What Would Ben (Want Us To) Do?

By Ashley Henry of Portland, Oregon. Ashley describes herself as a "desert protection activist turned fish habitat restoration organizer turned campaign manager turned renewable energy and sustainability consultant."

While there are a lot of changes afoot -- including the recent announcement about Ted Wheeler's appointment -- I respectfully submit this reflection on the death of Ben Westlund. I hope that in the midst of all the political changes, people will take some time to share their own reflections and thoughts on what we can do in Ben’s memory.

I was sitting in a coffee shop when I got the call on Sunday afternoon that Ben Westlund had died. My friend, who had just boarded a plane, didn’t have time to talk because the doors were about to close, and she had to shut off her phone. I sat there sobbing in the coffee shop until I realized that I was making a bit of a scene, so I walked home and called my dear friend Peter Buckley. “Oh, Ash,” was all he could muster, and all I could do was cry. I then tried texting as an outlet for my sadness, only to discover that my friends -- once activists, now elected officials -- were at car dealerships or in grocery stores. “Ben died,” via text is not an appropriate way to deal with grief.

I needed to share this experience with someone who loved Ben like I did, so I checked Blue Oregon, but it was silent. Turns out Kari was waiting for the family to release their statement before he posted anything on the blog. I noticed that Maribeth Healey had updated her profile photo on Facebook. A great one of her and Ben. What a smile that man had. I dug through my photo files to find a few of my own, crying as I found ones of Ben making me laugh, sometimes really, really hard. God, I loved that man.

Finally, the Blue Oregon post announcing Ben’s death was up, and I could respond. And so I did. I also posted how much I loved Ben as my Facebook status update. I called my mom. I checked to see what others were writing about Ben on Blue Oregon. I imagined us all sitting at our desks or dining tables with the glow of the computer screen staring back at us. In our remarkably connected world, I found myself feeling profoundly disconnected while participating in this digital form of grieving. So there I was, just me. Living and breathing in a world without Ben Westlund in it.

The packs of sunflower seeds I’d purchased at New Seasons earlier in the week were staring me down. I’ll plant sunflowers for Ben! And then I can look forward to them blooming and shining to the whole neighborhood over the top of the fence come August. That’s what I’ll do! So I got out my pitchfork and hoe and garden gloves. The sun was still shining, but the cold front had already started moving in so the rain would arrive soon. I figured that would be perfect. I’d get the soil ready, plant the seeds, and voila! It would rain on the seeds I planted for Ben.

Alas, I read the package. Do not plant until the threat of frost has passed, it said. Sure, it’s been a warm winter. The cherry blossoms and tulip magnolias are in full bloom---a full month earlier than last year. But I figured I decided not to take the risk. I’d hold off on planting the seeds.

This gave me more time to work the soil in my backyard along the fence. It’s the perfect place for tall sunflowers. They have something to lean on if they get a bit top heavy, and when they get really tall, they peek over the top of the fence to share their sunshine with my neighbors. And I’ll be able to watch them grow from my enclosed back porch that now serves as my office.

But what to do now? How can I honor Ben? How can we honor Ben? What seeds can we plant in our communities that demonstrate how much we loved him? What would be an appropriate expression of the kind of love he had for Oregon. A love that transcended party. A love that would not stand by and let the acrimony that currently exists in Salem persist. Perhaps the threat of frost has not passed, and so there is soil to be tended first.

It’s not very often that a politician is remembered by his colleagues as making the transition from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader in reverse. The death of our friend Ben has provoked an outpouring of sentiments, but what would he want us to DO?

  • RedTed (unverified)

    Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader in reverse?? Is that really how you all see republicans? Ben didn't change a bit. He was the same man from start to finish. The only thing that changed was his party affiliation...and to you that makes the difference between sinner and saint? The depth of your understanding of both politics and people is no deeper than the sunflower seeds you plant.

  • Ashley Henry (unverified)

    The Skywalker reference is not my own, sir. You can read Greg Chaimov's response to Ben's passing at http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2010/03/in_remembrance_of_ben.html.

    I had the good fortune to become one of Ben's many buddies, and I am honored to have witnessed the pure and simple goodness he exhibited during his time with us. This had absolutely nothing to do with his party affiliation, and I regret that you misinterpreted my comments as suggesting that. For what it's worth, I was a very active supporter of Ben's run for Governor as an independent. I believed in Ben as a leader long before he registered as a Democrat.

    From my talks with Ben, I learned that he had indeed made a lot of changes in the way he lived his life over the years, and he lived with a passion and vigor that I can only hope to emulate some day in my life. Although I didn't know him during his early years in business and politics, I gathered from our discussions that he was in many ways a changed man and that his commitment to all of Oregon only grew as he grew.

    I look forward to continuing to plant positive seeds in our amazing state, and I look forward to hearing from other Blue Oregon readers about what kinds of things they'd like to see done in Ben's memory.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    Actually- as a pure gardening point- you can plant those sunflowers now. I start all frost sensitives indoors and transplant out over 4th of July week-end. Maybe earlier were you live, but Portland suffers from a "false June" every year. Kind of nice actually, as the gauzy light comes from every direction equally, but crap for growing cold sensitives. You just fight the pests until the growing heat arrives. So, take advantage of the omnidirectional light in May/June to set the starts outside and harden them off a bit, and you'll find that by August everything is as far along as if you had planted seeds in late April.

    Just ignore Teddy the K, a known troll. (Hey, how about assigning every guest poster an editor for killing the crap and spam and letting them have more than a one sentence bio?)

    Is that really how you all see republicans?

    The sentence is incoherent anyway. As he continues, he knows it's obviously about Ben, not "republicans". Talk about the monumental hypocrisy of admonishing a generalizations with "you all"! But to anticipate the answer, "No, stupid. The point is that he wasn't like most Republicans".

    If the question was are you saying that "all Republicans are evil", I think we should turn to one of your favorites, no doubt, General Phil Sheridan and his reply when asked the same thing about native Americans. "No", he answered, "I would not say that about all Indians, but it is true of 9 out of 10, and for their sake I don't think it would do well to look too closely into the case of the 10th".

  • Rep. Peter Buckley (unverified)

    Ashley, thanks for this post.

    One thing I definitely want to do is keep going to finish the work Ben, Bates and others have moved us into on health care. We've come a long way--every kid in our state now has access to health care coverage, and we have the roadmap now to make sure we reach every Oregonian.

    No matter what happens on the federal level, we have a huge amount of work to do to reach that goal. But that is work worthy of Ben's memory, without a doubt.

  • LT (unverified)

    Red Ted----did you know the same Ben I knew?

    This is not about "all Republicans".

    This is about a specific individual--- the Republican co-chair of Ways and Means who was asked during the 5th special session in 2002 why it was so hard to balance the budget.

    Ben responded:

    Because Gov. Roberts was right in everything but the timing!

    RT, there was a time when more than one Republican cared about solutions above ideology, and was able to fit a complex thought into one sentence/ less than 25 words. It may have been decades ago when McCall and Gerald Ford Republicans were still welcome in the GOP. But that time did exist. And as the grandchild of a Republican politician, I know that there is quite long history of the gregarious, issue-oriented Republican rather than a snarly ideologue.

    Republicans have to make a decision: Do they want to be feared, or do they want to be admired? "We're right--don't think for yourself or ask questions" is no longer working for the GOP. Time to try something else?

    Ben was lucky to get the Senate appointment and leave the House, just as Shetterly and Williams were lucky to get other jobs. They actually thought for themselves and it was made very clear by the leadership that was not welcome in a Republican House.

    "Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader in reverse " was actually quoted in one of the tributes, as Ashley said.

    Ben grew in the job of legislator more than most people I can think of.

    Ashley, I LOVED your column. It shows the true Ben.

    I was not always a Ben fan---I became one on a certain Friday in 2002 after hearing the OPB interview mentioned above.

    RedTed, did you really know Ben all that well? Did you support his many ideas? Did you ever debate issues with him?

    Or are you jsut one of those who wanted to yell RINO at him because all good Republicans think alike and are nasty to opponents---how dare any Republican be nice to everyone?

    Ben was the closest thing we had seen to all the McCall virtues since Tom McCall died in 1983. It was made very clear when Ben was a St. Rep. that the current Republican Party didn't like that.

    One tribute to Ben called him a gregarious salesman.

    People who work in sales know that establishing relationships and answering questions are the way to generate repeat business.

    Lobbyists and activists who think "talking points" and attack ads are the road to political power are clueless.

    And yes, RT, that comes from someone whose first campaign was Tom McCall's re-election. I too have been registered Republican (for McCall), NAV (when I got fed up with both parties) and Dem. (once very active incl. party politics).

    But I don't understand politics or people unless I see the world through RT's eyes?

    Gimme a break!

    Ashley, I have decided on the best memorial I can give to Ben, and you might want to consider something similar.

    I know 2 of the Treasurer candidates (not from Portland, never met Wheeler).

    I let both those candidates know (and will let other candidates running for whatever know) that in memory of Ben I will use him as the standard. He was the perfect 10 in my book----solution oriented, friendly to everyone, educating the public about issues rather than hoarding information to himself, witty and funny, treating everyone with respect, a passionate crusader for causes, a warm and caring individual.

    I am sick and tired of the attack ads, the "but we have to listen to these lobbyists", the "my caucus right or wrong", the snide wisecracks rather than wit, acting like some people are important but others are not, etc.

    It is time to reclaim WE THE PEOPLE. If everyone who loved Ben were to tell all their friends that it is time to return to the positive, people-oriented, solution-oriented politics which were once common in this state, and that Ben showed were possible even in the 21st century, lobbyists and angry activists like RT would be deprived of power.

  • (Show?)

    The first time I really understood how much Ben Westlund loved Oregon--was when he worked on the protections for the Metolius.

    That piece that's linked there was my initial inspiration for really paying attention to and getting involved with protecting vital land in Oregon. Ben's passion to save the Metolius osmotically traveled to me and has been with me ever since.

    The best way I can think of to honor his legacy is to continue to fight to conserve and protect our land and other resources in this state.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks, Ashley, for starting this as a public forum to reflect on how We (and I mean all Oregonians) can honor Ben in some meaningful way. Peter is right to pursue Ben's legislative ideas if that is possible, even though politics and economy may get in the way of much progress.

    While I had hoped to speak with Ben about this sooner than later (not soon enough, however), I wanted to ask him what he would have wanted. Maybe Alan Bates had that conversation. In any case, I know that Ben felt one of his greatest accomplishments was the establishment of the Cultural Trust. While he would have attributed success to many people, as it certainly was not his idea, but he almost single handedly marshalled it through the 2001 Legislative Session, against the will of his "no government/culture is dangerous" Republican colleagues who had strong control of the Legislature. In spite of broad support for establishing the Trust and its innovative tax credit mechanism (requiring a separate contribution to an arts organization plus a contribution to the Trust to earn the credit), the Republicans, esp. then Majority Leader Karen Minnis, were trying to kill it. Ben was Ways and Means Co-Chair, and he had to orchestrate some clever behind-the-scenes moves with the help of then-Speaker Mark Simmons, to get the Trust measure to the floor in the last moments of the Session. It happened so quickly, most people didn't know what was going on. (Ben told me the story once, and it was a good one. Hopefully Mark Simmons can document it for us). In any event, it came to the floor. The Dems and some R's voted for it, and Karen Minnis was grumping around --she was probably worried that the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe would come to life and bring provocative art to Oregonians--or she was just jumping around because something public-spirited had passed. (Perhaps that's uncharitable, and I apologize in advance if it is unfair, but to this day I don't understand why she was so hostile to a low cost, innovative program with such broad support).

    That's a long way of saying that I think we should consider doing something in Ben's name with the Cultural Trust. Maybe we name it for him. Or have the largest grant to an organization in any year be named the "Ben Westlund Grant."

    One of Ben's strengths was his desire to explore solutions that cut across political, cultural, social, and geographic boundaries. He was rare indeed among the Republicans of our time in having this disposition. The Cultural Trust was one way he demonstrated this inclination. And another of Ben's qualities that attracted so many of us to him was his gregarious personality and the genuine nature (a rare quality in our world by my estimation) of his affections. He liked all people. He liked being a connector. He forgave people's failings and found good in them. It seems that the very nature of the Cultural Trust--a program aimed at helping organizations that try to lift our spirits and enrich our lives in communities across the state--would be an ideal fit to honor one of the more uplifting public spirits of this generation.

  • Jeff Allen (unverified)

    I will never forget showing up at the Hood River high school to coach my debate team, and seeing Ben in a classroom stumping for his independent Gov. bid. I think he had five people who had showed up. It was one of the saddest, yet also most inspiring political moments I've seen. I listened in for a couple minutes, long enough to hear him treat those 5 people just like they were the Portland City Club, or his wealthiest donors. Serious class.

  • Ashley Henry (unverified)

    Thank you everyone for your continued good work for Oregon! If anyone out there knows of a web designer who'd be willing to pro bono a site, I have an idea inspired in part by another great Oregonian, Katy Brooks. How about a website "Kickin' It Back For Ben" on which Oregonians can pledge to sign over their kicker check (when/if received) to the Oregon Cultural Trust or to the Ben Westlund Memorial Fund which was recently established to benefit the Opportunity Foundation of Central Oregon. The Redmond nonprofit provides services to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.

    Please be in touch with me directly if you or someone you know would be up for putting together a simple site. Thanks!

  • someone (unverified)

    While I do appreciate the fact that Westlund contributions to our state that should be remembered and always mindful we all have feet of clay...

    I also recall when he was my State Senator and yearning to be Governor he spent his own funds to purchase a Voters Pamphlet page to endorse the ban on gay marraige advanced by the right wing which still today defiles our Constitution. While he supported civil unions and the position does not differ much from many Democrats the fact is that he found it in accord with his principles to actually buy a page supprting the OCA initiative.

    The I remember when he first ran for office when in Court he sought unsucessfully to expunge and seal records of his criminal conviction for posession of cocaine- Personally I don't hold the conviction against him but nevertheless he found it in accord with his priciples to attempt to conceal the truth from the voters. The OEA spent thosuands of dollars trying to defeat him in his first Senate race exposing this but it post card campaign was so poorly excuted it backfired.

    Sometimes it takes a brush with death to remind us of our own mortality and then we take stock of what is important and what kind of legacy we really wish to leave behind- it seems to me that this is what happened with Westlund and I do admire him for not be afraid to grow.

    It would seem to me that the fact that his passing was imminent would have been obvious for the past several months however and one could only wonder why he held on the post until the bitter end. The timing, which was in the hands of the greater power, could not have been more dramatic. But it left the state in a position where deliberative time was limited in selecting a replacement. One can only speculate if there was an inside game plan to wait out the filing deadline in a attempt to exclude the voters from the process of selecting the successor.

    RIP Ben- you were a good guy and we can't expect our politicians to be saints. And of course he was not a saint just a human being like the rest of us.

  • LT (unverified)

    To Chris and Ashley,

    Thank you for all your good words.

    But as far as the conversation Chris was never able to have, and Ashley's idea for a website..........

    Not quite a year ago (I've talked with people who worked for Ben and we think it was something like April-June time frame) Ben gave a speech before Marion Demoforum.

    I doubt it is online, but it was filmed by the local CCTV http://www.cctvsalem.org/programs/schedule.php

    Those Demoforum speeches are always broadcast a few times in the weeks after the event.

    Luckily, not only was I there to hear Ben, but I taped it when it was on TV. I found it the other day and watched it Tuesday. There were parts of it that made me want to cry. He had big plans he wanted to do which never got done (for time and health reasons). His last line as he walked out the door was Be Healthy!

    As Treasurer, Ben spoke of the 3 headed problem which prevented Oregon (although in many ways more financially healthy than most states---yes, incl. future obligations like PERS) from getting the top credit rating.

    He was worried that the legislature would not solve the problems, and said "the solution will come from rooms like these". He said emailing legislators was not enough, people needed to "roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty" and live out the true meaning of "government of the people, by the people, for the people".

    One of the things he wanted to do was go around the state with Sen. Bates crusading to get the 3 problems dealt with, the way they had for health care.

    Here are the 3 problems:

    1)Volatile tax system

    2) "permissive initiative system"---out of state money could put a measure on the ballot which would blow a hole in the state budget if passed, "and the credit rating agencies know that".

    3) "Oregon's unique and uniquely bad kicker".

    Tuesday I was at Filing Day in the capitol and a state senator thanked me for all my hard work promoting kicker reform.

    Yet, there were folks in the House who wanted us to believe that the topic couldn't even be discussed in February---or perhaps not until there were lobbyists on board and a coalition was built, whenever that was.

    Gee, which side would Ben have been on---the state senator, or the folks in the House? I'm guessing with the senator.

    It costs no money to start conversations, and sometimes that is more powerful than all the big money campaigns that ever existed.

    Margaret Mead's comment that committeed small groups are the only people who have ever created real change comes to mind.

    What we need are more people in public life who can summarize complex ideas into statements of 25 words or less the way Ben did in 2002 when he said that it was so hard to balance the budget because Gov. Roberts was right in everything but the timing.

    Look at what that short statement contains:

    • A Republican showing respect for an elected official of another party.

    • Admitting that an up economy when Measure 5 passed had delayed the consequences.

    • Showing that past action can control current events.

    • Making a point without making snide remarks about those who wanted to balance the budget with gimmicks and ideology.

    There was a time in Oregon when debate over serious issues and solutions to problems was not overshadowed by ideology, attack ads, or poll driven politics. Ben gave us a gift by bringing back that era.

    Perhaps the best memorial is that each of us who are mourning him start stating the affirmative of what we believe in (drives ideologues, consultants, poll-driven politicians nuts).

    For instance:

    The time has come to have a public debate on kicker reform. Even a Republican true kicker believer on House Revenue said publicly that it is time to change the way the kicker is calculated, so what are House Democrats afraid of?

    Those of us who voted for Measure 65 (nonpartisan elections) should stand up for that issue--politics has gotten so partisan that ideas and solutions to problems have become secondary.



  • (Show?)

    Hey Ashley,

    Thanks for posting this and bringing it to my attention.

    I grew to know and admire Ben as an R. I pretended to loathe him as an I and fell in love with him as a D. But party affiliation says nothing about who someone is as a person and Ben was the greatest. I grew quite sad learning of his passage, and I'm not as close to him as so many others. He will be missed.

    As for what would Ben want us to do? I don't know for sure but when you figure it out, let me know.

  • LT (unverified)

    Someone, whenever you find a beloved political figure who had lots of accomplishments and never did anything wrong, let me know.

    As for holding on to his office until the end, what is wrong with that?

    Someone said of his passing that he loved the organized chaos that true democracy is.

    Not everything must be poll driven, cut and dried. Ben understood that more than many politicians.

  • NW John c. (unverified)

    [Inappropriate comment removed. -editor.]

  • Rep. Jules Bailey (unverified)

    I think like many of us, I was stunned when I heard the news. It just didn't seem real. I continued in my day, and it didn't really sink in until later. And then it really hit.

    I first met Ben as a Republican when he came into the office of Democratic elected official I was working for at the time. He was warm, funny, and treated everyone around him like they mattered. When he left, my boss said, "He's one of the good guys."

    In my own race, Ben sat with me and walked me through the issues and was a sounding board for me on everything - policy, political, and personal. In the legislature, he and his staff were key allies.

    What would Ben want us to do? I don't presume to know. But I would guess it has something to do with building an Oregon where we work together for the common good, regardless of labels.

  • (Show?)

    I never got to meet Ben and thus have no personal stories to relate. All I'll say here is that he was one of an exceptionally small handful of politicians/candidates who inspired me with hope and a desire to get more active. The others are Howard Dean and Jeff Merkley. No other politicians/candidates have ever inspired me as much as those three.

    That's not to say that there are/have been no other worthy candidates. Just that I've become very jaded over the years and those three cut through that to inspire genuine hope.

    I hope to add a fourth name to the list sometime in the near future: Steve Novick. He too strikes me as honestly giving a damn and I just can't honestly say that of the overwhelming majority of politicians and candidates, including most of those who I've voted for over the years.

  • Different Salem Staffer (unverified)

    No matter what you think of Westlund's politics, he was genuine. That's often hard to find.

    Yes, he was in the Voters Pamphlet on Measure 36. Long before that hit mailboxes, Westlund had contacted the Yale professor whose research on the issue had been grossly misrepresented. He learned more about the issue and, after publicly apologizing to the professor for being taken in by a perversion of his research, attempted to rescind his Voter Pamphlet statement... but Oregon has no process for that.

    Nevertheless, Westlund became a champion of equal rights in the 2005 and 2007 sessions. In 2005, he attended a work session of the Rules Committee (he was not on the committee) and when the voted to pass out the measure, just to make sure it was clear what his position was, he asked Chair Kate Brown for permission to cast a vote in favor of the measure to be noted in the official record.

    Ben Westlund is human. And he'd be the first person to tell you that he's made mistakes in his life. No kidding, right?

    What inspires me isn't his infallability... it's the fact that when he makes a mistake, he makes good on it.

    "Someone" completely misses the point by pointing out foibles. And someone like that will forever chase idealistic cardboard cutouts of candidates and be disappointed every time. Not always right away, but eventually.

    Ben Westlund was wonderfully human. He was warm, he was real, he always tried (but, yes, sometimes failed) to do right... and we at the Capitol miss him very much.

  • LT (unverified)

    Thank you, Different.

    Lord knows I have worked for candidates who had feet of clay and at least in one instance someone remarked that a certain politician "had feet of clay all the way up to his neck".

    As I have told some people, I am a convert. Ben defeated one of my political heroes in 1996, and I didn't become a real fan until 2002.

    Ben was the genuine article, able to say strong things without being snide (aka "scalpel, not a chain saw") treated ordinary folks as if they were important, gave people information instead of hoarding it, regarded debating issues out in public as a virtue, was warm and friendly to everyone, worked extremely hard, didn't seem to have a mean bone in his body.

    Kevin, I hope for your sake Steve gets elected to public office somewhere so he can develop the way Ben did.

  • Nancy Floyd (unverified)

    I remember when Ben gave the graduation speech many many years ago at Sunriver Prep School in Bend. He read from Dr. Suess --- Oh the places you'll go, the things that you'll do. I reminded Libby of that moment in my facebook message. Ben sure went places, accomplished amazing things and inspired us all. He will be greatly missed.

  • Jim Houser (unverified)

    I didn't know Ben but I know and respect many of the people (like Ashley) who did know him and speak so highly of him. The naming of a program like the Cultural Trust after Ben makes a certain sense, but I better like the idea of creating a project that looks to Oregon's future. By all evidence Ben placed a high priority on reforming Oregon's dysfunctional tax system. Since no one seems inclined to tackle the revenue monster at this moment, building a "Ben Westlund Living Web Site" could allow ideas and alliances to grow and mature until there is the critical mass necessary to effect the appropriate (and memorializing) change. "The Ben Westlund Kicker Burial Initiative" has a nice ring to it.

  • LT (unverified)

    Wonderful idea, Jim!

    In June 2009, Ben spoke to the Marion Demoforum in Salem and said kicker reform and tax reform would have to come from "rooms like these"---citizen groups banding together to accomplish the goals of kicker reform, tax reform, etc. Wasn't sure they would ever come from the legislature.

    There is a wonderful book by Billy Shore* titled REVOLUTION OF THE HEART. In it he talks about concentric circle grass roots organizing.

    Small groups of activists start to branch out and eventually widen their circle of power and influence until they achieve victory. Kind of like Margaret Mead saying never to discount a small group of people because they are the only ones who have ever brought about real change.

    That story of the small town deep South beauty shop turning into an Obama campaign site started by locals long before the official campaign ever arrived might be a recent example.

    There is already a Facebook Group with a blue umbrella logo for rainy day fund/kicker reform.

    If there is a way to unite all those folks with Ben's many friends who support the reform he thought was so important, we could be an uprising---startling those supporting the status quo the way Measure 5 startled so many people 20 years ago. That's a whole generation of voters, folks.

    Citizen uprisings do what they believe in, regardless of polls. I have worked on some such campaigns and they shock the folks who think they know politics just because they make a living at it.

    <h2>*Yes, I know on the cover of the book it says the author's name is Bill Shore. But in his day (before he left politics to become an anti-hunger activist) he was one of the great grass roots organizers. The people I knew who knew him called him Billy.</h2>
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