The rumors resumed in earnest two years ago, when former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith drove to the coast to attend the annual Dorchester Conference, epicenter of speculative Republican politics.
It must mean he had swallowed the bitter disappointment of defeat and was ready to run again, perhaps for governor, right? Not even close, the Pendleton native said Monday in his most extensive sit-down interview since his close, emotionally draining loss to Democrat Jeff Merkley in 2008.
When I went to Dorchester two years ago, it was essentially to say thank you and good-bye, Smith said. Although he may get the call to public service again, he said hes too busy and happy working in the private sector and living in the nonstop beehive of Washington, D.C., to think about running for anything.
Its no reflection on Oregon, Smith said, although he did admit to feeling like a square peg in a round hole whenever he spent much time in uber-liberal Portland. Its just a time to do something different.
Smith, served two six-year terms in the Senate after running a pea packing plant in Pendleton, where he and his wife Sharon still own a home and where his children and grandchildren live.
Now he spends most of his days in Bethesda, Md., where he is CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters and is a key Mormon church leader responsible for much of the northeastern United States.
Smith, who turned 60 this year, looked relaxed and just a bit wistful as he talked about his life outside elective politics.
Mental health services advocate
He was in Portland to address a conference on childrens mental health, an issue he has tracked closely since his son, Garrett, killed himself in 2003 after battling mental illness. Smith later wrote a book on what it was like to raise Garrett and how the family coped with his death.
Smith said he was appointed by the Obama administration to co-chair the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and frequently gives speeches on the topic. He said he was invited to the Portland summit to share his personal experiences as a father and how his sons death prompted him to become an advocate for mental health services.
Its part of a cause, he said, to help other young people and their families so they dont suffer the loss that Sharon and I did.
During the interview, Smith also talked about the presidential race, whether the nation is ready for a Mormon president and the troubled state of Republican politics in Oregon.
Since Smiths defeat, Oregon has but a single Republican member of Congress: Rep. Greg Walden, who represents central and eastern Oregon. No Republicans serve in statewide office, and the last time a Republican won a governors race was 1982.
Single-party politics is fraught with difficulties for the state, Smith said. I wish there were a healthier Republican Party in the state of Oregon. And I think eventually there will be. These things tend to go in cycles.
He said he tried to put himself in the common-sense center, where he believes most Oregonians like their politicians. But he got caught up in an anti-Republican wave that swept him and lots of other Republicans out of office.
Both parties tend to elect ideologically rigid candidates now, he said. And that makes for difficult general election success.
Leaving a void
Smiths disappearance from the political spotlight has been a problem for state Republicans, says James Moore, a Pacific University political science professor who closely follows state politics. The party, he says, lacks an elder statesman.
Its not like the good old days, when (former Gov.) Vic Atiyeh would play that role, Moore said. Gordon Smith is kind of removing himself from the scene. For the party, that just means more upheaval, casting around, trying to figure out whos going to carry the flag.
Greg Leo, spokesman for the Oregon GOP, said Smith is always welcome back.
He has a future in Oregon politics if he chooses to, Leo said. He still very popular with the party base.
Leo said he largely agrees with Smiths comments about the party, especially what happens to a state when one party dominates. Oregonians need to be able to choose between two strong, viable parties, he said. We are working hard to make it so.
On presidential politics, Smith predicted a close race. Obama, he said, was a great presidential candidate but a disappointing leader.
I think theres substantial feeling in the country that this wasnt the change they were hoping for more debt and fewer jobs than were promised, he said.
Asked whether he thought the nation could elect a Mormon president, he said, I guess well find out. I never thought Oregon would elect to the U.S. Senate a Mormon, but it did. He said hes proof that religion may guide a politicians principles, but not his agenda. The marvel of America is pluralism and tolerance.
He said he continues to see his former colleague Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., but has run into Merkley a handful of times. He declined to critique his successors first term in office.
I owe Jeff my silence and best wishes, Smith said.