March 7th, 2010 5:33 pm | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Politics

Breaking: State Treasurer Ben Westlund Succumbs to Cancer: Updated

Ben Westlund

State Treasurer Ben Westlund died last night after a long battle with lung cancer. (Updated at 3:46 pm: statement from Westlund's spokesman follows at the end of this post.)

Westlund, 60, first publicly disclosed in 2003 that he suffered from cancer. At the time, he was a Republican state senator from Tumalo, near Bend. After treatment, Westlund continued in the Senate and became the Legislature's leading voice on health care issues. He served as co-chair of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee, which writes the Legislature's budget. Although he grew up in the California desert and Lake Oswego and began his professional career in Portland, Westlund embraced rural Oregon. As a younger man, he co-owned and operated a diatomaceous earth (the raw material in kitty litter) mining operation. He parlayed that operation into a cattle ranch; and later ran a cattle breeding operation.

In 2006, increasingly at odds with the GOP, Westlund, a moderate, briefly entered the gubernatorial race as an independent. In 2008, he ran successfully for state treasurer, having changed his party affiliation to Democrat.

Westlund's cancer returned last year. He was hospitalized last fall but returned to work and continued to perform his duties as the state's top financial officer through last week.

Westlund and his wife Libby had two children. He was generous, funny, hard-working and dedicated to making the state he loved a better place.

While of course Westlund's loss to his family and friends is what people should be in people's minds today, his death also does leave a political vacancy.

The filing deadline for the 2010 elections is two days away on March 9. And by law, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, will now name a replacement to serve until the results of the November 2010 general election are official. As Westlund's health deteriorated in recent weeks, several names began to circulate in Salem as possible replacements.

In some ways the most logical person is ex-Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego). Macpherson, a benefits lawyer, is an expert on the Public Employee Retirement System, whose complexities figure into the Treasurer's job. And unlike some current lawmakers who may want the job but recently spurned Kulongoski's plea to reform the kicker, Macpherson aided the governor by taking on the thankless task of implementing PERS reform in 2003. Macpherson's role in PERS reform cost him dearly in the 2008 Attorney General's race. In that contest, public employee unions punished him by throwing extensive financial support to the eventual winner, John Kroger.

The target on Macpherson's back presents a risk: if Kulongoski appoints him, there's a possibility the public employee unions could recruit and support another Democrat to oppose him in the May primary. Given the short time window, union financial support could be a decisive advantage, but it would be difficult to recruit a strong candidate by filing time and given the bad press around allegations of Democratic retribution during the February special legislative session, the unions may just let Macpherson alone.

Other Democrats mentioned as possible successors include Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) and Senate Majority Leader Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin) and Sen. Rick Metsger (D-Welches). Metsger is retiring and thus available. Courtney and Devlin have planned to continue in the Senate but might be tempted by the post.

Another wrinkle to Kulongoski's decision is that Republicans have a very strong potential candidate in Allen Alley, the former Pixelworks CEO and Kulongoski aide who is currently seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Alley ran a strong second to Westlund in the 2008 treasurer's race. And Alley's performance Friday night at the GOP's Dorchester gubernatorial debate showed he has improved dramatically as a candidate. In that debate with former Trail Blazer Chris Dudley and former State Sen. John Lim (R-Gresham), Allen was eloquent, animated and specific. He clearly surprised and impressed many members of the audience, who rewarded him today in the Dorchester straw poll, in which he outpointed Dudley 225-165 (candidate John Lim also picked up 47 votes). But the challenge Alley faces is that Dudley appears to be the GOP's anointed candidate, winning several key endorsements already and out-fundraising Alley this year by about a seven-to-one ratio.

So fresh off that strong debate performance, Alley will doubtless face enormous pressure in the next 48 hours to consider quitting the governor's race and refiling in the Treasurer's race.

But all such speculation should not over-shadow the fact that Oregon lost a fine public servant today in Ben Westlund. Oregonians will miss him.

Updated at 3:46 pm with a statement from Westlund's spokesman, James Sinks:

SALEM -- In life, there are those who take the road less followed. Oregon State Treasurer Ben Westlund's was miles past where the pavement ends.

His path took him from Apple Valley, Calif; to the shores of Lake Oswego; to the painted hills of Eastern Oregon; to rural Deschutes County; and then to the statehouse, where he served as a legislator and as Treasurer.

In Central Oregon and then the Capitol, where Westlund spent much of the past 13 years since being first elected in 1996, he was known for his easygoing wit and his signature sign off: “Down the trail.”

Westlund's journey ended too soon. He died early Sunday in Bend, when he lost his battle to cancer. He was 60.

The son of Long Beach oilman Bernard "Bud", and Dorothy Reynolds Westlund, was born Sept. 3, 1949, Spent first 16 years in Apple Valley, California where his father had a successful real estate development. Then his family returned to the Northwest with his two brothers. He graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where he earned a degree in education and history.

He helped start a successful mining venture in Christmas Valley, and then a marketing company in Portland. In the 1980s he started ranching in Eastern Oregon and named his operation High Country Herefords, and a cattle genetics operation in Oklahoma called Taurus. His best-known and most economically successful prize-winning Hereford bull was named Reggie.

Westlund married his wife, Libby Bishop, a high school classmate and friend, in1987. After selling his registered Hereford herd in 1990 they settled on the Deschutes River in Tumalo, outside of Bend. They have two children; BJ, 21, and Taylor, 17. Ben dutifully called home every night at 8 p.m. during his years at the Capitol to say good night to his family.

A lifetime fan of baseball, specifically the Los Angeles Dodgers, Westlund also was part-owner in the 1990s of a minor league baseball team, the Bend Bandits. While it was fun to own a team, Ben recounted that the best part of the experience was traveling the state with his kids, watching their team play.

A friend convinced him to run for the legislature in 1996 and Westlund was elected to the Oregon Legislature House of Representatives. In 2003, he was appointed to the Senate and successfully won the seat in 2004. He quickly earned a reputation as a problem solver and as an advocate for Oregon families.

In his 12 years in the state Legislature, he was a co-chairman of the budget-drafting Joint Ways and Means Committee and championed legislation that created the State's Rainy Day Fund, Public Safety Memorial Fund and the Oregon Cultural Trust. He was the chief legislative advocate for creating the Cascades Campus of Oregon State University in Central Oregon.

He survived an initial bout with lung cancer in 2005. A political moderate who started his career as a Republican, Westlund bucked his party and was the cosponsor of legislation to give marriage-like rights to same-sex couples. He staged a brief campaign for governor as an independent in 2006.

He fought for consumer protection and was the co-author of Oregon's health system reforms in 2007, and was elected as Oregon's 27th State Treasurer in 2008. He is the only state treasurer to be elected from east of the Cascades in recent memory.

As Treasurer, he gained national attention for his initiative to expand investment transparency and led a series of reforms to increase accountability and options in the Oregon 529 College Savings Plan. He was instrumental in securing a $20 million settlement in 2009 for families who are saving for their children's futures.

He worked to the end and was he was a hands-on, creative and collaborative leader who sought to bring out the best in his staff. In the final quarter of 2009, the returns earned by the State Treasury investment division were in the top 1 percent of large public funds.

In his speeches, he frequently joked that while folks can learn lifelong lessons in kindergarten, you can learn a lot about being Treasurer from ranching. For instance, watch out for predators, sunshine is the best disinfectant, and watch where you step.

Westlund's legacy will live on in Oregon, in the form of the cultural trust and public safety fund, which provides money to families of officers killed or injured in the line of duty. His legacy also will live on in the memories of friends and Oregonians whose lives he touched, and those who spoke with him, or were fortunate enough to meet him in his travels down almost every road – paved or not -- across the state he loved.

Down the trail, Ben.

Down the trail.

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