Les AuCoin hopes memoir inspires, removes 'shackles'
Les AuCoin is one of the few modern-day Oregon political figures to write a memoir.
AuCoin spent more than two decades in politics, including four years in the Oregon House from Washington County, and 18 years as the first Democrat in the 1st District congressional seat from northwest Oregon.
But AuCoin, now 77 and living in Southwest Portland, says there was a nonpolitical reason for writing "Catch and Release: An Oregon Life in Politics." His father abandoned his family when he was just 4, leaving his mother to raise him and a younger brother.
"Here was a mother who had an eighth-grade education. No male in my family had ever graduated from high school. But I ended up being one of several thousand members of Congress" in U.S. history, AuCoin said in an interview.
"I want people to understand that you can enter the world with less than a silver spoon in your mouth, but it's not a life sentence. If one person reads this book, gets inspired and feels the shackles are gone, it would have been well worth the effort."
AuCoin graduated from Redmond Union High School in 1960, having been named honorable mention on the All-State boys' basketball team. He also managed to get As on his journalism class assignments, which led to a summer job in sports with the Redmond Spokesman.
AuCoin went to Pacific University in Forest Grove, which according to the 1960 Census was a town of 5,628, a quarter of today's population.
"It was a town of shopkeepers; there weren't chain stores or fast-food outlets," he recalled. "The chamber of commerce was powerful. Businessmen were independent; the town was Republican, but all in all, a pleasant place to be."
AuCoin's first stint at Pacific lasted barely a year. He returned and obtained a degree after three years in the Army and his 1965 marriage to Sue Swearingen, a Redmond classmate he did not know well while they were still in high school.
Into the arena
AuCoin was Pacific University's director of information and editor of the college magazine when he decided to get involved in politics. His first effort was on behalf of Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy, an insurgent who opposed the Vietnam War and challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson before Johnson bowed out of a re-election bid.
Though McCarthy lost the Democratic nomination, his campaign inspired AuCoin to stay involved, this time as a long-shot candidate for the Oregon House from Washington County in 1970. AuCoin said he knew his campaign would be tough.
"I recall that we had seven Republicans sitting on one side and me, the lone Democrat, on the other (at a candidate fair). It demonstrated the fact that Republicans had always controlled how politics was done in Washington County," he said, "But they did not know about the kind of politics we demonstrated during the McCarthy campaign, walking from home to home."
AuCoin estimates that he went to 5,000 homes; his wife, 2,500 homes, and more than 300 volunteers covered many of the rest. They also made sure that his campaign signs popped up on lawns on the final two weeks of the campaign.
Voters elected AuCoin by 12 percentage points over a better-known Republican opponent. Two years later, AuCoin won a second term — and in a year when half the 60-member House were newly elected, Democrats won a majority. He became House majority leader during what historians say was one of Oregon's most productive legislative sessions.
Two years later in 1974, AuCoin went for broke and sought the 1st District congressional seat being vacated by Republican Wendell Wyatt — and had never been held by a Democrat.
"I had learned the ropes of politics and I had the support of Congresswoman Edith Green," a longtime Democrat from Portland who was retiring from the neighboring 3rd District after 20 years.
"The number of volunteers was like nothing ever seen in Washington County or the 1st District. It helped to have built a strong organization. It made a big difference."
Class of reformers
AuCoin was one of 93 new representatives — 76 of them Democrats — in the first post-Watergate congressional election. The newcomers were determined to end politics as usual — and they did.
"We ended the seniority system," AuCoin said. "We opened up the House floor so that anyone could offer an amendment (to pending legislation). Anyone could get a recorded vote, supported by the required number of people. Meetings were not secret unless they had to do with national security. Subcommittee chairs were voted on by the majority caucus."
Democrats, with their 291 members, replaced three committee leaders at the start of 1975.
AuCoin won re-election eight more times — and all of his three successors in the 1st District have been Democrats — but Republicans put up strong opponents most times.
While AuCoin discusses the ins and outs of legislation in his book, he said he never viewed his tenure in the House focused only on the lawmaking process.
"If you think of congressional life as an envelope, I lived it in a way that pushed the envelope as far as it possibly could," he said.
Among the first-person stories AuCoin tells are his efforts to get the Soviet Union to allow the family of a Jewish "refusenik," the brother of a Portland physician, to immigrate to the United States — he succeeded after the better part of three years — and his seemingly minor amendment to 1978 legislation that opened the way for him to lead an Oregon delegation to China after the two nations established full diplomatic relations in 1979.
AuCoin vacated the seat in 1992 in a losing bid against Republican Sen. Bob Packwood. Barely three weeks later, The Washington Post disclosed allegations of sexual misconduct by Packwood that ultimately led to Packwood's resignation under pressure in 1995.
By then, AuCoin had had enough of politics. He said he would not want to be in Congress today.
"We have persistent delay to the point where there is no time left to pass individual bills, so you get them all together in a clump known as an omnibus bill," he said.
"As somebody who really respects the institution and deeply believes in equal branches of government, this breaks my heart. What we have now are a few managers who decide what is going to go into the clump — and little input from anyone else. That is not democracy."
AuCoin's memoir concludes largely with the close of his public life. He taught at Southern Oregon University from 1998 until 2004, and he and his wife spent time with a grown daughter and family in Bozeman, Montana, before they returned to Portland.
"I wanted to write this book because I didn't want my history to consist of a pile of news reports," he said.
"You want people to know what made you you, and what you did. You want to put flesh and blood into the memory of people."
AuCoin sets talk about 'refuseniks'
Les AuCoin will offer more detail about his efforts to persuade the former Soviet Union to allow the emigration of the brother of a Portland physician and his family, considered Jewish "refuseniks."
The former U.S. representative from the 1st District of Northwest Oregon will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, at Congregation Neveh Shalom, 2900 S.W. Peaceful Lane, Portland.
AuCoin will explain the chapter in his recent memoir, "Catch and Release," dealing with Naum Chernobelsky, his wife and two daughters, who finally arrived in the United States in 1988.
Also speaking are two others involved: His daughter, Stacy, who passed along a critical message from AuCoin to a high-ranking Soviet official in 1988 when she was on a trip to Moscow as a Smith College student, and Raise Premsyler, a Portland physician and Chernobelsky's sister, who made the initial plea of help to AuCoin.
AuCoin quoted the Talmud's observation that whoever saves a single life saves the world.
"Many members of Congress would have been content just to send a letter to Moscow saying please free this family. I had sent those letters repeatedly. I had gotten up at 6 a.m. to make telephone calls to Russian immigration officials," he said. "But I had to do more. It became a challenge — and I was glad that I did it."
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