The Evolution of Senator Gordon Smith

The Evolution of Sen. Gordon Smith
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
By Jayne Carroll
The Hillsboro Argus
Special to The Argus

When Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith first ran for statewide office, many Oregon conservatives were down right euphoric. Smith, a self-made millionaire from Eastern Oregon, was not another made-for-rejection conservative. Gordon Smith was special.

Smith’s principles made him more than worthy of enthusiasm. His charm, grace, smarts, good looks and understated charisma, not to mention his almost sweet political naivet catapulted him to the lonely rungs of Oregon Republican super stardom.

Smith’s wealth appeared to be the insulation necessary to avoid the routine re-election selling-out to big money special interests.

When Gordon Smith first ran for the United States Senate, in Oregon’s first statewide vote-by-mail experiment, he lost to Democrat Ron Wyden. The special election campaign to fill Bob Packwood’s vacant Senate seat is considered to be one of the most insidious in modern Oregon politics. Many close to Sen. Smith believe the defeat made him a sadder, but wiser politician.

When ballots were mailed out to Oregon voters, three weeks prior to election day, Smith had a commanding lead in the polls. That’s when Wyden pulled off his now infamous bait and switch.

Smith and Wyden’s advertising had been aggressively negative; Wyden’s campaign even alleged Smith was a child-killer due to an incident at Smith’s Pendleton factory.

In a grandiose, highly publicized move, Wyden announced, he would be ceasing all negative advertising for the remainder of the campaign. His phony gesture of civility caught Smith off guard. Smith’s home stretch advertising was produced and ready to air; pulling it would have cost his operation serious money and significant on-air downtime in a crucial period in the campaign.

Smith, who had developed an ugly case of the flu, never knew what hit him.

While Wyden earned accolades for pulling his negative ads, Smith looked like another mean-spirited Republican. Meanwhile the union bosses, who supported Wyden, made a massive media buy relentlessly attacking Smith.

Wyden’s campaign, which eventually became the fundraising blueprint for Clinton-Gore’s 1996 re-election effort, was masterful at circumventing the rules. There were stories of Wyden operatives “helping” seniors fill out their mail-in ballots; other uncounted ballots were seen discarded in waste baskets. Frontrunner Smith woke up the day after the election a loser.

Since that morning, Gordon Smith and Oregon have moved politically farther and farther to the left. The more “blue” Oregon becomes, the less conservative is Smith.

Some defend Smith’s sellouts as following in the maverick footsteps of Mark Hatfield. But Hatfield was always a moderate-liberal Republican; Smith’s dramatic metamorphosis into Wyden-lite is stunning even in a profession laden with charlatans.

Smith’s expedient “change of heart” on many core value issues may be exactly what is necessary for him to keep his coveted seat in the United States Senate; yet, his spurning of those beliefs and the people who share them is immeasurably sad.

Gordon Smith was once an extraordinary man; Sen. Smith is just another politician.