Remembering Ben Westlund

By Stacey Dycus of Bend, Oregon. Stacey is a longtime activist and political consultant. For five years, she served as chief of staff to Ben Westlund - in his state senate office and in the state treasurer's office. This post originally appeared on Facebook.

Today is the one year anniversary of the passing of Ben Westlund, and as Libby wrote me recently, "Some days it's hard to believe it's almost a year, others it seems like forever."

We have been considering removing Ben's personal Facebook page, but we wanted to provide a place for people to remember him whenever they wish. A new Facebook page launches today: Remembering Ben Westlund. We have attempted to provide some highlights of Ben's career including archived news stories, speeches, and videos (including a very special one that was only shown once three years ago for the Bus Project on how Ben’s agricultural pursuits relate to the Oregon Treasury).

It's a big task, faithfully presenting the accomplishments of man like Ben Westlund, so we need your help. Please feel free to post photos and memories on Remembering Ben Westlund, or compose a note of your own and tag the page.

We hope this page can help others share memories of Ben. These are a few of mine.

I first met Ben in 1999 when I was working for Planned Parenthood and we had a lobby day in Salem. I brought other volunteers over from Bend and we went to meet our legislators. Ben wasn’t technically mine, but only by a few miles, so he was on my list. I still remember that he leaned back in his chair and told us, mere constituents, exactly what was happening with the bills we were concerned with and how we could help defeat them. Even though it was his Republican leadership pushing the bills, Ben was strategizing behind the scenes on how to defeat them. A funny note: years later in 2007, after he had moved from the House to the Senate and I was moving his office up to another floor, I found my Planned Parenthood card still in his desk from that first visit.

Ben and I first worked together to defeat Sizemore/McIntire measures in 2000. I was working with Our Oregon to organize press events in Central Oregon and this strange Republican legislator would show up when I asked him to. He didn't want to be called Representative Westlund- he always said, "Just call me Ben." Then he would talk about how the anti-tax measures would hurt Oregon.

In 2002, I was working for the Democratic coordinated campaign in Central Oregon, Governor Kulongoski's first run, and Ben was chairman for Kevin Mannix's gubernatorial campaign. We saw each other at one of the debates and I teased him, saying something like "Mannix? Really Ben?" and he responded with a quippy remark about fattening his rolodex.

In spring 2003, Ben was diagnosed with cancer.

It was in June, in his now-famous speech on the floor that called for legislators to "stop being mere politicians who think only of the next election and start being statesmen who think only of the next generation" and to reform the tax structure. As the former co-chair of Ways and Means, Ben had been deeply affected by having to make cuts in the budget, especially in human services. He often said after that, "Pain and suffering is bad enough but unnecessary pain and suffering is immoral."

In August 2003, Ben was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Bev Clarno in the Senate and, the day after session ended, my son and I were driving home from Portland and I decided to take him by the Capitol.

I didn’t expect to find Ben Westlund in his office, the rest of the building was empty, but there he was. "Come with me," he said excitedly and led us down to the Senate floor where he let Nate sit in his seat and he told me about the political maneuvering of the final days of session, whereby his appointment had eased the 15-15 Senate split because he had joined the Democrats to vote for revenue. He was so proud of that vote because it meant less cuts in services, less pain he had to inflict on Oregonians.

Something happened with us that day on that floor. Although we had been friends for a few years, that day we became allies and political confidants. That day I stopped seeing Ben as a Republican and saw how he really cared.

In those early days, Ben and I would meet at Shari's for breakfast where he would have a ham and cheese omelet and a milkshake and we would talk about the "ways of the world." We would also talk on the phone late at night, as Ben was a night owl and often called friends in the quietest past part of the day. One night, on one of those calls in late 2003, Ben said to me "I'm a man without a party." After some silence I asked, "What do you want to do about it?"

He asked me to run a write-in campaign so he could have the Republican and Democratic nomination for 2004 if no Democrat filed against him for Senate. We did and he received thousands of write-in votes to secure both nominations. I still have my notes on that first campaign for “Dems for Ben” and I’ve included the letter that was used for the mail piece in the Notes section of Remembering Ben Westlund.

I became his legislative aid in the 2005 session and I really learned what Ben was made of.

Ben held himself to the same ideals he expected of his staff. He used to say, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions; don’t explain the mistake, tell me your plan to fix it.” Regretting his support for Ballot Measure 36 to define marriage, he began drafting a civil union bill to fix his mistake. He felt responsibility to those families. And when thousands of phone calls streamed into the office, screaming about his betrayal to conservative values, Ben’s resolve strengthened and he grew even less attached to the party that had brought him to the dance.

After his cancer experience, Ben became less patient with partisan games. Republicans back at home threatened a recall, but Westlund continued his metamorphosis.

As we went through the 2005 session, it became apparent that Ben was less about party and more about finding solutions for the problems that ailed the state. He co-sponsored a bill to reform Oregon’s tax structure with Senator Frank Morse, Representative Bob Jenson and Senator Kurt Schrader. He even used what he called jokingly a curse word, “Sales Tax” publicly. In June he stood up on the floor in support of a nonpartisan legislature and said we need to “put ideas before ideology and people before politics.”

In late 2005, Ben’s ruminations on running for Governor became more serious. But he hadn’t yet decided to leave the Republican Party. I began putting together a small team that would be needed if he gave the go-ahead: Michael Selvaggio, John Turner, Kelli Flahavin and Sarah Bacon.

In early February 2006, the core team gathered in Bend to finalize plans for a run, but Ben still hadn’t committed. It was the 10th, a Friday night, and we had given up for the week on a decision and all headed to the Bend Brewing Company. We were joined by Senator Charlie Ringo and his wife Julie. We sat there for hours, and as we were headed out for the night, almost casually Ben said, “I think Oregon’s birthday February 14 would be a great day to launch a race for Governor.” And then he was gone.

We all looked at each other, “Did he just say what I think he did?” We asked, “Three days from now?”

Then, we headed back to my house, pulled a few all-nighters to get everything ready, and then launched the most exciting race any of us has worked on before or since: Ben Westlund for Governor as an Independent. Jonathan Manton, Courtney Anglin, Katherine Pfieffer, Barry Lince, Robert Henderson, William Prior, Dan Flanagan, Ernest Baynard, and many others were a part of his history.

For an independent campaign that lasted about seven months, Ben raised over $600k and crisscrossed the state endlessly. But after determining he would only be a spoiler, he decided to withdraw. That day we dropped out of the race was not a sad one, just the opposite, Ben felt empowered by his decision. I can’t repeat the exact vernacular he used after walking out of the Capitol press room, but his staff gathered around him laughed so hard, it was so Ben.

Ben and I worked together for another three and a half years after that race including another campaign and two sessions, and in the Treasurer’s office.

He and Dr. Senator Alan Bates tackled health care reform, passing the Healthy Oregon Act to create the Oregon Health Authority. He battled to save the Metolius, recruiting Representative Brian Clem to take the ball when he became Treasurer. He fought to rein in mortgage lending before the bubble burst, working with then-Representative Merkley. He stood up for parents with college savings plans and negotiated a $20 million dollar settlement to return some of their losses. Our amazing team over those years included Mike Selvaggio, Josh Balloch, Ivo Trummer, Michael Burdick, once in Treasury, James Sinks. Ben was a great leader for his staff, his constituents, and his family.

Recently, I was helping B.J on his cover letter for his post-college internship and he wrote, "I believe there are moments in life where you realize that you are learning something you will carry with you forever. I had one of those moments with my Dad while we were on one of our crazy weekend adventures. 'Relationship and rapport' is what he said, 'that’s the key to success'."

It certainly was the key to Ben's success.

In the twelve years I knew Ben, I saw him connect with waitresses and CEO’s, Governors and janitors, rural farmers and high-tech executives. He just saw people as people. He often told the story on the trail about how on the cancer ward, he didn’t meet Democrats or Republicans; he just met people who were scared and wanted to be well.

As a legislator and as Treasurer, he was a statesman who cared deeply about Oregon and used his head and his heart to help. I am honored to have been part of his journey; he was my boss, my confidante and my friend. Although it’s been one year since his death, I think about him every day. I hope you can take some time and think about him today and share your memories on Facebook at Remembering Ben Westlund.

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    Thanks for that, Stacey. It made me tear up and smile.

    I can hardly describe what an adventure it was to have worked with Ben... and of course alongside his wonderful family -- Libby, BJ, and Taylor -- who not only shared him so freely with the State, but also opened their home and hearts to us.

    I feel truly blessed that I had the opportunity.

    (For the record, I am on a short -- and very late -- lunch break.)

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    Thanks for a lovely post, Stacey.

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    For some reason, my favorite thing about Ben was that he never seemed to remember my name. It was always on the tip of his tongue...and each time we met I had to remind him. But he was so charming and sweet about it, I've never cared. In fact, it endeared him to me even more.

    I miss seeing him very much.

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    Thanks Stacey -- wonderful post and Facebook page. Imagine a legislature filled with, what would get done and how fun it would be!

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    I will always remember being at my first Oregon Summit, our daughter was 5 or 6 (she's 11 now). We bought a little donkey pin, but it wasn't lighting up. Ben stopped to ask us what we were up to and then sat down to help us get the battery in correctly. It was a tiny pin and battery for his big hands, but it was just like we had known him forever - like he was our daughter's Uncle Ben.

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      I briefly covered Ben Westlund's positions on land use planning as a freelance journalist during his gubernatorial run. I remember a colleague I trusted telling me that watching Westlund operate on the Senate floor, being sure to stand close enough to hear him interacting with colleagues, was a complete education in successful legislative style. -SL

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