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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 768

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This is the grave of Vic Atiyeh.

Born in Portland in 1923, Atiyeh grew up in an immigrant family. His parents were Syrian immigrants, though in the modern context, we would probably call them Lebanese Christians. He grew up in the Orthodox Church, played offensive line for two years at the University of Oregon, and was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts. But after his sophomore year at Oregon, his father died. Atiyeh dropped out to run the family business, which was in carpets. Atiyeh Brothers was a prominent regional company and the younger generation did well too. Atiyeh was a Republican and ran for the state legislature in 1958. He won, representing Washington County in the Portland suburbs. He served three terms and then went onto the state Senate, where he served from 1965-78. His basic approach was that of the fiscal conservative who brought a business perspective to politics, determined to limit state spending. However, he also had an interest in protecting Oregon’s environment and so sponsored bills on this front as well.

Oregon politics were fairly dominated by a moderate Republicanism at this time. People such as Tom McCall, Mark Hatfield, and Bob Packwood were statewide leaders and while Democrats could win, they lost more often in statewide races than they won. If Republicans were too conservative, they probably wouldn’t win. Atiyeh represented this generally moderate strain of Republicanism. He had high ambitions too. In 1974, he decided to run for governor to replace McCall. However, he lost to the Democrat Bob Straub in a blowout. Straub was a popular politician who was well known to the state. In 1978, McCall wanted back in. Atiyeh still wanted his chance too. They ran in the Republican primary to take on Straub and Atiyeh won. This time, Atiyeh won the general too, as Straub’s tenure as governor had been fairly unremarkable. This made Atiyeh the first Arab-American to become a governor.

Atiyeh as governor was marked by a pro-business tenor in a state undergoing rapid transformation. The old extractive industries of timber and fishing and agriculture were losing political power as the sheer numbers of people working in these industries declined sharply, while newcomers poured into Portland and Eugene, seeking their Ecotopia. State leaders began seeing the future as part of a broader Pacific Rim economy that would still include Oregon timber but would be about high tech investments. Atiyeh helped push this agenda. He opened a trade office for the state in Tokyo, for instance. He also realized, like many Oregonians, that tourism was going to be a huge part of the state’s economy in ways that it had not been when the Northwest was mostly a timber-producing economic backwater before World War II. He pushed for the Columbia Gorge to become a National Scenic Preserve Area and of course it is a huge tourist destination today. Moreover, he extended Oregon’s land use laws and forced all cities and counties to develop master plans for development that would require state approval. Atiyeh won a second term in 1982 in a blowout. This would be the last time a Republican would ever win the race to be governor of Oregon.

Atiyeh was nothing if not a conservative Republican though of the era. He was the floor leader for Reagan’s nomination in the 84 convention was a very strict fiscal conservative. He pushed for the repeal of Oregon’s corporate tax structure that actively taxed all companies working in Oregon on their percentage of income made in Oregon. Foreign companies whined that they wouldn’t invest in Oregon unless this was repealed and since Atiyeh didn’t like taxes much anyway, he succeeded in getting the state legislature to repeal it in 1984. He was also the governor during the Rajneeshi takeover of Antelope, Oregon, though he mostly stayed in the background on this and let Norma Paulus, his Secretary of State and who Republicans would nominate to replace Atiyeh in 1986, take the lead on the massive voter fraud that cult engaged in to fix elections.

Atiyeh’s wife, Dolores, also buried here, was a pretty active first lady of Oregon. Born in 1923 in Portland. She spearheaded a legislative effort to get a mandatory childhood immunization bill through the state legislature in 1981, getting into the nitty gritty of lobbying and politics to do so. She then went on to push hard for a mandatory childhood seat belt law, which was really controversial (remember when these laws were supposed to be enormous obstacles to American Freedom! and then just became what everyone did when they got in a car because who would be so stupid as to not wear a seat belt) and got her a lot of negative attention. But she succeeded in getting state legislators to pass this as well.

In the aftermath of his two terms, Atiyeh became a senior figure Republican in a state moving significantly to the left. His moderate environmental credibility (he was no McCall and was not particularly friendly with his nephew George Aityeh who spearheaded the saving of Opal Creek from logging and who died in the fires that decimated Oregon forests last summer) allowed him to be the moderate voice pushing back against an Oregon Republican Party rapidly being taken over by far-right extremists. For example, Oregon’s pioneering land use laws have saved the Willamette Valley from becoming the Los Angeles suburbs. But people get really ticked off when you tell them they can’t do this and that with their land. So in 2004, a measure significantly repealing many of those measures passed with the Oregon populace. This seriously concerned the many leaders who had helped see these laws through over the years. That included Atiyeh, who joined with other Oregon former governors Barbara Roberts and John Kitzhaber, as well as current governor Ted Kulongoski, to push forward another ballot measure restating a lot of the overturned provisions, which succeeded, in part because Atiyeh’s close relationship with Phil Knight of Nike solicited a very large donation in support of it. Welcome to Oregon politics, where dumb ballot measures pass all the time and then have to be reckoned with.

As he aged, Atiyeh had the expected health problems. He nearly died of heart problems in 2005 and was hospitalized several times for the problems, but survived. He did die in 2014 after he fell at home, causing his kidneys to fail in the aftermath. He was 91 years old. Dolores died in a nursing home in 2016 at the age of 92.

Vic Atiyeh is buried in River View Cemetery, Portland, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other governors of the 1970s and 1980s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Wendell Anderson is in Minneapolis and Reubin Askew is in Pensacola, Florida. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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