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  Most Portland Residents Just Tired of Tonyagate

By Serge Kovaleski
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 1994; Page F3

PORTLAND, Ore., Feb. 8 — What started as banter about the Tonya Harding saga the other night at the Blue Moon Tavern unraveled into a vociferous shoving match between two patrons with differing views about the figure skating flap.

"They should just lock her up or drop the whole damned thing. I'm so sick of this garbage," Jeffrey Thames grumbled as he slammed his pint of ale onto the bar seconds before the fracas erupted at the popular watering hole.

"How can you say that?" the man next to him boomed, pushing Thames and triggering a mild brawl that was quickly broken up by a patron. "You don't care whether she gets a fair shake so she gets a shot at a medal in Norway?"

Like Thames and his counterpart, much of Portland is at its wits' end after living through almost a month of what is commonly referred to here as Tonyagate.

This quaint, mellow city of parks, coffee houses and microbreweries sitting in the shadow of Mt. Hood has largely been divided between Harding supporters and detractors. But a new, bigger group has emerged: those who are sick and tired of this sensational soap opera.

To even mention the Harding story in many instances is to watch Portlanders roll their eyes, shake their heads and beg for deliverance.

"A lot of people in this town are saying, 'Come on, let's get on with our lives already,' " said Bob Miller, the morning host on KEX-AM in Portland. "The president just released his budget, all these people were just killed in Bosnia, and Connie Chung is still outside the ice rink?"

There are, however, some Portlanders who are enjoying the attention, saying it is a nice spark to the placid, low-key lifestyles that they lead. For restaurants, bars and hotels, the Harding story has meant bigger profits as hundreds of journalists have flocked into town.

By all accounts, Portland has never experienced anything like this.

Day and night, hordes of cameramen and reporters shuffle through the city's narrow streets from stakeout to stakeout in search of Harding. The local news media has given the story unprecedented coverage; TV stations even broke in during network reports of the Los Angeles earthquake to give updates on the case.

It's gotten so extreme that the slaying of three people two weeks ago at a gas station in suburban Portland — an almost unheard of occurence in this area — got second billing to the Harding story. The case also has basically bumped the sexual harassment scandal of Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood off the front pages.

Radio stations have been playing songs poking fun at Harding, such as "If You Can't Beat 'Em, Beat 'Em," by the Zambonis, and "Tonya, Oh Tonya, America's Ice Queen." Another song about Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who has implicated her in the attack, is called, "Hang Down Your Head Gillooly."

Entrepreneurs also have been cashing in on the story, selling Tonya T-shirts and other paraphernalia on street corners. One T-shirt reads "Tonya and Nancy in Lillehammer. Break a Leg."

Restaurants and bars have even named drinks and dishes after the 23-year-old figure skater, and countless jokes about the Jan. 6 attack in which figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee in Detroit are told everywhere from living rooms to cappuccino stands.

One eatery, Lila's Restaurant and Lounge in southwest Portland, hung a 28-square-foot sign outside its doors that reads "Lila's Tonya Special: A Club Sandwich and Chicken Soup."

"We've gotten a lot of laughs out of it," said Lila's owner, Phil Mason.

While Harding was conducting public practices at the Clackamas Town Center ice rink up until last week, throngs of screaming supporters sporting Tonya T-shirts, caps and buttons and hoisting placards turned out each day to cheer her on.

So did her critics.

During one of Harding's practice sessions last week, someone draped a sheet over the railing of the rink that read "Tonya and Packwood, Oregon's Pride." Rink officials were quick to rip it down.

A barefoot Harding stopped a tow truck from hauling away her illegally parked pickup Monday, but opted for a different vehicle to take her to Monday night's midnight practice — a white stretch limousine.

Overall, says Norman Frink, the Multnomah County deputy chief district attorney who is prosecuting the case, "I've never seen anything like it except for Mount Saint Helens," the volcano in nearby Washington state that erupted in 1980.

After several weeks of the Harding story unfolding in the backyard, many Portlanders, who unequivocally pride themselves on their pristine quality of life, say they want their city back.

They are hoping that if Harding skates in the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, this month, the media pack and all the other disruptions associated with the story will follow her, at least for the time being.

Harding has told investigators that she didn't know about the Kerrigan plot until several days after the attack. But Gillooly and two co-defendants said she was involved from the beginning.

"My sense is that this story is being cashed in on by everyone at our expense," said Portland native and high school teacher Janet Holmes-Ray, 53. "I feel a sense of violation and long for Portland life as we know it to return."

Residents living at the apartment complex where Harding is staying with her best friend, Stephanie Quintero, have gotten so fed up with the crush of news media constantly camped outside their doors that the manager of the site has threatened to evict Quintero and her husband, John.

"Sometimes some of them are overly aggressive," John Quintero said of the reporters. "What can you do? We're not mean and we're not slamming anyone to the ground."

Others are concerned that Harding's troubles, coupled with the Packwood scandal, are tarnishing the image of the city and state.

"Whether she gets charged or not, the fact that she knew {the co-defendants} and admitted withholding evidence is a bad reflection on the city," said Josh Tyree, 23, a gas station attendant and musician who lives a block and a half from where Harding is staying.

Mayor Vera Katz declined to be interviewed to discuss how the Harding case has impacted Portland. "She is just not comfortable about discussing the case or the way Portland is perceived in relation to the Tonya Harding story," a mayoral spokesman said.

But not everyone is uncomfortable about the situation.

Up the hill from Gillooly's house in suburban Portland, where dozens of cameramen and reporters were staked out, neighbor Diane Robinson said she likes the media presence in her neighborhood.

"It's the kind of excitement we don't usually get around here," she chirped.

During the frenzy surrounding the case, The Tonya Harding Fan Club, which was started a year ago, has seen its ranks almost double to around 800 members from 32 states and seven countries, including Australia and South Africa.

The organization has sold everything from Harding T-shirts and sweatshirts to buttons and caps. It has also published a song called "It's Tonya's Turn."

But fan club founder Elaine Stamm says she is ready for the noise to die down.

"I can hardly wait for this to be over," Stamm said, "and for Tonya to be completely exonerated in her worst critics' eyes."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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