Here's the Real Legacy of Governor Tom McCall
Jim Pasero, Guest Opinion
Portland Business Journal: May 24, 2013, 3:00am PDT
He told the reporter that when he began writing the book, “Fire atEden’s Gate,” in the mid 1990s, McCall’s reputation inOregonwasn’t that great. Walth thought the public was beginning to forget McCall’s very real accomplishments — cleaning up our rivers, establishing our land-use system, enacting the nation’s first bottle bill, being a steward of the land and, above all, putting environmental protection ahead of economic growth.
Well, McCall’s reputation took a strong turn for the better last month on the 100th anniversary of his birth. TheOregonmedia came close to canonizing the former governor, leaving no polished stone unturned and no accomplishment unsung.
But there is another side to the McCall legacy besides just being an iconicOregonfigure that put the state on the national map for many and all things progressive. It has to do with our state’s long-term and structural economic decline.
PostwarOregoneconomic history divides neatly into four eras: Two eras of outward economic growth resembling the national model are layered between two eras of a more insular progressivism whereOregon’s uniqueness is especially emphasized.
• Era One: PostwarOregon, fueled byOregon’s timber industry, boomed from 1945 until the McCall/Straub governorships (1967-79).
• Era Two: McCall changed the state’s conversation, maybe even its ethos, when he told a national audience, via CBS reporter Terry Drinkwater, his views on conservation: “Come visit us again and again, but for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.”
But the McCall/Straub era came to a close in economic ruin, as the unemployment rate climbed to 12.5 percent. By the early 1980s,Oregon’s unemployment rate was the highest of any state since the Great Depression. That’s not all McCall’s fault, but still.
• Era Three: Oregon’s political leadership, under the governorships of Vic Atiyeh and Neil Goldschmidt, took a dramatic U-turn in the 1980s and early 1990s. Turning away from its insular progressive direction,Oregon turned outward in a global direction.
Atiyeh would start by holding a press conference on theCaliforniaborder where he very publicly removed the “Welcome toOregon, “Enjoy Your Visit.” sign. McCall fumed. Later Atiyeh would travel nine times toJapan, create a television show aboutOregonthat was popular in Asia, and correct anti-business elements of theOregontax code.
And it worked.Oregonwas open for business. By the time Atiyeh left office, 200 Japanese companies had decided to locate inOregon.
Neil Goldschmidt knew enough not to step on Atiyeh’s work. During Goldschmidt’s tenure, Intel chose to move its 5,000 research and development Ph.D engineers to Hillsboro. The Wall Street Journal summarized at the time that more money was being invested inWashingtonCounty in the semi-conductor industry than in the rest of the nation put together. Twelve billion dollars.Oregon was booming. And then it stopped.
• Era Four: Oregon’s modern political leadership, symbolized most especially by Vera Katz and John Kitzhaber, became once again, like McCall, unconcerned about growth, and instead placed heavy emphasis on “stewardship” over jobs.
And what is the current price tag for this schizophrenic approach to our economy?
In 2012,Oregonranked No. 33 in the nation in per-capita income, down 11 spots from a high of No. 22 in the mid 1990s. The averageOregonresident now makes almost $7,000 less than the averageWashingtonresident. The region’s financial and economic capital,Portland, has lost more than 40,000 jobs in its downtown core in the past decade. That’s quite a price tag to have “things look different here.”
As we celebrate Tom McCall’s 100th birthday, we should remember his many unique and positive contributions, but it’s no honor to his historical memory if we overlook or pretend we don’t see the real footprints he left in our state. McCall lovedOregon. He would want better than that.
Jim Pasero is principal of Third Century Solutions, a Lake Oswego public affairs firm.