Wyden has reason to be happy

They used to call 20th-century politician Al Smith "The Happy Warrior."

Sen. Ron Wyden might just be this century's equivalent; one seldom sees him without a smile and an upbeat nature.

There's good reason for that these days. After a long time as a member of the minority Democrats in the Senate, Wyden now is a major player in the party of the majority.

While still in the minority, he was astute enough to form a bipartisan partnership with Republican Sen. Gordon Smith and multiply his muscle on behalf of the state of Oregon.

Now he's got a new, Democratic partner in Sen. Jeff Merkley and a pair of Democratic senators in Washington state for further help on regional issues.

That's a potentially bright future, but Wyden got there by doing the right things in the past.

One of the lessons he learned early and deeply was that of former Rep. Al Ullman (1914-1986).

Ullman represented Oregon's sprawling east-of-the-Cascades Second District. By the time the election of 1980 rolled around, Ullman had been in Congress for 24 years, and had been the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. During the Reagan years, he was arguably the most powerful Democrat in Congress.

He should have been a shoo-in for re-election, but when the dust had settled on election day, voters had handed Ullman his hat and sent him home.

What brought down this seemingly invincible politician?

Two factors: He came out in support of an English-style Value Added Tax (VAT), which would have taxed every level of production, from say, an ingot of steel to a case of sewing needles.

That had voters in both parties up in arms.

But the thing that really sealed his doom was a very simple television ad. It showed a picture of a post office box in Pendleton.

"This is Al Ullman's legal residence in Oregon," the ad intoned, going on to point out that the Congressman no longer had a residence in Oregon, and had "gone native" in Washington, D.C.

Ullman had made only six trips to Oregon in the previous year, it pointed out, suggesting that he was out of touch with the people he was supposed to represent in the halls of Congress.

When Wyden was elected, he took that lesson to heart.

He made a pledge to visit every county in the state of Oregon every year he was in office.

And he has done so. Last week, he celebrated his 500th town-hall meeting in Oregon in his decade in office.

He did so in the community of Fossil in Wheeler County. That's the same place he held his first town-hall meeting.

"They looked at me kind of funny," Wyden said later that day, at his third county town-hall meeting in Moro.

"Here was this tall Jewish guy from Portland with a face for radio, and they turned to each other and asked, 'Why is he here. We didn't vote for him.' "

The line drew a big laugh, but the logic behind it was sound.

It takes a certain type of character to start where he is not the likely candidate of choice, and keep on going.

Town-hall participants notice that he works without a script, answers every question and refers constituent problems to his aide, who follows through. That dedication, that willingness to listen and connect with voters will keep Oregon's senior senator in office a long, long, time, we predict.

It's no small stretch of the imagination to suspect that with the passage of a few years, Sen. Wyden will be celebrating his 1,000th town-hall meeting, to a warm reception, somewhere in Oregon.

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