Former Oregon Governor Vic Atiyeh has died. The 91-year-old passed away Sunday evening at Portland’s Providence St. Vincent Medical Center of complications from renal failure.
Atiyeh served two terms as governor from 1979 until 1987. He became one of Oregon’s most respected Republican political figures and relished his role as an elder statesman. But he still kept a hand in politics.
Atiyeh’s landslide re-election victory in 1982 was even more remarkable when you consider this: It came as Oregon was suffering through one of its worst economic downturns in modern history. But the Portland-born son of Syrian immigrants rallied voters with his message of limited government and a moderate social outlook.
Atiyeh finished his 1983 inaugural address with a rousing call for unity.
“As in the first century of our history, so in the second century and beyond, I know that our citizens — and each one of us — can stand anywhere in the world and count it a matter of special pride to say: I am an Oregonian,” he said.
Atiyeh didn’t know it at the time, but his speech marked the final time a Republican would deliver an inaugural address in Oregon in his lifetime. In his later years, Atiyeh was often introduced as “the last Republican governor of Oregon.”
“Excuse me. He was the last great governor of Oregon, who was a Republican also,” said Paul Phillips, a former Oregon state lawmaker and long-time lobbyist in Salem. He said he first met Atiyeh as a college student in 1976.
“At that time he smoked and wore dark, heavy-rimmed glasses,” Phillip recalled. “And I walked in. He looked up at me in a very smoky room and says ‘I don’t like interns.’ That was my introduction to Vic Atiyeh.”
But something clicked. Phillips went on to help run Atiyeh’s 1978 campaign for governor and served as a high-level advisor for the next five years. He was still around when the Republican won the 1982 election during a bruising recession.
“First of all, people trusted him. Even though he had cut budgets, draconian budget cuts, I mean really got criticized for it, the legislature beat him up for it,” Phillip said. “But he kept the ship floating and moving and serving Oregonians.”
Atiyeh’s opponent in the 1982 governor’s race was a young lawyer named Ted Kulongoski. The Democrat said he considered a run for Congress, but the incumbent in that race changed his mind and the seat wasn’t going to be vacant. So Kulongoski decided to take on Governor Vic Atiyeh.
“Which, in retrospect wasn’t such a smart idea after all,” Kulongoski said with a laugh.
Kulongoski suffered what at the time was the worst loss in any Oregon governor’s race. Despite what Kulongoski describes as a tough campaign, the two men eventually became friends despite their political differences.
Kulongoski later served two terms of his own as governor. And he said Atiyeh’s legacy had an impact that lasted into his own time in office.
“Oregon was in transition. And I think Governor Atiyeh more than anybody I know, actually saw international trade as an area that Oregon should be moving into,” Kulongoski said. “And I think that he deserves a great deal of credit for actually seeing it first.”
That international perspective came in part from his family’s business. Atiyeh Brothers is a century-old rug importer. Atiyeh was the first Arab-American governor in the United States. He was also highly respected by Oregon’s Native Americans. In particular he was a strong advocate for the Grand Ronde people, who were in the midst of a prolonged fight to get their tribal rights restored by the federal government.
Atiyeh remained active in Oregon politics for most of the rest of his life. As late as 2010, he recorded campaign ads on behalf of Republican candidates for governor.
And at a campaign event for Republican nominee Chris Dudley that year, Atiyeh made a prediction.
“I have a very good feeling that I will no longer be the last Republican governor,” he said.
He was wrong. Dudley narrowly lost to Democrat John Kitzhaber.
Phillips said future candidates from either party would do well to heed the late Governor’s advice.
“He taught me one of the most important things in politics, and he lived by this,” Phillips said. “Before you criticize an opponent, you need to build yourself up. Talk about what you’re going to do, not about what they have done or haven’t done. And that’s the credo that he went by and it worked magnificently for him.”
Phillips said that approach set his mentor apart from many politicians today, including those in Atiyeh’s own party.