Walden retires

Grant County Judge Scott Myers, left, listens as Rep. Greg Walden speaks about mental health issues during a meeting at the Community Counseling Solutions office on Aug. 29. Walden announced Oct. 28 he will not seek reelection in 2020.

U. S. Rep. Greg Walden, the only Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, announced Monday he will not run again in 2020.

“I will not seek re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives, nor election to any other office,” Walden, 62, said in a video statement. “Instead I will close the public service chapter of my life, thankful for the friends I’ve made and the successful work we’ve done together.”

Walden’s departure means the 2nd Congressional District seat will be up for grabs for the first time in a generation. Walden was first elected in 1998 and won 10 re-election bids. Walden beat Democratic opponents by more than 60% of the vote in his heavily Republican district until Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebone held him to 56% in 2018.

The 2nd district includes Grant, Umatilla, Morrow, Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, as well as most of Eastern Oregon and much of southern Oregon. Walden is from Hood River. He is the only Republican among the five House members from Oregon. Both U.S. senators — Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkeley — are Democrats.

Walden became the 22nd Republican member of congress to announce their retirement before the 2020 election, which will include the re-election bid of President Donald Trump. Seven Democrats have said they won’t run. Walden is the fourth GOP House member who lost a committee chairmanship last year because of the majority switch who has announced they are leaving next year.

Walden said he was not retiring out of any concern that he could lose re-election or fail to regain the House majority, where he had served as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee before Democrats took control in 2018. He is now the ranking member of the committee.

“I am confident I could earn the support of 2nd District voters for another term,” he said. “I’m also optimistic that a path exists for Republicans to recapture a majority in the House.”

Walden, whose background is in radio, gave no specifics about what he will do after he retires from Congress.

“For me, the time has come to pursue new challenges and opportunities,” he said.

Walden’s statement would appear to rule out running for any other political office next year. Merkley is running for a third term in the U.S. Senate. Oregon’s secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer positions are also on the ballot. As the state’s most high-profile Republican, Walden could be pressured to run for governor in 2022 when Gov. Kate Brown is ineligible for re-election due to term limits.

While the overwhelming majority of his votes were solidly in line with the Republican agenda in the House, Walden has not been in lock-step with President Trump on issues.

As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he supported Trump’s position on repealing the Affordable Care Act, to relax net neutrality rules and has backed Trump on the current Ukrainian scandal.

In his statement, Walden recounted his more than 20 years in office, saying that he had worked to find solutions to the opioid crisis, improve forest health and increase access to high speed broadband. Walden said he was proud to champion the issues facing Oregonians east of the Cascades and south of the Willamette Valley.

“Rural Oregon values run deeply in my veins,” Walden said. “My ancestors arrived here in 1845 and I grew up on a cherry orchard in The Dalles with parents who survived the Great Depression. They taught me the true meaning of community; the importance of giving back; and the value of hard work. That’s why I’ve given it my all for the people and the way of life we so enjoy in Oregon.”

The son of former state Rep. Peter Walden, Greg Walden was elected to the Oregon House in 1989. He was Majority Leader for the 1991 and 1993 legislative sessions. He served two years in the Oregon Senate from 1995 to 1997.

Walden has a reputation as one of the Republican’s most effective GOP fundraisers. He was Deputy Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, when the GOP won control of the House in 2010 and kept it in 2012. He was chairman in 2014 and 2016, the Republicans solidified their dominance in the House.

Republicans lost control of the House in the 2018 election. They still control the Senate.

Walden and his wife, Mylene, owned and operated radio stations in Hood River and The Dalles for more than two decades. They are the parents of two sons, Anthony, 29, and Garrison, who died of a congenital heart defect in 1994.

Despite his moderate leanings, Walden has maintained a relatively sanguine relationship with President Donald Trump over the last three years.

“My job is to get things done for the 2nd District of Oregon, first, and for the country,” he told OPB in late 2017, less than a year into Trump’s presidency. “I’m more valuable in doing that if I have a good strong, thoughtful relationship with the president of the United States.”

As Trump faces an impeachment inquiry by Democrats — and questions about whether he withheld foreign aid to Ukraine in an attempt to win political favors from the country — Walden, like his Republican colleagues, has declined to criticize the president.

He’s accused Democrats of a flawed process in the inquiry, and in late September, he suggested that the known facts about Trump’s much-publicized phone call with the Ukrainian president did not amount to “high crimes and misdemeanors” that would be impeachable.

Still, Walden has not been in lockstep with his party’s standard bearer. He chafed in 2017 after he’d worked with the White House to craft legislation to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Trump first encouraged the bill, before calling it “mean” because it would result in millions losing their health coverage.

“It was not appreciated,” Walden told OPB. “I conveyed my displeasure to the White House.”

More recently, Walden has parted company with Trump on legislation involving a border wall and sanctions on Russia, among other things.

While Walden’s departure from Congress had been a subject of speculation, it came as a surprise to Republicans in his home state.

State Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, represents a swath of Walden’s district. He said recently he’d heard nothing of the congressman’s plan to resign. “I’d bet against it, if I were a betting man,” he said.

Dan Lavey, a strategist who has helped with Republican campaigns, said last week he believed talk of Walden’s departure was “premature.”

Then there was Bentz, who said he’d talked to Walden months ago, shortly after speculation the congressman wouldn’t run again emerged. Bentz said Walden made no mention of future plans, and he’d assumed the longtime lawmaker would run again next year.

“I would just hope that he is running again,” Bentz said last week. “ Please, Greg. Please.”

Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said Walden’s departure raises the broader concern of politics continuing to shift to the extremes at either end of the spectrum.

Oregon is in effect a one-party state, he said, and political balance is crucial to good governance. He said he hoped Walden’s move out of politics does not continue the slide at the federal level.

When it comes to spitballing about which Republicans might run for the seat, Murdock said, “You have you look at who has the horsepower.”

Bentz brings that kind of broader visibility, Murdock said, as does Knute Buehler. The former state representative from Central Oregon ran a credible campaign for governor and thus has the experience to throughout the district.

“And nobody in Portland is going to vote on this one,” he quipped.

Murdock also said he appreciates that Buehler ran as a moderate, again advocating for that sense of balance.

“We moderates could have a voice,” he said.

Walden’s announcement took Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, by surprise.

”He’s made a decision, and I respect that,” Hansell said. “It will be a huge loss for us in the district.”

He said he hailed Walden’s work with local national forest plans and with securing funding for the Eastern Oregon Airport as some of the involvement that made him “a champion” for the district.

”It’s an open seat, I think the Republican Party will work very hard to keep it,” Hansell added.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who interned for Walden’s office in the early 1990s when the congressman was working as a state representative, wasn’t as taken aback by the Monday announcement.

“I think after 22 years, elected officials get tired and want to move on and do other things with their life. Greg has been a tremendous statesman,” he said. “We’ll be losing a tremendous amount of seniority in D.C.”

Oregon Public Broadcasting and the East Oregonian contributed to this report.

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