Jason Atkinson: A Real Political Recovery

I was born in the Amazon and raised by a pack of wolves until the age of twelve, when some missionaries in dug-out canoes came to spread the gospel, then found me and took me back to their home in Oregon to raise me properly.

Jonathan Miller, my lifelong friend from our Rodel Fellow days, and expert forger of Al Gore’s signature, asked me to contribute a biographical sketch.  I, however, really do not like discussing myself and I chose to use the more interesting Discovery Channel version of a first sentence.

I have never considered myself much of a politician either; I am more like an idealist with twinges of Robin Hood and Teddy Roosevelt pumping through my veins…so much for humility.

I have served in the Oregon Legislature since 1999.  My first campaign became a forecast for my political life: lobbyists and “insiders” were against me and contributed $40k to my first opponent.  My wife gave me $100 bucks and I outworked the guy.  Many campaigns later, sometimes winning both the Republican and Democratic primaries, I am still the same man the “insiders” hold in suspect.

I teach a college seminar on Oregon politics and servant leadership.  The class starts with the showing of three speeches: Robert Kennedy’s brilliant speech in Indiana when M.L.K. was assassinated; Representative Barbara Jordan’s speech at Watergate, “we are here to uphold the Constitution, the Constitution that at one time did not uphold me;” and Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural “City on a Hill.”  Then I ask the students if they will see that sort of behavior while watching the Oregon Senate.  That question is followed by the question that is the final exam:  Do you believe 10% of the Oregon Senate holds the other 90% together?  If they answer yes, then I ask them to put the names down.  Since 2003, most of the answers have been yes, and most of the names are the same.  The Senators named are rarely the grand-standers, the partisans or the blowhards.   I think this premise holds true in every Legislature, every Congress all the way to the first five Continental Congresses in U.S. history.

If I have an epithet in politics, I hope it would be I was one of the 10%.  That is my goal, but looking at my press lately, I am being taught what a rotten person I am.  When Jonathan’s and my classmate; Gabby Giffords, was shot; I made a speech about civility and it was not taken well.  Bloggers lit me up, talk-radio jumped in and other Senators saw a weakness so they piled on.  In the hyper-partisan era we now live in, I am sad to report my experience has not closed the gap between issues or personalities.  Thinking of becoming a recovering politician, I told a friend I was not afraid of the heat in kitchen, but after standing in it so long I have asked myself, is it worth it?  Going back to that idealism line, I have to answer yes.

The femoral artery

In 2006 I ran for Governor, did not win, started working in Northern Iraq with the Kurds, came home, and was shot in my garage.  Unlike the Amazon bit, this is all true.  A .38 bullet – hidden inside a bag – was dropped in my shop and the derringer went off, destroying my femur and cutting my femoral artery.  My wife heard the noise, came out to find her husband bleeding to death on the floor, tied a tourniquet with a rubber inner tube and has enjoyed Christmas and her birthday even more ever since.  I am told I was about 90 seconds away from bleeding out, my leg was to be amputated and I was never to walk again.  All three did not happen thanks to God’s healing hand and my headstrong ability to fight through the pain of rehab.

My life changed in that instant, but politics was already speculating I was dead, that I could not win statewide anyway, and that somehow I had shot myself.  That last bit was the hardest to hear, as I never saw the gun and had no knowledge of it near me.  About a year later, I was speech-making to a crowd of about 1,000 citizens on the steps of the Capitol, when someone who said to all I shot myself introduced me, which got a lot of laughs.  I handled it ok, but my wife let the introducer know in no uncertain terms how far out-of-line he was.

It has been a tough three years: my wife had and beat cancer, our 8-year-old son had and beat cancer, and my party beats on me for not “being good enough.”  There is no complaining as I have more pain killers than the lot of bad apples, but it does bring an old American conundrum into focus:  How do you vote if your conscience and your district/state/party are at polar opposites?

I struggle with politics.  I love service but am burned out on the pettiness.  I hope the body politic is not run by those who can raise the most money to personally destroy the competition, but right now that is where the pendulum points.

A van down by the river...

Back to the Amazon with more truths:  I earned my MBA after being run over by a car while on my bicycle.  I sat on the pavement and thought “I have accomplished everything I set out to do in professional alpine skiing and racing bikes around the world, I think it’s time for grad school.”  It was, and I married Stephanie half way through school.  I live between Salem/Portland (Oregon’s political and business hubs) and our farm in Southern Oregon, except during steelhead season when I live in a van by the river. Anyway, I fly fish two-handed with religious conviction, struggle to get two more books published and enjoy foreign diplomatic work more than anything I have ever done.

And, just for the record, if you ever need Al Gore to sign something, I know how to get that done.

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