Tributes are being paid to Vic Atiyeh, the governor who led Oregon out of the 1982 recession and laid the economic foundations for international trade and high technology.
Atiyeh, a Republican who was governor from 1979 to 1987, died at 8:15 p.m. Sunday at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland. He was 91.
Doctors said the cause of death was complications from renal failure, according to Denny Miles, an Atiyeh family spokesman and Atiyeh’s communications director during his governorship.
There was no official word yet on memorial services or his funeral.
Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber was president of the Oregon Senate during the last two years Atiyeh was governor. Sometimes he clashed with Atiyeh, and sometimes he cooperated.
“He was the first governor under whom I served when I was first elected to the Legislature in 1978, and he was both a mentor and a friend,” Kitzhaber said in a statement Sunday night.
“He led Oregon out of the recession of the early 1980s, with a strategy embraced by both parties, and went on to make international trade a cornerstone of Oregon’s economy. He will be greatly missed, yet his steady leadership, gentle spirit, and love for our state lives on in the many contributions he made to Oregon.”
Kitzhaber’s Republican rival in the Nov. 4 election is state Rep. Dennis Richardson of Central Point, who was endorsed by Atiyeh.
“Atiyeh’s persistent determination to drive our state to prosperity is one of the things that first moved me to public service,” Richardson said in a statement. “I strive daily to emulate his example of patience and grit, as well as his compelling resolve to work for a better Oregon.”
Gerry Thompson was Atiyeh’s chief of staff for 5 1/2 years, and the first woman to hold the job, which then was known as executive assistant.
“He approached the responsibility of Oregon governor like he was the chief executive officer of the state’s largest enterprise,” Thompson said.
“Governor Atiyeh was an involved leader, but one who gave agency heads a lot of latitude to come up with creative solutions to difficult problems. He was quick to give credit to others, even when he deserved it himself.”
State Sen. Jackie Winters of Salem, who was state ombudsman for Atiyeh from 1979 to 1981, saw him and his wife in June at a dinner at the Kah-Nee-Ta resort of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
Winters said Atiyeh told her it may have been his final appearance at the dinner.
“I always marveled at his strength,” Winters said in a brief interview. “We chatted for a bit; I was surprised he was there, but was pleased that he was. It was just so good to see him. I’m very saddened.”
Atiyeh entered the hospital Saturday because of shortness of breath and possible internal bleeding.
With him when he died were his wife, Dolores; his son, Tom; his daughter, Suzanne, and five grandchildren. His brother, Ed, wife Karen, and three nieces also were present.
He had been in and out of the hospital within the past month.
On July 5, on the 70th wedding anniversary of Vic and Dolores Atiyeh, the former governor fell at his home in Beaverton and broke some ribs. He was treated and released, then returned July 15 for additional treatment and released.
When he returned to the hospital Saturday, doctors said it was for treatment of gastrointestinal bleeding that may or may not have been connected with his fall July 5.
Atiyeh observed his 91st birthday on Feb. 20. He was the second oldest former governor in Oregon history. Walter Pierce was a few months shy of 93 when he died in 1954.
Atiyeh’s most recent public appearance was Oct. 3 at Pacific University, where he donated personal papers and memorabilia.
“This is an emotional night for you and for me,” he said then. “This is equal to any highlight I have ever received in my entire life.”
He added: “This is about a human being who grew up and worked in a small retail business and who became governor of Oregon. I never imagined any of this. But here I am.”
Atiyeh’s stint in the center office of the Capitol topped a political career that lasted three decades.
In his two elections, he defeated a former Republican governor in the 1978 GOP primary, unseated the incumbent Democratic governor in the general election — someone who beat him four years earlier — and beat a future Democratic governor in winning re-election in 1982.
He was born in 1923 in Northeast Portland to George and Linda Atiyeh. His father had emigrated from Syria years earlier; as governor, Atiyeh would visit Syria twice in the 1980s.
After attending Portland schools, he went to the University of Oregon, where he was in the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and played football as a guard. “I became a ‘standout’ only after I was elected governor,” he said with a laugh in an interview in 2012.
He was awaiting his call-up to military service in World War II, but an old leg injury compelled his discharge before he saw active duty.
His twin brothers, Edward and Richard, became prisoners of war in Europe, but both survived.
He was in his family’s carpet business, which he took over after his father died in 1944, when he was recruited to run for the Oregon House in 1958.
“I had no clue I was going to be in government as I was,” he said. “I never anticipated running for re-election to anything, even as governor. It was not the title, but the issues I became interested in.”
He spent six years in the House and 14 years in the Senate, all when Republicans were the minority party. In four of those years, however, Republicans were part of a bipartisan coalition that ran the Senate until 1972.
Atiyeh became Senate Republican leader in 1973.
He made his first bid for governor in 1974, when Republican Tom McCall was ineligible for a third consecutive term. Atiyeh won the nomination over McCall’s anointed successor, Secretary of State Clay Myers, but then lost to Democrat Bob Straub, who was endorsed by McCall.
The election was in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and President Gerald Ford’s pardon of predecessor Richard Nixon. Republicans took the brunt of public reaction, Atiyeh said, “and I knew I wasn’t going to win.”
Four years later, and just two years after Atiyeh led Ford’s presidential campaign in Oregon, Atiyeh won the governorship on his second try.
To do so, he beat McCall — who was making a comeback bid — and House Republican Leader Roger Martin in the primary. He handily defeated Straub in a rematch with a 55 percent majority.
He gave generous memorial tributes to McCall in 1983 and Straub in 2002.
In 1982, Atiyeh came from behind to beat Democratic state Sen. Ted Kulongoski to win a second term. Kulongoski would go on to two terms as governor 20 years later.
A tough tenure
Atiyeh’s first session as governor in 1979 went relatively smoothly, in retrospect. But then came an economic downturn that reached a peak of 12.6 percent unemployment by 1982.
Income tax collections, then and now a mainstay of the state’s two-year budget, also dropped as people lost their jobs or took pay cuts.
During 1982 — the year Atiyeh was up for re-election — he had to call legislators back into session three times to balance the budget. One of those special sessions, at an official 37 days, remains the longest such session in state history.
It also resulted in the unlikely combination of a Republican governor and Democratic legislative majorities — with a few critical Republican votes — cutting spending and raising taxes to balance the budget.
“We said the increase would be temporary, and people believed us,” Atiyeh said, whose credibility was enhanced probably because he was a Republican.
Lawmakers extended a one-year surcharge on income taxes for two more years in 1983, but then let it expire after 1985.
“Hardly anybody remembers those things because we did not make a big deal about them,” Atiyeh said in a 2012 interview. “That’s OK with me.”
Into the future
At the same time, Atiyeh began laying the economic foundations for Oregon to expand into international trade and high technology.
The first of Atiyeh’s nine trips to Asia — out of 20 trade missions during his tenure — took place shortly after he took office in 1979. It took many trips for him to build relationships with Japanese business executives and persuade them to invest in Oregon.
The breakthrough came in 1984, when NEC Corp. committed to build an assembly plant in Hillsboro. Some of those plants have been shut down since, but Oregon’s largest private employer today is chip-maker Intel Corp., based in Santa Clara, Calif.
Oregon exports were at $2.4 billion in 1978, when Atiyeh was elected governor. They peaked at $4.1 billion in 1984 before dipping in the final two years he was governor. In 2011, exports accounted for $18 billion, about 10 percent of Oregon’s goods and services produced that year.
China, not Japan, is Oregon’s largest trading partner. But it was Atiyeh who began a sister-state relationship with China’s Fujian province with a visit there in 1984.
Race and moderation
Not all of Atiyeh’s work was on a grand scale.
As a legislator, he helped create the Commission on Indian Services. As governor, he signed the bills creating advocacy commissions on black and Hispanic affairs.
He was the first Arab-American governor, although he never played up that fact until he visited his ancestral homeland of Syria.
“He understood the need for diverse voices,” said Winters, his former aide.
Atiyeh grimaced in recent years when he was introduced regularly as the “last Republican governor of Oregon.” Voters have elected only Democrats since he left the governorship in 1987, their longest such streak in state history.
But though he endorsed most Republicans who sought the office since his tenure, including Richardson, Atiyeh once said: “I never left my party; my party left me.”
Miles, his former spokesman, said, “Both during and after his term of office, Atiyeh today will be remembered as a political moderate.”
After he left office, Atiyeh became a consultant in international trade. He maintained an office until after he turned 90 in 2013.