Gov. Victor Atiyeh (Republican), 59, is a quiet man. He served inconspicuously in the state legislature for almost two decades before moving to the governor's office on his second try in 1978. His first term has been anything but flashy. His critics call him a "caretaker" governor.
He does not seek out controversy. In this sense, he is outside the Oregon tradition. The late Sen. Wayne Morse (D) scolded Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam. Former Gov. Tom McCall (R) once accused Spiro Agnew of giving a "rotten, bigoted, little speech." Nowadays, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) is leading the drive to curb Ronald Reagan's defense spending and to push the administration into arms reduction talks with Russia. Sen. Bob Packwood (R) is the most caustic critic of Reagan's social policies.
Atiyeh, by contrast, is normally the model of political circumspection. He does not make waves. But he is running for reelection as a moderate conservative Republican governor in a year when his counterparts in five Midwestern states are bailing out of their jobs. And unemployment here is higher than in most of the Midwest. It rose to 11.4 percent in March, matching the highest it has been in the 35 years such records have been kept.
So, on March 25, the quiet governor released to the press a letter he had written to President Reagan. "I write to you greatly disturbed and saddened," its opening sentence said. "When you took office, Americans had high hopes that this nation's terrible mess would be corrected. . . . We have been patient. Some of us have been severely criticized for recommending that patience.
"Clearly," Atiyeh wrote, "we recognized that inflation has been lowered dramatically. However, the overriding, overwhelming need of Oregonians has not been met. Instead we are being punished by high interest rates. And the mate to that in Oregon is awesome unemployment.
"The . . . villain of this effect is your proposed federal deficit. I cannot allow this to happen without speaking out for those 162,100 Oregonians without work . . . or those who tremble at the thought they may be next. We are now impatient, especially when the solution is so well known --a controlled federal deficit which would lead to lower interest rates. . . . I found it incredible when you recommended a budget so out of balance that it surprised and shocked even your strongest supporters and threw freezing cold water on the money market."
In an interview last weekend, Atiyeh said he had received no formal response from Reagan. Six weeks later, there is still no genuine move under way in Washington to curb the ever-growing deficit.
"I don't know what we have to do to rattle their cages," Atiyeh said. "I wish they could see what is happening here."
What is happening is a tragedy. Oregon is as green and beautiful as ever this spring, but there is a climate of fear that seems alien to this setting. The Portland Oregonian ran a week-long series of articles last month on the plight of the jobless and dispossessed, calling it "Sorrowful Spring." The response to the dramatic stories and photos of divided families and those futilely searching for work was the heaviest the paper has received in recent years.
A meeting Saturday in Eugene of the Oregon Psychological Conference heard statements that mental depression, accompanied often by threats of suicide, has caused a sharp jump in the number of people seeking help at mental health centers. In Coos Bay, a particularly hard-hit lumber and shipping center, youngsters have been arrested for breaking into homes and stealing peanut butter.
After a decade of worrying how to preserve its environment in the face of rapid economic growth, the state now faces a stagnant or declining population, because of the crippling of housing and the timber industry. The legislature has had special sessions in each of the last two years to cut the budget and boost emergency taxes to support vital services. "We're like a violin string that has been tightened and tightened again; we're about to snap," Atiyeh said.
From the perspective of Salem, the finger-pointing between Reagan and congressional Democrats is hard to take. "When the president says we have to follow his path," Atiyeh said, "I have to tell you, I don't understand any more what his path is. I think the theory of stimulating the economy by tax cuts is a good one. But as long as his actions hold up the interest rates, his theory can't work. Any policy requires timing, but I don't see him being flexible at all on the timing of his actions.
"Look," Atiyeh said, "No one is going to get away scot-free in this situation. People accuse me of worrying about my own political survival. I'd like to get reelected, sure, but I know that whatever happens, Oregon is going to face very hard times at least for the rest of this year.
"I'm speaking out because people are desperate for jobs. If those people back in Washington are worried about their political tails, they'd better do something. Marking time is not an option any more."