Portland Rep. Mitch Greenlick dies at age 85
Friends and former foes paid tribute Saturday to veteran state Rep. Mitch Greenlick.Mitch Greenlick.
Greenlick died Friday night at his home in Northwest Portland. He was 85. A cause of death was not specified, but Greenlick had faced severe health problems in recent years. He announced in 2018, during his campaign for a ninth term, that it would be his last.
A Democrat, Greenlick was elected in 2002 to the open District 33 seat, which extends from Northwest Portland — including the Pearl District, Nob Hill and Slabtown neighborhoods — into Washington County and unincorporated communities north of Beaverton and the Sunset Highway.
From 1990 until he made his first bid for the House in 2000, Greenlick was a professor and chairman of public health and preventive medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.
His sometimes caustic comments caused him to lose his chairmanship of the House Health Care Committee in 2019. He had led or co-led the committee from 2007 until then. After he called a lobbyist's testimony "stupid" during a committee hearing, House Speaker Tina Kotek removed him as chairman of that committee and the House Committee on Conduct.
Kotek, also a Portland Democrat, made no mention of that controversy Saturday in a statement announcing his death.
"He died while serving in office, doing what he loved," Kotek wrote. "Oregonians lost a champion for fairness, justice and health care as a human right. His work and legacy will benefit Oregonians for years to come.
"My heart goes out to his beloved wife, Harriet, and his entire family. In accordance with the Jewish tradition, there will be a small, private family service within a few days. A public celebration of his life will be considered when the time is appropriate.
"Rep. Greenlick was one of my closest colleagues in the Legislature. I will miss his moral compass, his intellect and his sense of humor. I will miss my friend."
Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, also a Portland Democrat, recalled that Greenlick lost his first bid of office in 2000.
"I first met Mitch 20 years ago as the director of the House Democrats' campaign arm," she said in a statement. "Though he didn't win that first race, I can't help but think how lucky we are that he came back to win the next one. His dedication and love for service made us all a little better in the work we do. Oregon is a better place because of him."
Four candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed Greenlick in Tuesday's primary. They are Serin Bussell, a geologist and former legislative aide; Dr. Maxine Dexter, a physician at Kaiser Permanente; Andy Saultz, an education professor at Pacific University, and Christina Stephenson, a civil rights lawyer. Dick Courter is unopposed for the Republican nomination.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination is likely to be appointed for the seven-month balance of Greenlick's term, which runs through December. The appointment would be made by commissioners in Multnomah and Washington counties, and under state law, the interim successor must be a Democrat.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby said in a statement: "Rep. Greenlick was deeply committed to his values, his community and his family. He devoted years of his life to serving his constituents in the Legislature, and he will be missed."
Aside from his outburst in 2019, Greenlick often drew attention for some of the more provocative proposals he introduced.
He tried four times to persuade lawmakers to refer a measure to voters to make health care a right under the Oregon Constitution. He came closest in this year's session, when the House passed it and a Senate committee recommended approval for placement on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
But the measure died after the Senate's minority Republicans walked out in a dispute over climate-change legislation and the session ended.
Rep. Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego, a Democrat who succeeded Greenlick as Health Care Committee chair, said she is still committed to that measure.
"It was with a sad and heavy heart when Rep. Greenlick was not physically able to lead the floor debate" on that measure in 2020, Salinas said.
"Mitch knew that his health care transformation work was not over, and that we must ensure that all Oregonians have access to quality, affordable health care. He was sincere in that quest and it is with great humility that I commit to continue this work to honor Rep. Greenlick's memory, lifetime of work and clear vision for a better future for all Oregonians."
In 2013, Greenlick introduced a bill to put nicotine on a par with ketamine and Vicodin under the federal controlled-substances schedule and to require a doctor's prescription to obtain it. Violators would have faced a maximum of one year in jail and a $6,250 fine. Greenlick said he never expected the bill to pass, but sought to start a conversation about tobacco addiction. He supported increasing Oregon's tobacco taxes.
Greenlick's committee heard proposals for a single-payer system, under which government paid all health care costs, but those bills ended up dying in the Legislature's joint budget committee.
But Greenlick was always determined to lower health care costs for Oregonians without health insurance coverage. The uninsured rate was in the mid-teens when he took office in 2003. But through various efforts — including the creation of coordinated-care organizations in 2012 and an expansion of state-supported health coverage for low-income people in the Oregon Health Plan starting in 2014 — that rate got down to around 6%.
Greenlick also drew attention to his 2019 legislation to end religious and philosophical objections as exemptions from Oregon's requirements for childhood vaccinations. The House passed the bill, but the Senate let it die as a political price for allowing a vote on a corporate activity tax to fund school improvement programs.
Though Greenlick was most prominent in health care, he also spoke out on other issues. He was the lead sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish Oregon's death penalty, but it died in the Legislature in 2013.
Greenlick earned a bachelor's degree in pharmacy in 1957, and a master's in pharmacy administration in 1960, both from Wayne State University in Detroit. He earned a doctorate in medical care organization in 1967 from the University of Michigan.
He came to Portland in 1964, while he was working on his doctorate, to start and later direct the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research.
"Mitch was a powerhouse in the field, and as a state legislator he was a tireless advocate for public health," said Lucy Savitz, who holds the job now. "Knowing that I could play a role in advancing his legacy as one of his successors was one of the driving factors that led me to join Kaiser Permanente in 2017. His huge stature as a public health expert and advocate will be deeply missed."
He became a vice president of Kaiser Foundation Hospital in 1981, and nine years later, took the professorship at OHSU. He sat on the boards of the Northwest Health Foundation and Community Action of Washington County.
He and his wife, Harriet, have three grown children. His son, Michael, is a Multnomah County circuit judge; he also is survived by daughters Phyllis and Vicki.
He is the author of a 2016 book, "Capitol Letters: An Inside View of the Legislative Process."
Other reactions to the death of Rep. Mitch Greenlick:
Gov. Kate Brown:
"Representative Mitch Greenlick dedicated his career to fighting for Oregonians to have a better life.
"A fierce advocate for expanding health care, he championed initiatives that helped push our state forward, including extending the Oregon Health Plan for low-income and underserved communities. His tireless efforts around justice reform were critical to the passage of key legislation through the years to bring equal treatment under the law to all Oregonians.
"He was a professor, an educator, and a citizen legislator. Smart as a whip and with a heart of gold, he was a true Lion of the House. We will all greatly miss him. Dan and my hearts are with Harriet and his family as they mourn his passing."
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem:
"Mitch Greenlick was more than just a great legislator. He was a good and decent person … he really was. Mitch was a man of strong morals and a good conscience. Someone who could be counted on to do the right thing. We will always need people like Mitch in the Legislature. We will miss his guidance. Oregon has lost a true public servant today."
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons, a retired dentist:
"It was an honor to work with Rep. Greenlick, and I am saddened to hear of his passing. He was a champion for the issues he was passionate about and a dedicated legislator. His service to the state will be remembered by all."
Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, and Senate majority leader:
"Mitch Greenlick was a true genius. He used his vast intellect to serve humanity, first in public health and for two decades in the Oregon Legislature. He was an unwavering advocate for health care and his tireless efforts ensured hundreds of thousands of Oregonians have the coverage they deserve."
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden:
"No state legislator was more popular with the Gray Panthers than Mitch Greenlick. For decades he has been to go-to person on health care as a basic human right. Literally an irreplaceable voice. He will be hugely missed."
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer:
"He was a wonderful human being and a powerful voice for progressive democratic values in Oregon."
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler:
"Rep. Mitch Greenlick fought tirelessly for health rights for all. He was a smart, kind, fearless public servant and a friend to many. He will be dearly missed."
John Snyder, chief executive, Permanente Dental Associates:
"Mitch was a visionary and nearly 45 years ago was the first to recognize the value of the Smile to Total Health and Wellness. He was the first director of the Kaiser Permanente dental program and his vision has inspired our integrated model to this day."
NOTE: Adds tributes.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.