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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Close Contest in Oregon

Air Date: Week of

Continuing our series on environmental politics this election season, Ley Garnett of Oregon Public Broadcasting takes a look at the contest to fill Mark Hatfield's seat in the Senate.


NUNLEY: We focus now on one of the more closely contested races in the west. It's in Oregon, where 5-term Republican Senator Mark Hatfield is retiring, and Republicans have nominated State Senator Gordon Smith to replace him. Now, Smith lost a close race to Democrat Ron Wyden in a January special election that was held to replace Bob Packwood. Political newcomer Tom Brugerre, a computer software entrepreneur, is the Democratic challenger this time around. The environment is always an issue in Oregon politics, but in this race it may be the deciding factor. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Ley Garnett reports.

(Convention emcee: "This time, we all are pointed and we're going to elect Gordon Smith and he's going to be the next United States Senator and here he is." Applause and cheers.)

GARNETT: Gordon Smith gets a rousing reception from a convention of Republican activists in Bend, Oregon. Mr. Smith needs a big turnout in this region, because it's the state's only Republican stronghold. Bend is located in central Oregon, just east of the Cascade Mountains, which divide Oregon politically as well as geographically. Most of the state's residents live in the western half of the state, where support for the environment is strong. But in eastern and central Oregon, where the government owns about two thirds of the land, and where logging, ranching, and farming support the economy, Federal environmental regulations are unpopular. Gordon Smith's laissez faire message plays well here.

SMITH: The genius of America, its past and its future greatness, is predicated not on big government, not on big bureaucracy, but on allowing free people to pursue their dreams and engage in enterprise.

GARNETT: Candidate Smith is vying for the Senate seat long held by political maverick Republican Mark Hatfield, whose coalition often included a share of the green vote. Mr. Smith is a product of the conservative right wing of the Oregon Republican Party, but he knows he must offer himself as a moderate and cast his opponent as out of step.

SMITH: Everywhere I go I see farmers and ranchers meeting with local officials, environmental activists, coming up with voluntary watershed programs. All over, in my district, in this area. And are making enormous progress. But for some people like my opponent, apparently that's not good enough. Apparently that's not good enough.

GARNETT: But Mr. Smith's opponent, Tom Bruggere, says that's not true. That he's not opposed to local involuntary solutions to environmental problems when Federal regulations aren't needed. Mr. Bruggere says Gordon Smith is a Newt Gingrich Republican masquerading as a moderate.

(Ambient conversation backdrop)

BRUGGERE: One of the reasons I'm running is because I believe that this movement on the part of the Republicans, the Conservatives in this country, to weaken or do away with our environmental laws, leads us to the kind of country that I wouldn't want my 7-year-old daughter or my 5-year-old son to grow up in.

GARNETT: Tom Bruggere developed his environmental beliefs as a child of the 60s in Berkeley, California. About 20 years ago he moved to Oregon and founded the computer software company that made him a multimillionaire. He's made the environment a central theme of his campaign, but he suffered some bumps and bruises in the process.

BRUGGERE: My injury is much less significant than it looks. I fractured my ankle slightly and tore up some of the muscles...

GARNETT: Bruggere stands on crutches as he opens a campaign office in Salem. A few weeks earlier he hurt his foot during a thousand-dollar-a-seat fundraiser on a river raft. Even though Bruggere and Smith are reportedly worth around $20 million each, both say they won't spend much of their personal fortunes on their political campaigns, and both candidates say they oppose negative campaign tactics. But that hasn't kept negative ads off the airwaves.

(Dramatic music and a man's voice-over: "Gordon Smith. He's back...")

GARNETT: This television spot, sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters, is a blistering attack on Gordon Smith's voting record in the Oregon legislature, and the environmental record of the frozen food process plant he owns.

(Music and voice-over continue: "... Gordon Smith's factory was cited twice last year for illegally polluting Oregon's water. Violations at Smith's factory have continued now for more than a decade...")

GARNETT: Environmentalists charge that as president of the State Senate, Gordon Smith pushed through an unsuccessful bid to weaken Oregon's land use and water quality laws. Exit polls suggested that green voters were key to his narrow loss in his previous run for the Senate last January, a weakness that the League hopes to exploit again. The League's effort is part of a concerted drive by national environmental groups to regain ground lost in the 1994 Congressional elections. The League chose Mr. Smith for its so-called Dirty Dozen list: the top 12 Congressional candidates it hopes to defeat in November.

(Music and voice-over continue: "... Owners of companies who break our laws shouldn't be allowed to make them. Don't send Mr. Smith to Washington.")

GARNETT: The ad campaign has itself become an issue. Gordon Smith has demanded that Tom Bruggere pull the ad, but Mr. Bruggere says election laws bar him from telling the League what to do. At a recent protest march, former Oregon Republican Governor Vic Ateyah attacked the commercial. Mr. Ateyah says Republican Smith as fixed the pollution problems at his food factory.

ATEYAH: Senator Smith stood up and said okay, it's a problem. Yes I agree, let's go do something about it. So it's old stuff is what it is, and they're rehashing it.

GARNETT: Gordon Smith defends himself by saying his plant's environmental record is normal for the industry and that the state's recent renewal of his sewage permit is proof. He says his opponents have distorted his legacy in the State House, and since his last Senate campaign he's also changed the color of his bumper stickers from red to green. The main environmental issue dividing the candidates is the Federal Salvage Logging Law. Passed in 1995 officially as a fire prevention remedy after the previous year's forest fires, the law has promoted cutting dead and dying trees on Federal land by limiting legal challenges to timber sales. But it has also allowed clear-cut logging of healthy old growth trees. Though the law expires at the end of this year, a pending bill would extend some of its provisions for another decade. Gordon Smith says this year's destructive fire season shows the salvage law is still needed.

SMITH: Folks, we got too much fuel on the forest floor. All we are doing by not allowing jobs to be created and wood products produced is providing fodder for a huge, even larger catastrophic forest fire.

GARNETT: But Democrat Tom Bruggere says the Salvage Logging Law saves the forest from fires only to see it fall to the chainsaw. He says he supports thinning dead trees, which puts him in the political mainstream.

(Voices in the background)

BRUGGERE: I've been trying to run a campaign here that brings the state together, and tries to talk about how we can have a healthy environment and still good jobs in our timber industry, for example. Or good jobs in our farm industry.

GARNETT: Neither candidate's efforts to portray the other as an extremist seems to be working. Recent polls show Smith and Bruggere in a dead heat, leading pundits to predict that other races on the ballot may be key to victory. The Presidential campaign could sway this senate race, as could an initiative barring livestock from polluted streams, which is expected to boost turnout from ranching interests as well as environmentalists. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.



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