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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Oregon Hot Seat

Air Date: Week of January 19, 1996

Ley Garnett reports on the two candidates vying for Bob Packwood's recently vacated Oregon Senate seat: Democratic congressman Ron Wyden, and Republican state senator Gordon Smith. The politics of logging and pollution are heating up as Oregonians decide the future of their leaders' careers.

Transcript

CURWOOD: How much do Americans agree with the creed of the new Republican activists in Congress who rail against environmental regulation? There's an election later this month in Oregon that may provide an important clue. Last fall, scandal forced Bob Packwood to resign from the Senate, and a special election has been called for January 30th. The Democrat is Congressman Ron Wyden, who is making support for environmental protection a theme of his campaign. The Republican is State Senate President and businessman Gordon Smith. Senator Smith's firm has been fined for pollution, and Senator Smith himself has worked to scale back a number of Oregon's environmental laws. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Ley Garnett prepared this report.

GARNETT: For almost 30 years Oregon has been represented by 2 moderate Republicans in the US Senate. Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield have often been at the forefront of key environmental legislation, setting themselves apart from most other western Republicans. No matter which of the contenders wins this special election, the politics of Oregon's new senator will be different.

SADLER: It's been a long time since Oregon has had such a clear-cut choice between candidates on environmental issues.

GARNETT: Russell Sadler is a political scientists with Southern Oregon College.

SADLER: Ron Wyden is a mild form of suburban green. He neither pleases the environmental organizations, the more extreme ones, nor does he please the timber industry. But Gordon Smith, despite his youth, definitely has old time commodity attitudes.

SMITH: What people often want to lose sight of is that all wealth comes out of the earth.

GARNETT: Forty-three-year-old Gordon Smith sometimes breaks from hard right stances. For instance, he supports expansion of Portland's light rail system, but he generally falls in line with the so-called Wise Use philosophy that has become popular in the rural west, and which stresses resource use over preservation.

SMITH: Before you can bring products into interstate commerce you have to either fish it, farm it, log it, mine it. These things provide us, if done on a renewable basis, the ingredients for interstate commerce, which provide to Americans the most abundant lifestyle on the planet.

GARNETT: When Republicans took control of Oregon's legislature in 1994, Mr. Smith became president of the State Senate. The legislature then embarked on an agenda to weaken some environmental regulations, an effort that was blocked by Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber. Mr. Smith says some environmental laws have spun out of balance with the needs of people and their jobs.

SMITH: I have no interest in engaging on any broad assault on environmental laws, but I have yet to meet any law that through experience can't be improved.

GARNETT: Along with his State Senate duties, Mr. Smith runs one of the nation's largest frozen food businesses, which he bought from his father. The plant's environmental record has become a key issue in the campaign.

VOICE OVER: Gordon Smith. Even a moderate Republican called him anti-environmentalist. Gordon Smith's factory was fined again this year for polluting Oregon's ....

GARNETT: This TV attack commercial is sponsored by the Sierra Club Clean Senate Campaign. It's part of the Sierra Club's first independent political campaign in its 104-year history. The effort also includes protests at Smith campaign rallies.

VOICE OVER: When Oregon's air and water quality are under attack, can we really afford to send this Mr. Smith to Washington?

GARNETT: The Smith food plant has been cited for 18 infractions in the 15 years that Gordon Smith has owned the plant, including one serious violation in 1991. According to state records, a discharge pipe ruptured and spilled organic wastewater into a creek. Before the leak was detected 15 days later, all aquatic life along more than 20 miles of the creek had perished. After initially charging the state's investigation was politically motivated, the company paid what at the time was the largest water pollution fine in Oregon history, and restocked the creek. Mr. Smith says he acted as a good corporate citizen, and compensated for an industrial mistake. But Michael Nixon, the former state environmental officer who investigated the accident, says he found Smith and his company to be far from apologetic.

NIXON: As far as I'm concerned, Smith Frozen Foods and Gordon Smith are trying to flim flam the people of Oregon about their, you know, about the truth, about what happened there, and why it should never have occurred. And then trying to cover up their initial attitude, which was very indignant and cavalier, saying that they're just a bunch of trash fish anyway.

GARNETT: Last May, the state ordered the Smith plant to upgrade its wastewater system as a condition of renewing its operating permit. Smith says he'll comply. Smith's chief opponent is Democrat Ron Wyden, a 46-year-old former college basketball player and activist for the elderly who ironically took office during the Reagan sweep of 1980. After winning a close primary in December over fellow Congressman Peter DeFazio, Wyden sought right away to link Gordon Smith with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

WYDEN: The choice in this election is between mainstream values and extreme values. Federal environmental laws now require that the polluters pay for their violation. The Newt Gingrich Congressional majority wants to toss out this requirement and actually have the taxpayers start paying the polluter. I'm going to fight them every step of the way. (Applause and cheers from the audience.)

GARNETT: As a Congressman, Wyden made the Hanford nuclear weapons plant, located upstream on the Columbia River, his chief environmental issue. But during the Senatorial campaign, Wyden has mainly focused on the new salvage logging law. The law releases dozens of old growth timber sales that had been protected from logging.

WYDEN: I thought it was part of the far Right's effort to gut the environmental laws. I think it has been shown that it's being abused, it's being abused, used in effect as a Trojan horse to go out and cut in other areas, in areas that are healthy and environmentally sensitive.

GARNETT: Gordon Smith supports the salvage law, and lines up with Conservative western Congressional Republicans on national environmental issues like grazing, mining, and reform of the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole says he'd appoint Smith to replace retiring senator Mark Hatfield on the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Commentator Russell Sadler says the Smith-Wyden race should neither be viewed as a referendum on the environment, nor as a barometer on the Republican agenda in Congress. He says the key to the election is whether recent immigrants from Southern California have swung the Oregon electorate to the right. Nevertheless, national interest groups and both political parties are pouring millions of outside dollars into this election and are eager to spin a national perspective into the results. Polls show the race as a dead heat. Whatever the outcome, it's possible the loser will jump right back into a campaign for the Senate seat that Senator Hatfield vacates this fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.

 

 

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