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January 21st, 2009 HENRY STERN | Q & A
 

Bob Tiernan

Oregon’s GOP chairman on the business of being a Republican and why gay, agnostic Portlanders should vote for Republicans.

     
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GRAND OLD PARTISAN: Bob Tiernan
IMAGE: Ashley Sturm

For somebody who just got chosen for a brutal job—turning around the Republican Party in Oregon—Bob Tiernan was in a pretty damn good mood last week.

Some might wonder why Tiernan laughed so much during an hourlong interview in WW’s Northwest Portland office.

After all, the Republicans are deep in the minority in the Oregon Legislature, without a statewide office for the first time in 150 years, and trying to dig out of debt.

But state Republican Party delegates chose Tiernan earlier this month as their chairman in hopes he could put smiles back on their faces.

If you’ve forgotten who Tiernan is, the basics are these: He’s a 53-year-old former state House member from Lake Oswego who took great pleasure in tangling with public-employee unions while in the Legislature during the 1990s.

And now he’s back plotting and organizing the Republicans’ return to relevance.

WW: What’s your turnaround strategy?
Bob Tiernan: The business is in sad shape. And my experience prior to politics is turning around business. It’s really all the same. I didn’t want to be the skipper of the Titanic, so I looked at the top three Republican Party organizations across the country—Georgia, Ohio and Utah—and the Democratic Party of Oregon, which is very well run. If it were a business, I’d say, “Wow, I’d invest in it.”

How’d the state GOP get to this point?
I don’t know and I really don’t care. To me the party has never been as strong as it should be.

What’s a realistic goal for the 2010 election?
When I was first elected to the House in 1992, Larry Campbell was the speaker. And Republicans had one seat where we didn’t run a candidate and Campbell was so upset. I never forgot that. This last time around, 17 were not contested. That will not happen again in 2010.

So again, looking back on how that happened, was it stupid, criminal or criminally stupid?
Incompetent.

How can Republicans ever be successful winning races in Portland?
Within 100 yards of this building, we probably can’t. But you can never write something off. So is it possible? Yeah. What’s coming up right now is Republicans’ strong suit, fiscal responsibility.

So, let’s say you were trying to persuade an 18-year-old gay Portlander or an 18-year-old agnostic Portlander to register as a Republican. Give me your pitch.
OK. Do you like saving your money? Being able to own private property? To buy a house with some acreage? To not pay bridge tolls or higher gas taxes? Do you want to have a job? Do you want to continue to work? How much government do you want?… That would be my pitch.

Can a Republican who believes everything you just said about nonsocial issues, but is, say, gay or agnostic, win a primary in Oregon?
There are a lot of primaries they could win. The tolerance issue is behind us. The social issues I think are getting behind us. In all of my discussions with the delegates who voted for me, the abortion issue came up twice in hundreds of discussions.

What do you think about Sarah Palin in 2012?
I don’t have a very strong opinion one way or the other.

Really? You must be the only person in America.
Well, I worked in Alaska and I’m very familiar with the Alaskan mentality. For a female to come out of Wasilla and be on City Council? Uh, OK. To become mayor? Wow, that’s something interesting. And to run for governor and win? She has an impressive steel in her to accomplish what she has. Whether she’s national material or not, I think we’re a long ways from knowing that.

How about for governor of Oregon in 2010? Who are the front-runners to win the Republican nomination?
We don’t take sides. But I think [U.S. Rep.] Greg Walden would make an excellent candidate. [2008 treasurer candidate] Allen Alley would make an excellent candidate. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone come out of this session who really shows leadership. Who that might be, I don’t know yet.

No chance Gordon Smith is going to run?
I think for him to come back and run for governor would be considered a step down. Right now, he’s just down and out. He’s very surprised and disappointed. I wouldn’t be surprised if he would take on [U.S. Sen.] Ron Wyden.

Would you ever run again for elected office?
I would never say never. But right now it’s never. I don’t have a lot of patience, and politics is full of frustration. I’d much rather train other people.

Have you mellowed over time?
I’ve gotten smarter over time. When I was in the Legislature, I was a lieutenant. I’m now a commander.

 
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