difficult time.”

Walden was among a who’s who of Oregon politicians who crowded the House chamber at the state Capitol to remember the nation’s first Arab-American governor and the last Republican to hold the job in Oregon.

Atiyeh died in July at age 91. His family held a private burial shortly after his death, and Wednesday’s service gave the public a chance to say goodbye.

Both of Oregon’s U.S. senators attended the service, as did four of five congressional representatives. Gov. John Kitzhaber was there along with every former governor except Neil Goldschmidt.

Atiyeh, the governor from 1979 until 1987, was known for establishing trading ties with Asia while shepherding the state through a severe recession and dealing with the Rajneesh cult in Central Oregon.

State Sen. Jackie Winters, who served as Atiyeh’s ombudsman, said she never saw Atiyeh more angry than after a cross-burning incident in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie. The son of a Syrian immigrant responded by sponsoring one of the earlier anti-hate crime bills in the U.S.

“Nothing defiles humanity as much as outrageous acts of racism,” Atiyeh said at the time.

Atiyeh grew up in Portland and played guard for the University of Oregon football team. He turned down an offer to play for the Green Bay Packers to take over his family’s rug business.

He entered politics in the Oregon Legislature. The desk on the House floor where Atiyeh sat as a representative carried his name Wednesday, along with a photo and a red-and-white flower display. The same was done on the floor of the Senate, where Atiyeh served two terms.

He lost his first run for governor in 1974 to Democrat Bob Straub — the only election in which he was defeated. He challenged Straub again four years later and won, taking office in 1979 as Oregon underwent what was then its most severe recession since the Great Depression.

Although Atiyeh won on a platform of cutting taxes, he wound up raising them because of the recession. He also cut his own salary to help balance the budget.

Speakers noted a bipartisanship, kindness and civility within Atiyeh that’s become increasingly rare in the age of the Internet and 24-7 news-and-talk cycle.

Former Gov. Barbara Roberts, a Democrat, was in the Legislature when Atiyeh was in office. She remembers the tough choices he made to balance the budget, taking actions that pleased neither party. A staunch Democrat, she acknowledged often quoting party stalwarts like John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“However, the person I quote the most frequently in speeches is Gov. Victor Atiyeh,” she said.

Atiyeh was a frequent traveler, not only on trade missions to Asia, but to county fairs and town hall meetings in every corner of the state.

Roberts marveled at his popularity after leaving office, saying: “Oregon never forgot him because he never forgot Oregonians.”

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