New to the Senate: Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

(Don Ryan - AP)
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Friday, November 7, 2008

Jeff Merkley, the Oregon House speaker with an unassuming manner and a fondness for policy, has taken an unconventional path to the U.S. Senate.

The son of a lumber mill worker and the first in his family to go to college, he traveled through revolution-torn Central America in his mid-20s. After graduate studies at Princeton, he worked in Washington as a presidential fellow at the Pentagon and for the Congressional Budget Office. Back in Oregon, he ran Habitat for Humanity and led the World Affairs Council of Oregon.

Merkley, 52, was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1998 and was chosen speaker in January 2007, after he helped Democrats take control of the chamber for the first time in 16 years.

Under his leadership, the House created a rainy-day fund, increased education spending and expanded rights for same-sex couples. He challenged two-term Sen. Gordon Smith, a moderate Republican, after Democratic congressmen and a former governor -- all more prominent than Merkley -- declined to run.

The outcome of the race was not immediately clear. On Wednesday, Smith held a lead of a few thousand votes, but he conceded yesterday after more ballots were tallied from Democratic-leaning parts of the state.

-- Amy Goldstein

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