GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Hoping to rise above the partisan knell and use his youthful exuberance and idealism to attract disenchanted voters, state Sen. Jason Atkinson plans to be the first Republican governor in 24 years to lead blue-state Oregon.
While some detractors have scoffed at Atkinson’s youth, at 35 he has eight years of experience in the state Legislature, having grown up in a family steeped in both politics and media. That combination of youth, experience and media savvy just might be the formula that could put the senator in the governor’s office, some observers believe.
Intoning a populist theme, Atkinson says his campaign is based on two words: hope and respect. In fact, the senator champions the Progressive Movement of 100 years ago when special interests in the United States were rebuffed and the “voice of the people” was strengthened.
Atkinson says he discounts the idea that leaders from both major parties are bound to a “business as usual” approach to governing, saying he favors “a conservative approach which is actually a populist approach … to give the people their government back.”
He decries the fact that one county judge overturned Measure 37 last year, a popular statewide initiative that restored certain property rights to Oregonians. Before the judge took action, Atkinson said, “special interests spent seven months of the Legislature trying to overturn it.” The senator also mentioned special interests that tried to overturn Measure 36, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman in Oregon.
“I want to return power back to people,” Atkinson told WND. “The people feel disconnected. They’re fed up.”
Special interests are one of Atkinson’s chief targets as he faces two better-known Republicans in a May primary election.
“I am frustrated the special interests have more power and influence than voters and the people they elected to represent them,” states Atkinson on his website. “I am determined to change the way we do business in Salem. It is wrong to fund education last. It is a failure of leadership to allow the will of the voters to be overturned. It is a mistake to confuse a special interest agenda with an agenda in Oregon’s best interests.”
Atkinson believes special interests have taken over politics in the state over the past 20 years.
“In Oregon, we’ve got a system of special interests that command the agenda,” he said.
The senator pointed a finger directly at the teachers’ unions, saying education lobbyists care only about getting more money from government coffers while disregarding the true needs of rank-and-file union members.
Noting the state’s elected officials all say education is a priority, Atkinson emphasized that the K-12 funding bill is routinely the last spending bill to pass – thanks to the power of special interests that “bottle up the bill and force delay.”
He says the education special interests play games with budget numbers to vilify Republicans and paint them as indifferent toward schools.
“Since I’ve been in office for eight years, education funding has gone up a billion dollars,” he said, but lobbyists are able to manipulate the media into reporting that “Republicans cut education.”
Added Atkinson: “It’s not about children with the special interests; it’s about money and power.”
The senator compared the simmering corruption scandal involving D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff to the way politics work in Salem, the capital of Oregon – something he aims to change if he is elected governor.
Attracting ‘frustrated Democrats’
Atkinson outlined three immediate goals he would seek to fulfill within 100 days of assuming the governor’s office: Break the “monopoly of special interests” on the education budget, pass Jessica’s Law, which establishes minimum sentences for sex offenders, and eliminate capital gains taxes.
“If I can accomplice those three things in the first 100 days, the balance of power in Oregon will shift dramatically,” he said.
Democrats hold a slight edge to Republicans in voter registration in Oregon, 39 percent to 36 percent. In 2000, President Bush lost the state to then-Vice President Gore by just 6,000 popular votes.
Atkinson says “independents and frustrated Democrats” in the Portland area will be key for him to attract if he’s to pull together a winning coalition.
Helping the cause of whichever Republican wins the primary is the fact that Washington, D.C., newspaper Roll Call in October named the incumbent Democrat governor, Ted Kulongoski, the most vulnerable state executive in the nation. Statewide polling has shown as little as 33 percent of Oregon voters would choose to keep Kulongoski in office.
In May’s primary race, Atkinson faces Kevin Mannix, a former legislator who narrowly lost to Kulongoski in 2002, and Portland attorney Ron Saxon, who also ran in the GOP primary four years ago.
In his quest to garner the Republican nomination, Atkinson is collecting the support of nationally known elected officials, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
“The governor has endorsed Jason Atkinson,” Perry spokesman Robert Black told WND, “and we will be doing what we can to see that he’s elected.”
Added Black: “[Perry] believes he’d be a good governor for the state or Oregon.”
‘Don’t give up’
Atkinson nearly left politics a few years ago. He tells the story of the birth of his son – premature and weighing 1 pound – during a time when he was being “beaten up” by his opponents and in the media. At that low point in his life, he says he came close to not running for re-election – but then he received a letter that changed his thinking.
“A little lady in Cave Junction sent me a note,” he explained. “At the time she was 78 years old, and she sent me a check for $10. … She wrote, ‘I want you to know that you made me proud. Don’t give up.’ Without being overly sentimental, that’s why I ran for re-election.”
The senator later set out five criteria that would have to be met for him to run for governor – including whether it would be “right” for his family.
“That included a tremendous amount of prayer,” he recalled, “over a year’s worth.”
Another issue was whether or not he could run for the “right reasons” and stand on his philosophy of government without changing his tune between the primary and general elections. He decided he could – and would.
The candidate criticized the method he says Republicans traditionally use to run for governor in Oregon:
“They raise a pile of money from the same 10 people and say, ‘I’m going to get real conservative in the primary and then real moderate in the general election.’”
Such an approach, he says, obviously has proven unsuccessful, so he’s using the lessons of the past to chart a different strategy.
Atkinson emphasizes the grass-roots nature of his campaign, saying though he doesn’t lead the GOP candidates in money raised, he has “raised more money in $10 increments than anybody else has.”
Campaigning on the Net
Atkinson believes his youth, experience and freshness will attract young professionals, independent voters and loyal Republicans.
Besides being younger than his opponents – which he says puts him in good stead with young voters in Oregon – Atkinson is utilizing untraditional means to get the word out, including the Internet.
“I met with a handful of bloggers, and out of that organically an Atkinson for Governor blogger network was started,” he said. “I was told we now have 20 blog sites on the Net.”
Such unconventional means “have been extremely well received,” said Atkinson.
Of his campaign team, Atkinson said, “We’ve got passion, tempo and work ethic, and the other guys are not going to be able to keep pace.”
Even though conventional wisdom would say a young lawmaker from the “wrong part of the state,” southern Oregon, can’t beat two better-known attorney politicians, Atkinson says recent polling data is positive.
In both scientific and non-scientific polls, the senator has come in either first or second in the three-way GOP race.
Atkinson compares himself to his opponents in many areas – a comparison he sees as a plus.
“You’re not going to say this Republican is 60 years old, he’s really well-connected and he’s wealthy – you’re not going to be able to say that,” Atkinson told WND. “What you’re going to be able say is this guy is has a young family who rides his bike, loves to fish and is outside all the time.”
His message: “I’m not a Republican to be feared – and that’s all the Democrats are going to come after me with.”
Political junkies in Oregon foresee a rousing fight between the three Republicans in this spring’s contest.
“There’s a potential for a Republican bloodbath in the primary,” Dave Hunnicutt, the executive director of Oregonians in Action, a property rights group, told the Associated Press. “Saxton, Mannix and Atkinson … you probably won’t have any Kumbayah meetings between the three of them.”
While Atkinson is open about his Christian faith, he believes some Christian in politics have “been martyred” by standing for one position so strongly that they become ineffective or are defeated at the polls.
“Some have been so ideologically rigid that they were actually irrelevant in public discourse,” he explained.
Referring to his own faith, Atkinson commented, “I can’t say that I believe in the model that Christ gave of servant leadership if I didn’t try to live it – and that’s who I am.”
He says that as a person of faith he wants to be effective in the long term, but will not water down his core principles.
Indeed, Atkinson openly voices his stance against abortion. Sunday, the senator addressed a rally of pro-lifers commemorating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade here, telling the approving crowd: “It’s time to finally elect a pro-life governor in Oregon!”
A family affair
Politics runs in the family for Atkinson. His father, Perry, was a candidate for Congress in the 1990s and later served as chairman of the Oregon Republican Party. Perry now is president and general manager of Christian radio station KDOV in Medford, Ore., and hosts the station’s morning talk show.
The baritone-voiced Atkinson, himself, has media experience, having written and produced a morning radio show and worked as an on-air personality. The senator also serves on the board of United Christian Broadcasters International.
Atkinson was first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1998 and was appointed to serve as assistant majority leader his first year in office. In 2000, he was elected to the state Senate, where he has served as deputy majority leader, majority whip and a committee chairman.
Last summer, Atkinson voted against a bill to establish same-sex civil unions in Oregon, and in 2003 he led opposition to a bill attempting to nullify for Oregonians some of the tax breaks in President Bush’s stimulus package eventually passed on the federal level.
In the private sector, Atkinson runs Allmand Tree Creative, a consulting firm, and also trains professionals on business ethics and servant leadership.
According to his online bio, Atkinson has been abroad several times on trade missions, serving as a representative of the United States in Egypt and Jordan.
Atkinson lives in Central Point, Ore., with his wife, Stephanie, and 3-year-old son, Perry “Pomp” Atkinson.
Said talk-show host and columnist Bob Just, who interviewed Atkinson on the radio recently: “Jason is young enough to dream and old enough to deliver.”
Come May, Oregon Republicans will decide if that youthful idealism is attractive enough to put up against a powerful Democratic Party and possibly steer this blue state closer to the red end of the spectrum.
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