Mapes talks with Atkinson about Oregon’s future

Jeff Mapes of The Oregonian recounts a recent conversation with Senator Jason Atkinson. Follow the link here, or read below.

Republican State Sen. Jason Atkinson was in the process of setting up an exploratory committee for governor last summer when he was accidentally shot in his right leg in a bizarre accident in his garage. Atkinson, an avid cyclist who once raced professionally, had dropped a small bag from a friend’s bike that contained a derringer that fired when it hit the floor.

That exploratory campaign went by the wayside while the Central Point legislator recovered from an injury that required multiple surgeries. Atkinson, 38, made it a point of pride to outpace his doctors’ expectations and is now gamely hobbling around the Capitol with a cane.

And he seems in just as much of a hurry to once again get moving on his expected campaign for governor.

“I am almost to a decision,” he told me last week in his office. “I really have a renewed sense of purpose for public service.”

He’s talking with Republican insiders and supporters from his 2006 campaign for governor, in which he finished third in the GOP primary. While an announcement is a long way off, he may soon be putting together the framework for his candidacy.

“I know I can win the primary if I start early,” he said. Another measure of Atkinson’s political ambition popped up after our conversation at the Capitol when rumors raced around the state that Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., might become secretary of Health and Human Services. Atkinson was quick to say he’d also think about running for the Senate if Wyden left his seat.

Atkinson said he doubts that former Sen. Gordon Smith will run for governor, and he added that he stays in close touch with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who would certainly become the GOP front-runner if he entered the race. Of course, if that were to happen, Atkinson would also have the opportunity to run for Congress since he lives in Walden’s district.

Atkinson’s entree to politics was through his father, Perry Atkinson, a Christian broadcaster who once headed the Oregon Republican Party and ran unsuccessfully for Congress himself. Unlike his father, the younger Atkinson has largely stayed away from social issues and seemed to like to focus his attention on issues where he could break out of a partisan box (although his voting record in the Legislature has been solidly conservative).

When he ran for governor in 2006, he became a favorite of many conservative bloggers and made a point of eschewing attacks on his two major opponents, Kevin Mannix and Ron Saxton, the eventual nominee.

While he had only modest success in 2006, he still seems interested in sounding like a different kind of Republican. His big policy idea continues to be the notion that the Legislature should pass the budget for schools right at the top of the session to make education the top priority and to let districts know what they would have to work with. It’s an idea that hasn’t gotten much traction, but it is the sort of thing that does sound non-ideological.

“We have a huge opportunity here to take K-12 education off the table” this session, he said. “Why not give the certainty to school districts?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Atkinson spent most of our chat talking about the accidental shooting and his recovery. It is a harrowing tale, and you could almost see it fitting seamlessly into a stump speech. He talks about an inspiring phone message he received from one man who told him that he would certainly walk again. Only later did he learn that his caller had lost both his legs in a tractor accident but still volunteers at the hospital where Atkinson was treated.

“My whole life changed,” said Atkinson of the shooting. “I’ve met the most heroic people you’ve never heard of.”

His return to the Legislature was particularly meaningful, he said. “The first two weeks here were the best weeks I’ve had in public life,” he said. He enjoyed seeing old friends and added that he had “some wonderful candid conversations with the governor,” the man he’d like to replace.