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Vic Atiyeh, last Republican governor of Oregon, dies at 91

In 2006, then-Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, left, former governor Vic Atiyeh, center, and 2002 Miss America Katie Harmon sit as the names of officers killed in the line of duty are read during a memorial ceremony in Salem. (Thomas Patterson/AP)

Vic Atiyeh, who as the last Republican governor of Oregon shepherded the state through a deep recession during two terms in the 1980s, died July 20 at a hospital in Portland. He was 91.

The cause was complications from renal failure, said Denny Miles, who had formerly served as Mr. Atiyeh’s press secretary.

The son of Syrian immigrants, Victor George Atiyeh (pronounced uh-TEE-uh) was born in Portland on Feb. 20, 1923. After attending the University of Oregon, he took 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 salary as governor three times to help balance the budget.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Atiyeh told an interviewer days before leaving office.

Mr. Atiyeh, who championed small state government and allowing residents 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 Mr. Atiyeh’s tax plans had buyer’s remorse as the state budget took a hit.

Mr. 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 Mr. Atiyeh and state teachers unions.

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

Mr. Atiyeh’s 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 timberland open to logging.

In 1981, he reversed an earlier position to endorse a federal role in the Columbia Gorge, and together with then-U.S. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, a liberal Republican, 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 Mr. Atiyeh, winning the election on the slogan, “the same old Salem crowd.”

After leaving office, Mr. 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.

Mr. Atiyeh married his high school sweetheart, Dolores Hewitt, in 1944. Besides his wife, survivors include two children and five grandchildren.

— Associated Press


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