Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse dies at age 84
Tributes are being paid to Elizabeth Furse, who championed the rights of women, migrant farmworkers and indigenous tribes even before she was elected to three terms in the U.S. House from northwest Oregon.
Furse died Saturday, April 17, at her farm near Hillsboro. She was 84.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, who was elected to the 1st District seat in 2012, offered a tribute to her predecessor.
"As an immigrant and the third Oregon woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, she was a trailblazer and an inspiration to many — including me," the Democrat from Beaverton said in a statement.
"It was an honor to know Congresswoman Furse and to call her a friend and mentor. She was committed to tribal sovereignty, social justice, and peace, and she led and legislated with these noble values always in her heart and on her mind. Elizabeth Furse made the world a better place, and she will be missed."
Furse followed in the steps of Nan Wood Honeyman and Edith Green, both from Portland.
"Furse lived the Jewish concept of tikkun olam with every fiber of her being, repairing the world to help tribal communities, strengthen women's health care and support vulnerable Americans everywhere," U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said. "I'll miss her tremendously."
'Never forgot values'
Furse was elected in 1992 after Democrat Les AuCoin vacated the seat in a losing bid against Sen. Bob Packwood. She was re-elected twice before declining to run again in 1998.
"Elizabeth was a champion for world peace, protecting nature and other underdogs, and made life-changing contributions to indigenous people who were here long before us," AuCoin said in a statement. "Her work is immortal."
She was the first naturalized U.S. citizen born in Africa to be elected to Congress.
In one of her final public utterances last year, Furse paid tribute to John Lewis, the young civil rights leader who was elected to the U.S. House from Georgia six years before her. Lewis died in July 2020.
"Whenever John Lewis spoke, and he did so sparingly, everyone listened," Furse recalled as part of tributes paid by Oregon's congressional delegation. "John's sincerity and his values came on so clearly and simply. He was the embodiment of what we all should have been.
"John earned his namesake, 'the conscience of the Congress.' He never forgot his values: his dedication to justice, kindness, and honesty. John could speak of those values because John had lived them and suffered for them. The scars on his head were a permanent medal of honor."
A lifetime of activism
From the time she was a young girl, Furse protested and fought injustice.
She was born Oct. 13, 1936, in Nairobi, Kenya, then a British colony. Her grandmother, Dame Katharine Furse, was the first director of the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War I.
Her father was a naval lieutenant who became a coffee planter. Her mother organized a women's group, the Black Sash, which opposed apartheid — South Africa's official policy of racial segregation — and she took part in a public protest by the group in 1951 in Cape Town.
Years later, she returned to a different South Africa as part of an official U.S. delegation.
"Our mom often mentioned how meaningful it was to come full circle, from protesting apartheid as a child to witnessing the beginning of the post-apartheid South Africa with the inauguration of Nelson Mandela" as its first Black president, Amanda Briggs, her daughter, said.
Furse moved to London in 1955 and married Richard Briggs, a U.S. doctor, in 1957. They moved to the United States in 1958 and had two children, a son (John) and a daughter (Amanda), but later divorced.
She moved to Los Angeles, where she got involved with a women's self-help project in Watts (then a Black community) and the United Farm Workers movement led by César Chávez.
She moved to Seattle in 1968, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1972, and earned a bachelor's degree from Evergreen State College in 1974. For the next three years, she worked for the Western Washington Indian Program of the American Friends Service Committee.
She moved in 1978 to Portland, where she attended the law school at Lewis & Clark College but dropped out after two years. She remarried, and she and husband John C. Platt settled on a farm outside Hillsboro in 1980. Two years later, they planted the first grapes in what became Helvetia Winery, and made their first wine in 1986. They divorced later.
She was the coordinator of the tribal restoration project of the Native American program for Oregon Legal Services from 1980 to 1986. She played a role in helping obtain federal recognition for the Grand Ronde (1983), Klamath (1986) and Coquille (1989) tribes.
"She fought to make sure the federal government kept its commitments," U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said in a statement. "She remained a very strong advocate for Native Americans.
She also was a co-founder of the Oregon Peace Institute in 1986 and was its director until 1991.
"She always kindly welcomed me to D.C. to discuss homelessness and poverty," the Rev. Chuck Currie of Portland, who first met her when she directed the institute, said. "Oregon was fortunate to have her."
Into the House
Furse had never held public office before she ran for Congress.
When she ran for the 1st District seat in 1992, she defeated Gary Conkling, a lobbyist and former AuCoin aide, for the Democratic nomination — and state Treasurer Tony Meeker, a Republican, in the general election. That year the number of women in the House rose from 28 to 47.
When she ran for re-election in 1994, she defeated businessman Bill Witt by just 301 votes of more than 250,000 cast. But she won by 52% to 47% in their 1996 rematch.
She chose not to run again in 1998. She said she believed in term limits, although the U.S. Supreme Court struck down congressional term limits imposed by states in 1995.
She made one more run for public office in 2014, but she lost the District 4 seat on the Washington County board to incumbent Commissioner Bob Terry in a nonpartisan race.
After she left Congress, Furse was director of tribal programs for the Institute of Tribal Government at Portland State University.
"The legacy of her work on tribal governance, restoration legislation and self-determination has been profound and will continue to be realized by generations of Native Americans and Oregonians to come," Direlle Calica, the current institute director, said in a statement. "Her vision for the institute has supported the vital efforts of tribal governments and expanded collaboration with federal, state and industry partners."
She worked closely with Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield, also a champion of tribal rights. She supported Hatfield's Republican successor, Gordon Smith, in his 2002 and 2008 re-election bids after she left public office.
While in Congress, Furse pressed successfully, along with others, to extend TriMet's MAX light-rail westside line from its planned terminus at the west end of Beaverton to its current end in downtown Hillsboro. The plaza at Sunset Transit Center was named in her honor in 1998.
A different lens
Furse was assigned to three committees in her first term, but switched in 1995 to Commerce, which handles health care legislation.
She and Republican Rep. George Nethercutt of Washington state founded the Diabetes Caucus — her daughter had diabetes — and she was a champion of expanding health care. Medicare, the federal program of health insurance for people age 65 and up and for some with disabilities, now covers diabetes supplies.
Congress in 1997 enacted the Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers children in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to pay their own premiums. It is funded jointly by the federal and state governments, and was the product by a bipartisan deal between Democratic President Bill Clinton, his allies, and congressional Republicans.
"I think what we are dealing with is a national security issue," Furse said in May 1997. "If we do not have healthy children, we do not have healthy adults, we do not have people who can be the best and the brightest that they could be."
Later that same month, in the years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Furse urged her colleagues to turn their attention to a different definition of "national security."
"I believe it's time to change the focus of our priorities, to reflect that national security means providing children a quality education, access to health care, and a safe place to live and learn," Furse told colleagues. "We cannot continue to invest in outdated Cold War weapons systems while we neglect our children."
She spoke then in an effort to ban development of low-yield nuclear warheads. That effort failed, but it has a powerful advocate today in the White House: President Joe Biden.
In addition to her son and daughter, Furse is survived by several sisters — she was the youngest of six — and a grandson.
A small family service is planned with a tribal blessing.
Corrects day of death; adds comments.
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