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The Oregonian - Gordon Smith: A Heart and a Vote for Oregon

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The Oregonian - Gordon Smith: A Heart and a Vote for Oregon

David Reinhard

He's the kind of U.S. senator that all but the fiercest ideologues or partisans say they want in a lawmaker. He's thoughtful, independent and not easily pegged. He looks at issues as they come up, reaches across the political aisle to get real things done and votes in the best interest of his state -- his whole state.

Yes, Sen. Gordon Smith can drive a lot of us to distraction at times. A former senator described him to me as "a feelings kind of guy." Those feelings and a salesman's itch to please customers can lead him into contortions of logic and even incoherence (his Iraq war position). Heaven knows, he's confused and irked me at times. But those feelings and his pleaser's bent have also helped make the Pendleton Republican the kind of senator so many Oregonians -- including this one -- say they want in a lawmaker.

It would be a shame to lose such an independent-minded lawmaker now that he's achieved senior status, because a small state such as Oregon depends on seniority to protect its interests. It would be a special shame to replace him with Democrat Jeff Merkley, who shares none of Smith's bipartisan and independent instincts -- or, as he showed again this month, Smith's appreciation of what's best for Oregon.

Here are two figures that tell you all you need to know about the difference between the rounded Smith and the cookie cutout Merkley: zero and 50.

Zero is the number of positions Merkley has taken that are at odds with the Democratic Party. In Salem. And in this Senate race. Zero, zilch, nil, nada. When The Oregonian's Harry Esteve asked him to name a specific topic on which he broke from or defied other Democratic leaders, Merkley couldn't name one. Oregonians would be sending a Democratic automaton to the Senate in this partisan. Why not save taxpayer cash during the next six years and just give Charles Schumer, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Merkley's -- and Oregon's -- proxy in the Senate. Zero. That's an astonishing level of hyper-partisanship and unoriginal thinking.

Now, consider the No. 50. That's Smith's ranking in the nonpartisan National Journal's 2006 breakdown of liberals and conservatives in the Senate. With 100 senators, that puts him right in the middle.

There are all kind of examples of Smith's bipartisanship and independence. His break with the Bush White House on the Iraq war. His bid to stop a GOP budget that cut $35 billion from Medicaid, which funds the Oregon Health Plan. His vote to override President Bush's veto of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. His support of children's health-care legislation that Bush and Republicans opposed. The list goes on and explains why there's a large "Democrats for Smith," group, which includes former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Furse and state Sen. Avel Gordly.

The No. 50 should say something to voters about who works across party lines and plays it down the middle. Half of the Senate is to his left; half is to his right. His voting record's not too conservative and not too liberal. It's just right. Smith could be senator from "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

But he's the senator from Oregon, and it showed in the recent vote on the financial rescue bill. It wasn't an easy vote for anybody, especially someone fighting for re-election. But not only was the package the only proper vote if you cared about the economy and country. It also included something critical to Oregon: a four-year extension of the county payments program crucial to Oregon's timber communities.

Smith voted for the bill, along with Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John McCain. He decided that doing something was better than doing nothing. "There can no longer be any doubt that our nation faces an economic crisis, a crisis that is already hurting Oregonians," he said. "I am reaching across the aisle once again to help rescue the main streets of Oregon from the greed of Wall Street, while also extending an economic lifeline to Oregon's rural communities."

And Merkley? Merkley waited until an hour after the vote to announce his opposition to the bill.

"My opponent, in opposing the rescue plan," Smith responded, "has shamefully placed his partisan ambitions ahead of the retirement, financial and economic security of the people he seeks to serve and once again has demonstrated his willingness to leave Oregon's rural communities behind. That's not what Oregonians expect their senator to do."

One would think. One would hope. We shall see.

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