4. Jumping in with Both Feet
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55 chapter 4 Jumping in with Both Feet I’m tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t work. We are supposed to work it. —Alexander Woollcott, writer and critic (1887–1942) Bob Straub’s seduction into state politics was probably inevitable, given his driven nature and the exciting developments happening in Oregon for Democrats. Midway through Bob Straub’s term as Lane County Commissioner, in the 1956 election, the Democrats built upon their successes in 1954 and managed a tremendous breakthrough, winning the governorship for the first time in twenty years with their candidate Robert Holmes, from Gearhart, on the northern Oregon coast. The Democrats also picked up three of the four congressional seats, and retained U.S. Senator Wayne Morse’s seat after his conversion from Independent to Democrat. This change meant that, with Senator Neuberger, Oregon Democrats now held both U.S. Senate seats. Oregon’s 1956 political transformation included the Democrats winning control of the State House of Representatives and a fifteen–fifteen split in the State Senate.1 Democrats now held an advantage of more than thirty-seven thousand registered voters, statewide.2 The utter rout of the Republicans was alleviated only by election of a young, charismatic State Senator Mark O. Hatfield as secretary of state, narrowly defeating the Democratic Party mastermind, State Senator Monroe Sweetland in the otherwise very Democratic year. A confluence of fortuitous and unfortunate events led to Holmes’ victory and the Democratic sweep. The fact that there was a governor’s race in 1956 was due to the untimely death of Oregon’s popular Republican governor. Governor Paul Patterson had decided in January of 1956 to challenge U.S. Senator Wayne Morse.3 Two days after Governor Patterson’s announcement that he would run against Morse, on January 31, 1956, the governor died of a massive heart attack.4 The president of the State Senate, Elmo Smith, a Republican from Ontario, along the Idaho border, became governor under Oregon’s laws of succession, but was also required by state law to run for the right to complete the final two years of Patterson’s term. Had Patterson lived, the Republicans would have retained the governorship whether he had won 56 Standing at the Water’s Edge or lost in his race against Senator Morse. Patterson would have either served out the final two years of his term or appointed his successor to do the same before leaving for Washington, DC. Democrat Robert Holmes announced his candidacy for the special election shortly after Governor Patterson’s death and the state’s newly emboldened Democrats rallied behind him. Holmes was a respected state senator from Clatsop County, who managed local radio station KAST in Astoria. Holmes had a distinguished record, including being entrusted by the Senate Republican majority, like his friend Dick Neuberger before him, to chair the Senate Education Committee; he won statewide acclaim for his work to improve the state’s system of public education.5 The Democrats had two major issues in their favor. The first, and probably the most decisive, was that the Republican-dominated state legislature had championed a very high-profile 3 percent sales tax measure in the 1955 State Legislative Session. After the bill had passed the House of Representatives, Senator Holmes led a dramatic Senate floor fight on May 3, the day before the end of the legislative session, which blocked the bill from being sent to the voters. In addition to the Senate Democrats, Holmes picked up enough skeptical Republicans, including rising Republican star Mark Hatfield, to win the critical vote that day by a twenty–ten margin. Though future Governor Smith, as president of the state senate, ultimately voted against the sales tax referral, he was tarred with the Republican pro-sales-tax brush.6 Historically, Oregon voters have looked unfavorably upon attempts to tax commercial sales transactions and the Democrats rode this issue hard in all the state races. Their main argument against this proposal, as it would be for all broad sales tax measures, was that it taxed at a higher percentage the disposable income of those who earn less, but who still need to purchase basic necessities. The Republicans’ pro-sales tax argument was that the 3 percent tax would be used to fund public schools.7 For this reason, they found support among school advocates and many newspapers. Holmes, and the Democrats, who were generally in favor of spending more on...


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