Vic Atiyeh, Oregon's last Republican governor, dies at 91

PORTLAND Vic Atiyeh, Oregon's last Republican governor who shepherded the state through a deep recession during two terms in the 1980s, died Sunday night, a family spokesman said.

The former governor died at 8:15 p.m. PDT at Portland's Providence St. Vincent Medical Center of complications from renal failure, said Denny Miles, who had formerly served as Atiyeh's press secretary.

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He said that Atiyeh was at home but had returned to the hospital Saturday due to shortness of breath and possible internal bleeding.

The son of a Syrian immigrant, Atiyeh 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, then ran for governor and won on a platform of cutting taxes. He wound up raising taxes because of the recession, but was also remembered for cutting his own salary as governor three times to help balance the budget.

Read Vic Atiyeh's biography in the Oregon Blue Book. An excerpt from his inaugural address:

Oregonians, like their fellow Americans, see a government becoming increasingly preoccupied with the form of government, rather than its substance.

Where they have asked for justice, for opportunity, for security and for health, they have been given departments, commissions and bureaus bearing those names. Too often their cries have been smothered under a crust of elitists in government who cogitate, regulate and promulgate form behind soundproof walls. Where once our people asked government to stand by their side, today they ask government simply to stand aside.

The cardinal sin of government in our times has been an arrogant assumption that all wisdom resides in it, and the conceit that government can dictate this people s wants. It has been well said that government is the art of the possible, and I say to you that it is possible for government to act effectively only where it acts in harmony with its people s Where it acts in discord, government invites rebellious backlash, ad perhaps worse, the terrible silent rebellion of apathy.

Atiyeh lamented the poor roll of the dice that made him governor during a recession.

I don't want to sound defensive about it, but what you get is criticism during the period when times are bad, and then when times become good, it's just the nature of things, Atiyeh told an interviewer days before leaving office.

More: The Victor Atiyeh Collection at Pacific University

More: Polictical writer Jeff Mapes' Vic Atiyeh obituary

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber said Atiyeh was both a mentor and a friend, calling him a great Oregonian, an historic governor, and a remarkable human being.

Kitzhaber added: He will be greatly missed, yet his steady leadership, gentle spirit, and love for our state lives on in the many contributions he made to Oregon.

House Republican Leader Mike McLane said the former governor was the epitome of a public servant.

He was our example, McLane said. He will be missed by all of us.

Atiyeh, a mainstream Republican who championed small state government and allowing citizens to be left alone, lost his first run for governor in 1974 to Democrat Bob Straub. 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.

The state jumped from among the fastest growing in the country to one with a dwindling population as environmental regulations helped doom the once-mighty timber industry.

He championed a significant tax cut plan that included both a rebate and a permanent reduction. Within a year, as the recession took hold, some supporters of Atiyeh's tax plans had buyer's remorse as the state budget took a hit.

Atiyeh pushed Oregon's universities away from forestry, mining and agriculture to electrical engineering and international trade, and slightly boosted their budgets. The increase came partly at the cost of primary education, driving a wedge between Atiyeh and state teachers unions.

After a bruising campaign, Atiyeh defeated Ted Kulongoski, then a state senator, to be re-elected by 62 percent in 1982.

Atiyeh made frequent trips around Oregon, and was proud of having visited every county fair and every city in Oregon as governor.

His work on the environment evolved during his career. As a state senator, he sat on committees that drafted the state's clean air and water acts. But as governor, he supported timber interests in contentious debates about protections for spotted owls. He opposed any reduction in the acres of timber land open to logging.

In 1981, he reversed an earlier position to endorse a federal role in the Columbia Gorge, and together with former Sen. Mark O. Hatfield lobbied President Ronald Reagan to sign the National Scenic Area legislation.

Confined by term limits, he left in 1987 with little goodwill left to help elect another Republican. Democrat Neil Goldschmidt gleefully compared Republican rival Norma Paulus to the unpopular Atiyeh, winning the election on the slogan, the same old Salem crowd.

To this day, Oregon hasn't elected another Republican to the governor's office.

After leaving office, Atiyeh retired, working part-time as a business consultant. He was a golfer, fly fisherman and collector of guns and memorabilia from the 1805 Lewis and Clark expedition.

For much of his life, he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and carried an elegant gold lighter.

Atiyeh married high school sweetheart Dolores in 1944. The couple had a daughter, Suzanne, and son, Thomas.


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