Profile: Bud Pierce, doctor indomitable

SALEM, Ore. -- It’s 5:30 a.m. on a fall morning and Bud Pierce is already whizzing around Salem Health hospital. The oncologist has patients to see and he is wasting no time.

Pierce, 60, wearing a tie and white lab coat, climbs stairs two at a time, humming to himself. He walks quickly down the dark and empty hospital corridors, talking politics and medicine.

After working as a physician for more than 40 years, Pierce became a politician little more than a year ago when he declared his candidacy for Oregon governor as a Republican.

Arriving at the cancer wing of the hospital, Pierce settles in. His workstation, a far cry from the wood-paneled governor’s office, is tucked away in a corner behind the nurses’ area. A nearby window permits a glimmer of sunrise to cascade into the otherwise dark office space.

Watch: Bud Pierce on KGW's 'Straight Talk' Part 1 and Part 2

Pierce has 10 patients to see this morning. They all suffer from various forms of cancer and are reacting poorly enough to treatment that they need a hospital bed. It was his last day practicing at the hospital before taking off from medicine for nine weeks to campaign.

“I’ll be back win, lose or draw,” he said. If he wins the election, Pierce plans to return to his patients for a few months before taking the oath as governor. But for today, sick patients are on his mind.

“Running for office isn’t life or death. This is life or death,” he said.

Despite the bleak condition of many of his patients, Pierce remains optimistic — a personality trait necessary among oncologists, he said. Cancer is “a great mystery disease,” in his words, and there is an adrenaline rush that accompanies beating particularly nasty cancers into remission.

The always-busy Pierce, in the middle of recounting his journey into medicine, gets up to check on his still-sleeping patients. He walks away in mid-sentence.

With the doctor out of earshot, the nurses nearing the end of their night shifts remark in near disbelief at Pierce’s work ethic. He is the only oncologist at the hospital who dedicates time to check up on his patients twice daily, they said.

“We would greatly, greatly miss him here if he becomes governor,” said nurse manager Willie Weber. She claims to be the only nurse who can read Pierce’s scrawled handwriting, which he admits is atrocious.

Back from his rounds, Pierce sits down at a computer to update his patients’ electronic medical files. He laments that the electronic records system is clunky and requires hours to update every day. If he were governor, these kinds of systems would be scrapped from state government for something more intuitive, he said.

“Let’s see. Do we want an antibiotic for this one?” he mutters to himself.

Bud was born William C. Pierce on an air base in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father was a laborer and veteran of the Berlin Airlift. His mother, a German national, was a dental assistant at the time.

The military family eventually moved to Southern California, where Pierce’s father was reassigned to another base to work as a janitor. His mother took a job as a public school lunch lady.

Tragedy struck the family when in 1970 Pierce's father had a heart attack while driving, crashed his car and died. Pierce, who was 14 at the time, said he never found another father figure.

After high school, Pierce studied at the University of California, Riverside, and then UCLA, where in 1985 he received a doctorate in experimental pathology and a medical degree four years later.

He also enlisted in the Marines the summer before beginning medical school and served as a reservist for six years.

It was during graduate school that Pierce met Selma Moon, a dental student and daughter of Chinese immigrants who would later become his wife. The two married and shared an 850-square-foot home and moped until moving to Salem in 1993.

It was then that Pierce would become a businessman. He and a few other doctors opened a privately held cancer clinic — one of the few such operations remaining in the region.

Pierce finished with his hospital patients around 8 a.m., and since there were a few minutes to spare he sought out caffeine. He bounded down a hospital staircase and into a cafe, where he ordered a double shot of espresso, straight.

"See you at 5:30," the barista said as Pierce left the cafe. He'd be back for more espresso then.

Climbing back up the stairs — still two at a time — he drank the coffee in several gulps and tossed the cup away. Pierce says he's "immune" to the effects of caffeine and can drink espresso right before bed.

He crossed a hospital sky-bridge and into his private practice. Walking into the clinic, Pierce is greeted by his longtime personal assistant, Kelly Bellinger, who hands him a stack of medical paperwork.

“Talk to me,” he tells her.

Bellinger is like a chief of staff, making sure Pierce is prepared and on schedule. She is also the gatekeeper between Pierce and patients or their family members, who are given to calling the clinic at every sign of illness or recovery.

Pierce settled into his workstation at the clinic — a closet outfitted with a table and computer. Pinned to a bulletin board above the computer are photos of Pierce’s two yellow Labrador retrievers and a quotation from Ronald Reagan reading, "Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means."

He prefers to work here rather than the clinic's corner office, which is spacious, offers natural light and is filled with sentimental trinkets given to him by patients.

Pierce would see more than 60 outpatients before the day would end. Most were afforded no more than five minutes with the doctor, who would listen, take notes and occasionally write a prescription or order blood tests.

He said he usually sees about 40 outpatients on a normal day, but he squeezed in a few extra on this day because it was his last before the campaign sabbatical. Pierce also explained that there is a reason his clinic makes $40 million a year, and it’s because it treats so many sick people.

Despite being pressed for time, Pierce offers patients what he can, which is comfort and the truth about their health. Often that comes with a gentle touch on the wrist or shoulder, a smile or a joke.

Some of the most ill patients tell Pierce that they'll try to live long enough to vote for him. Others worry that they'll die if he is elected and can no longer treat their cancer.

In a rare moment of spare time, Pierce took an important phone call. It was Monica Wehby, another physician-turned-politician, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Jeff Merkley in 2014. She wanted to talk about Measure 97, the proposed tax that would charge corporations 2.5 percent on sales above $25 million.

"It's ill-conceived," Pierce told Wehby over the phone.

The conversation turned to Pierce's preparation for the gubernatorial debates.

"They'll hit me on I'm a rich doctor. That I don't have enough experience," he said. "I'm ready."

In the first debate, Pierce was cordial enough to Gov. Kate Brown, who was secretary of state before assuming the governorship after John Kitzhaber's resignation. The candidates threw fewer stones than their presidential counterparts.

Pierce described Brown, a Democrat, as "pleasant" and said that if he weren't running against the governor, he wouldn't have a bad word to say about her.

"She and I should have dinner after the campaign; if we're still friends, that is," he said with a smile.

It was the second debate, at the Portland City Club, where things took a turn for the worse for Pierce.

He drew boos from the crowd when answering a question about women's issues: He said educated women are not "susceptible" to domestic violence or abuse. Brown, a long-time women's advocate, responded by saying that she herself had been a victim of domestic violence.

Pierce's comment reverberated in Oregon before bouncing onto the national spotlight in The Washington Post, Yahoo News, Huffington Post and more.

He apologized several times, though in some ways he dug a deeper hole. Later, he said the negative media attention helped his name recognition among potential voters. When the comments were brought up in an endorsement interview with the Statesman Journal Editorial Board, Pierce's contorted facial expressions drew criticism online.

Three days after the gaffe, Pierce was at the Salem Municipal Airport preparing to board a private jet bound for Eastern Oregon, loaned to the campaign by Dick Withnell, a businessman and friend of his. Pierce has taken the jet roughly a dozen times to Oregon's outer corners in the hopes of courting rural voters.

For this excursion the doctor had exchanged his tie and lab coat for a flannel shirt, blue jeans and black trucker hat embroidered with "MARINE VETERAN." Selma, now retired from her dental practice, donned cowboy boots for the trip, which would take the couple and two campaign staffers to Baker City and Burns.

Once in the air, Pierce talked of what he perceives as a pressing need for family values in society. Returning "structure" to families is "our cultural struggle," he said.

Selma, sitting a row in front of her husband, turned around to offer an in-flight snack. Pierce grabbed a granola bar and turned to the economy.

"So many people seem to be out of the mainstream of our work economy," he said. Jobs is where he plans to criticize Brown, which he sees as one of her chief failures despite economic indicators improving statewide.

Pierce said he sees himself as a representation of prosperity, and Brown equity. Voters have to choose one, he said.

Suddenly, the plane began shaking in turbulent air over the Cascade Range. "It gets a little choppy up here," Pierce said with a nervous laugh.

Alarms and bells rang in the cockpit as the jet violently fishtailed among the clouds, mountaintops barely visible below.

Sitting next to Pierce was Nick Rhoten, his 25-year-old campaign manager, who with pupils widened slumped down in his seat as if preparing for the worst. After one particularly gut-wrenching bump, Rhoten's cell phone flew out of his hand and into the fuselage ceiling.

Pierce tried to seem unworried about the turbulence, which although lasting only minutes felt like an eternity. Selma slept through the ordeal.

Once safely landed in Baker City, Pierce met at the tiny airport with local cattlemen, loggers and miners — most topped with cowboy hats — along with Baker County Commissioner Bill Harvey. A table had been set up with coffee and pastries. Pierce poured himself a cup and put a $20 bill in the tip jar.

The group chatted about natural resources and the desire for limited government.

"Our local communities can support themselves. We don't need to look towards Salem to fund our roads and schools," Curtis Martin, a North Powder rancher, told Pierce.

Pierce nodded. "I know it," he said. "People rightfully feel that government has taken away their prosperity."

He's promised to spend three months living in Eastern Oregon if elected governor, and bring forth a plan to get the federal government to give back its public lands within the state — campaign promises that have piqued the interest of some rural voters.

The short flight to Burns was turbulence-free, and a clear sky revealed the vast openness of Eastern Oregon and the Wallowa Mountains.

A group of about 20 assembled to meet with Pierce at the Burns Municipal Airport, not far from where armed men took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge less than a year ago.

The group at the airport were men and women with rosy, wind-swept faces and strong hands callused from working the land. They, too, wanted to talk about the federal government and land management, prompting Pierce, who had taken a seat in a rocking chair, to ask that questions be limited to policies the governor actually has power over.

They wanted to know his stance on the proposed national monument in the Owyhee Canyonlands. (He's opposed to it, but it's ultimately up to the president.) His take on environmental regulations. (They should be written by the people whom they would affect.) His stance on federal government overreach. (There's not much a governor can do about that.)

Pierce told the group that he'd be a governor who listens to rural voices and heed their pleas, which more often than not are for the government and outsiders to leave them alone.

Tim Smith, a patriarch among the group, handed Pierce a spreadsheet outlining a plan to get him elected. Win all the Republican voters in Oregon's 2nd Congressional District and Pierce could end up governor, Smith told him.

"It's going to take people who believe," Smith said to the group. "We've got a real shot here."

Pierce wasn’t a political person for most of his life. He has voted for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Ross Perot, and only became a Republican in 1998 to vote for Jackie Winters, now a state senator from Salem. His experience with the state Legislature is limited mostly to the time he spent as head of the Oregon Medical Association, which had an interest in what was going on at the Capitol.

But in recent years Pierce has become fed up with what he perceives as government inefficiencies and regulatory burdens. He said state government is bleeding money at the seams with unneeded programs and bulky, obsolete processes. His proposed budget calls for cutting 15,000 state employees.

In declaring his candidacy for governor, Pierce also wanted to show that anyone can run for office. The irony of that statement is not lost on him; Pierce and Selma have spent more than $1.5 million of their personal finances on the campaign.

By running for governor, Pierce also saw an opportunity to lift up the ailing Oregon Republican Party, which has failed to get a governor elected since Vic Atiyeh won in 1982.

“The Republican Party has given up. The candidates have given up. The people have given up. In a representative democracy, we need a strong challenger party,” he said. “I mean, honestly, you have to either come up with a new message or keep losing.”

Pierce maintains that he's not a dogmatist as a politician, and he doesn't believe in micromanagement as a businessman. Processes should serve people, he said, not bog them down.

“I’m traditional. I like freedom,” he said of his politics. “I want people to be who they are and how they are.”

Send questions, comments or news tips to gfriedman2@statesmanjournal.com or 503-399-6653. Follow on Twitter @GordonRFriedman.

Bud Pierce

Age: 60, born in Germany
Family: Married to Selma Pierce, two children
Pets: Two Labrador retrievers
Education: UC Riverside, UC Los Angeles. Doctorate in experimental pathology and medical degree
Work experience: U.S. Marine, businessman and private practice cancer physician, head of the Oregon Medical Association
Measure 97: Opposes
Political funding: Primarily self-funded
Position on ballot measures:

Measure 94, remove requirement that judges retire at 75: Yes
Measure 95, allow universities to invest in stocks: Yes
Measure 96: Put 1.5 of lottery proceeds towards veterans’ services: Yes
Measure 97, business tax: No
Measure 98, funding for dropout prevention and shop class: Yes
Measure 99, outdoor schools: Yes
Measure 100, ban sale of products made from endangered species: Yes
Key issues:

K-12 education reform
Rural poverty
Homelessness

Top contributors:

1. Selma Pierce, $649,763

2. Bud Pierce, $617, 862

3. Bonaventure Senior Living, $60,000

4. Doctors for Healthy Communities PAC, $50,000

5. Evergreen Biopower LLC., $50,000

Source: Oregon Secretary of State

 

 


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