Ghost of campaign past revisits Walden

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden presents the Nobel Laureate awards to Rep. Greg Smith at the Hermiston Distinguished Citizens Award Banquet on Feb. 21 in Hermiston.

It is amusing that Democrats mounted a “Where’s Walden?” campaign over the Labor Day weekend, targeting U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon.

The congressman has come under fire for his habit of holding semi-private, under-the radar appearances in his district, as opposed to more traditional town hall gatherings open to all. The activist group Indivisible held rallies in protest, saying it’s been more than 500 days since Walden last held a town hall meeting.

The tactic is also ironic, because the Republican who won the same Eastern Oregon seat in 1980 used a similar strategy.

That candidate — a Willamette Valley newspaper owner named Denny Smith — ran television ads that depicted the Post Office box of the incumbent Congressman Al Ullman — his virtual Oregon residence.

Formerly a Baker City real estate broker, Ullman had been the 2nd Congressional District representative for 24 years. He rose to the rank of chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. From that platform in 1980, he mused aloud about a federal value-added tax. Smith seized on that concept as tantamount to a national sales tax. The sales tax is anathema to Oregon voters.

Unlike Ullman, Greg Walden sees his Democratic challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner coming. But he is carrying a load. The yokes around Walden’s neck are twofold: One is the colorless political persona he has built; the second is Donald Trump. Walden’s great asset is the Republican margin of registered voters in the sprawling 2nd District, America’s seventh-largest.

It is an exceedingly long-odds bet that McLeod-Skinner will upset Walden in the November election. But she has been working hard at connecting with far-flung voters.

As a Washington correspondent in the 1980s, I covered Congressman Smith and I met his aide, Walden. I remember vividly the week when two Oregon political novices — Smith and Ron Wyden — showed up in Washington during the spring of 1980. A handicapper would quickly discern that both of these guys, in different ways, had the drive and personal magnetism to be serious contenders. Wyden took out the incumbent Bob Duncan in the Democratic primary and Smith took out Ullman.

The current issue of Portland Monthly carries an article titled “The Strange Rise of Greg Walden, Oregon’s Only Republican Congressman.” Nigel Duara describes Walden’s “… thick glasses, and familiar air of hey-how-are-ya folksiness.” Writes Duara: “If you walked into an H&R Block looking for last-minute tax help, you would be thrilled to see such a figure.”

For all of his 20 years in the House, Walden resembles the House staffer I routinely contacted decades ago. As Duara evokes, Walden is there to help you. One cannot imagine Walden expressing outrage or disgust. If Walden has mastered one technique, it is the art of saying nothing in a convincing manner.

He also has been absent at critical moments. When Klamath County was on the verge of an historic compromise on water, Walden acceded to right-wing sentiment and the deal collapsed. And it was Sen. Wyden, not Walden, who patiently pushed the Forest Service’s economic shot in the arm for Grant County — the 10-year stewardship contract at Malheur National Forest.

If Walden has painted a target on his back, it is health care. The 2nd District is dotted with small rural hospitals that have benefited from Obamacare. When Walden moved the repeal of Obamacare out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he chairs, he enabled a mortal threat to those Eastern Oregon hospitals. This was a congressman at odds with his district’s self-interest and welfare.

Steve Forrester, the former editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian, is the president and CEO of EO Media Group.

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