Westlund provided leadership example
State Treasurer Ben Westlund's death Sunday from cancer is a significant loss for the state. In the toxic political environment that permeates Salem, in which every vote and every public statement is measured by its ability to promote one party or tear down the other, Westlund was refreshingly different. The guy didn't care about party labels.
Westlund was elected to the statehouse in 1996 and emerged as a rising Republican star. He served in 2001 as co-chairman of the state's powerful budget-writing committee, just before the last economic downturn decimated the state budget. Tired of cutting services, he supported a failed effort to establish a temporary income tax hike and was subsequently stripped of his committee post by fellow Republicans.
When his party tilted further right, he registered as an independent in 2006 and later registered as a Democrat. Some Republicans never forgave Westlund. Some Democrats never fully embraced him. But along the way, he demonstrated that he was more interested in getting things done than scoring points for any political party.
As a lawmaker, Westlund helped establish the Oregon Cultural Trust and fought to overhaul the health care system. He was tight with taxpayers' money, yet he understood the need to adequately fund schools and social services. The Oregon Legislature was once full of leaders like him: moderate Republicans such as Tony Van Vliet, Delna Jones, Max Williams and Lynn Lundquist, and conservative Democrats such as Bob Shiprack, Jim Whitty and Tom Brian (who later ended up a Republican).
These folks helped shape this state for many decades, demonstrating that it is at the middle of the political extremes where the hard work of governing usually gets done.
During the past few days, lawmakers from both parties have remembered Westlund by saying commendable things about him. If they really want to honor him, they should follow his example by ending their partisan sniping and meeting in the middle, working toward solutions to the state's challenges.