Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

The Political Legacy of Robert W. Straub

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

The Political Legacy of Robert W. Straub

Article excerpt

WHEN THE OREGON HIGHWAY Commission approved a new route for Highway 101 over the sand spit at the mouth of the Nestucca River near Pacific City in 1966, the action led to a roar of protests by those who feared the road would destroy the natural environment along the spit and limit public access to the beach. Leading the opposition was Oregon Treasurer Robert W Straub. The proposal, Straub warned, was a like a "cocked arrow"; once the state approved a road along the spit, it would begin building roads over other sand spits down the entire coast. (1) Over the next year, few issues were as important in Oregon politics, as it dominated headlines and galvanized debate in coastal communities and in the Willamette Valley. In championing the battle against the new route, Straub not only found himself challenging the highway commission but also ardent local advocates and the popular Republican Governor Tom McCall. Straub won an important victory in the battle when the U.S. secretary of the interior announced that the new road could not be built on Bureau of Land Management lands as planned because it was incompatible with the land's designation as a recreational site. Although the issue continued to reappear for over a year, the ruling weakened McCall's support and eventually led to the project being dropped. (2)

The battle over the Nestucca spit is probably the issue for which Governor Bob Straub is most remembered today. Yet, for more than twenty years, Straub helped shape political debate and policy making in the state and was an important leader in Oregon politics. He served as a Lane County commissioner, state senator, Democratic Party chair, and treasurer, and he was the Democratic Party's candidate for the governor in four consecutive elections, from 1966 to 1978. As state treasurer, Straub professionalized the state's financial investment practices and, as a result, significantly strengthened Oregon's finances. As governor, he pushed for economic development, the creation of a state power authority, better services for senior citizens, the reorganization of state agencies, and the passage of an innovative community corrections program.

For all of his accomplishments, however, one can argue that Straub's most important political legacy was in championing conservation and in helping create the environmental ethic that has become identified with Oregon. Straub was the leading proponent of the Willamette Greenway Project, for example, a plan to turn the land along the river into a 220-mile-long park stretching from Eugene to Portland. He played a major role in bringing about legislation to protect the beaches from development. As governor, he helped protect the state's fledgling land-use program and jump-start the mass-transit system in Portland, and he used his position as a bully pulpit to promote a variety of environmental causes. Political commentators routinely emphasize the important role that Tom McCall played in shaping the state's environmental record and ethic, often referring to McCall's successes and the state's environmental ethic as the "Oregon Story." Straub deserves credit as one of the major contributors to that story. With his death in November 2002, it is time to reflect on Straub's position in Oregon's political history and the contributions he made to the state.

SCHOLARS OF STATE POLITICS argue that many factors influence the success that governors and other leaders have in shaping public policy. (3) Some of those factors are personal in nature, reflecting the qualities that a leader brings into office. They include a leader's work ethic, negotiation skills, past experience in government, media savvy, and popularity among voters. No matter how forceful or skillful they may be, however, leaders cannot simply dictate the direction that a state takes. Their impact also reflects the environment or context in which they live. Such factors as the state of the economy, the extent of partisan conflict in the legislature, and the degree of political agreement among voters can all affect a governor's influence. …

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