The most emotional single-interest issues of the day are on the ballot in Oregon this year, and incumbent Democratic Gov. Robert Straub is trying to win reelection by taking the unpopular side of every one of them.
"All we'd need to make it complete is gun control," joked one Democratic politician last week. "And we'd lose out on that too."
Gun control is not on the statewide ballot. But in initiative-conscious Oregon, where 61,000 signatures will quality any ballot measure, just about everything else is.
Among the initiatives are measures that would abolish state government funding of abortions, emasculate the state's pioneering land use law and impose a Proposition 13-type limit on property taxation and reestablish the death penalty.
Straub doggedly has opposed all of these measures. In the case of the taxation limit, known as Measure 6 in Oregon, he has tried to soften the political impact of opposition by sponsoring a rival proposal that would impose a loose government spending limit and provide tax relief for homeowners and renters.
Even this proposal, known as Measure 11 and placed on the ballot as a special session of the legislature, may have backfired. The state's big industries are so concerned about losing the tax breaks Measure 6 would provide that they are pouring funds into the campaign of Stroub's Republican opponent, state Senate Minority Leader Victor Atiyeh.
As if his position on issues wasn't handicap enough, Straub also suffers from a reputation for ineffective leadership, particularly during his first two years of office. In Salem, where he began public service as a legislator in 1959, before moving on to two terms as state treasurer, the 58-year-old Straub is known as a loner who tends to be too trusting both of legislators and of his appointees.
With all these negatives, it is not surprising that Atiyeh leads Straub in every public opinion poll. What is remarkable, under the circumstances, is that Straub has closed the gap and is now given an outside chance to win the election.
"It was impossible he could beat me before the special session (that led to Measure 11)," says Atiyeh. "It is not impossible he could beat me now."
This assessment by the soft-spoken Atiyeh, a 54-year-old oriental-rug merchant from Portland, is typical in its candor. After 19 years in the state legislature, Atiyeh is regarded by his peers as decent, low-key, honest and dependable. He also is seen as unimaginative and conservative, although Atiyeh moderated this impression in the last legislative session by moving toward the center on labor and environmental issues.
Four years ago, Atiyeh was badly beaten by Straub, and most Oregonians this year looked forward to a race between the incumbent governor and the once-popular former Republican governor Tom McCall. But Atiyeh last May became something of a giant killer by defeating McCall by nearly 13 percentage points after trailing in the polls. This impressive victory won him solid financial backing and the favorite's role in November.
Since his primary victory, Atiyeh has dissipated some of his advantage by apparent indecisiveness on the taxation issue, which has swept Oregon, as it has other Western states, like a storm.
Last year a promoter named James Whittenburg, who is now being tried on bad check charges in one Oregon county and faces similar charges in two others, formed an organization called The Lobby for Social Concerns and Demands. He filed a number of initiative petitions that failed to make the ballot.
Then, Proposition 13 passed in neighboring California, and the drive to put Measure 6 on the ballot took off like a rocket. It is identical in every respect, except that the Oregon initiative would limit property taxes to 11/2 percent of market value while the California limit is 1 percent.
State Senate President Jason Boe, one of the state's most highly regarded politicians, believes that the tax revolt helped create a climate for other single-interest issues in Oregon, a state that is no stranger to controversial initiatives.
After Measure 6 qualified, Atiyeh waited for weeks before finally coming out in support of it. Then, during the special legislative session, he voted the Straub-sponsored Measure 11 on the grounds he wanted to "give Oregon voters a choice." Since then, Atiyeh has opposed Measure 11, an action that has made him seen inconsistent to many Oregonians.
Straub, a tall, Lincolnesque figure who is far more effective in small forums than large ones, has chipped away at Atiyeh for "vacillating" the tax issue. The governor charges that Measure 6 would cripple education and other social programs in Oregon.
In this year of liberal retreat and liberal defeat nationally, Straub has shown no inclination to change previously held positions despite a wide-spread perception that Oregon, too, is becoming more conservative.
Straub has denounced the developer-favored effort to cut the heart out of Oregon's land use law that now gives the state broad powers in regulating development. He has opposed the withdrawal of abortion funding on grounds it would discriminate against the poor. Atiyeh, although quieter about it, is on the same side as Straub on these issues but the Republican candidate supports the death penalty, which he says is a deterrent.
The governor brushes aside this argument, saying that the murder rates in Oregon have not differed during the four times the state has had the death penalty and the four times it has been without it. For good measure, he says that the death penalty discvriminates against the poor and that he doesn't "want to be part of a society that kills people."
The domiant issue in the election, however, is Measure 6, which is expected to outpoll Measure 11. Under a provision of the latter, the measure with the most votes wins if both pass.
Straub concedes that his opposition to what he calls the "copy-cat Proposition 13 initiative" may have hurt him with the voters, but says this doesn't matter.
"I'm in politics not because I have to have a job, but because I want to do things," he said in an interview. "I don't want to go with the tide."
Even Straub's staunchest critics say he is a decent, honorable man who has the courage of his convictions. But even many of his supporters criticize him for lacking the political skills needed to achieve his goals.
"He never has understood how the system works," says a lobbyist who knows him well. "He is a decent guy who is incapable of understanding that other people always aren't decent, which has led him into bad appointments."
And a Democratic legislator says of Straub that he "does not communicate easily or have an easy interchange with people. He's an intensely private, personal guy who lacks the political graces."
Maybe it is this nonpolitical quality of Straub's that has kept him as a spokesman of liberal principles in a year when liberalism is losing. His strategists, guided by media specialist David Garth, have helped portray him as a courageous and principled leader.
Whatever it is, Straub is now anywhere from 5 to 9 percentage points behind in public opinion polls after trailing by as much as 20 points in August. And while Atiyeh is favored in all quarters, no one is any longer willing to count Straub out.