I worked for Senator Mark O. Hatfield for a little over a year back in 1993 and 1994. I was on a fellowship created by the Senator to honor another liberal Republican Senator’s family – Senator Jacob Javits from New York – to encourage students of public policy to bring their training to the U.S. Senate. I picked Senator Hatfield’s office because when I interviewed with the Senator and staff it felt immediately like “home.” Senator Hatfield filled his Washington D.C. offices with people from Oregon because he believed you had to know where Vale, Talent, Fossil, Cove, and Powers all are to represent the people of Oregon.
It was not a surprise this morning to learn that he has died. He had been ill for seven or so years, not much seen since he fell down in 2004.
His death is the end of an era. I grew up in a time when people could be “liberal Republicans” and “conservative Democrats,” and Senator Hatfield was definitely part of that era. I didn’t always agree with Mark Hatfield. He came from a very consistent set of political beliefs forged by his strong family, his faith, and his rapid rise in Oregon politics. He was the most “pro-life” person I know. So, he and I might not have agreed on abortion rights, but his views were consistent. He opposed abortion, but he also opposed the death penalty and was a proponent of peace. His Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln and Herbert Hoover, which favored clear thought. His staff – both in Washington D.C. and in Oregon – reflected that same degree of independence. We were all over the political center – no one too radical, but liberals, conservatives, democrats, and republicans. MOH did not demand that we all thought alike.
Senator Hatfield did demand that we use him as an instrument to accomplish the things that we cared about. One day when the Senator hauled all of his legislative staff into the Lincoln conference room. I don’t remember what fired him up, but he was not happy with what he saw as our “reactive” work. He told us in no uncertain terms that he needed us to care deeply about something. He told us that his greatest accomplishments as an elected official came because of a partnership between him, Oregon, and his staff. He challenged us to care deeply enough about making the world, country, or state a better place and to use his elected office as a way to pursue that passion. He told us stories about his work with refugees, and about how that became his work because of the work of a compassionate member of his legislative staff.
That was a crystallizing moment for me. Not at that second, but over the coming weeks and years, I learned that I truly cared about a couple of things. First, I truly care about excellence in government. I do not believe in the idea of “good enough for government work.” Second, I truly care about helping people find and protect community. Whether that community is Ashland – a place with a strong sense of itself – or the landscape of the Columbia River Gorge, I know that working in communities with an exceptionally high quality of life is difficult but worth it. It is Mark Hatfield’s fault that I know my life’s work and that I view my work as a partnership among passionate elected officials, citizens, and staff.
Oregon is literally covered with evidence of Mark Hatfield’s partnerships with people of passion. The Oregon Trail Visitor’s Center in Baker City, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Nation Forensics Lab in Ashland, OHSU, much of Willamette University, Portland State, etc, etc, etc. Likewise, Oregon is filled with the people who Senator Hatfield taught to be excellent and passionate public servants. Many of the staffers and interns who worked for Senator Hatfield are engaged every day in making the world, the country, and Oregon a better place. In this era where campaign committees and strong political parties seem to have not only polarized the political landscape but to have paralyzed it as well, his legacy of people who think for themselves and have passion for their work offers me hope. I will miss Mark Hatfield.