With Sen. Craig Disgraced,
by Jeff Mapes
New go-to guy - The Oregon Republican with Pendleton roots says he will champion rural issues
In the wake of Sen. Larry Craig's swift downfall, Sen. Gordon Smith says he is ready to be the new go-to guy in the U.S. Senate for timber and other Northwest natural-resource industries.
Smith, R-Ore., said he feels "very keenly the responsibility" to help not only loggers, but ranchers, farmers and miners. "My plate just got bigger," Smith said in a telephone interview Tuesday, "and I will work day and night for rural folks."
Craig was convicted of disorderly conduct and said last week that he would resign at the end of this month. On Tuesday, the Idaho Republican's spokesman cast doubt on the certainty of his resignation. But even if Craig remains in office, he has been stripped of his committee assignments and virtually all his clout.
In the Senate, Craig has been known as a legislative tactician who fought to increase timber harvests, limit fish protection and block several wilderness proposals.
"It will be a big loss," said Tim Wigley, who frequently represents timber clients as the head of the Washington, D.C., office of Pac/West Communications, a Wilsonville-based consulting firm. "I certainly hope that Senator Smith . . . will be stepping up and playing a larger role on the issues of forestry."
Environmentalists who have long tangled with Craig say they are not sure anyone will bring his clout and expertise to these issues.
"If I was the industry, I would be very nervous," said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild. "He was one of the last of the unreformed timber guys."
Craig recently blocked an Idaho wilderness proposal pushed through the House by a fellow Idaho Republican, Rep. Mike Simpson. He also bottled up a bill to protect the headwaters of the Snake River in Wyoming.
Recently, Craig inserted language in an Interior Department bill that seeks to prevent a federal judge in Portland from requiring tougher salmon protection measures on the upper Snake River.
"Since Slade Gorton (of Washington) left the Senate six or seven years ago, Larry Craig has been the most consistent and most effective anti-salmon legislator in the Senate, and nobody else has even come close," said Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry trade group based in Portland, said Craig's power already was diminished by last year's Democratic takeover of the Senate.
For that reason, West said it is unrealistic to expect too much from Smith, also serving in the minority. West said he is reaching out to Democrats such as Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who chairs a forestry subcommittee.
But Smith said he is gaining in seniority and now serves on the Senate Finance Committee, which gives him the leverage to gain help from colleagues on natural resource issues. Smith is also now the only Northwest Republican on the forestry subcommittee.
Observers on both sides of the environmental divide in the Northwest said they expect Smith to tread more carefully on these issues than Craig did. Craig's troubles give Smith a higher profile as a defender of the natural-resource industries that are a mainstay of the Republican base in Oregon as he gears up to run for re-election. But he also has to avoid alienating environmentally minded voters in urban areas, noted Ray Wilkeson of the Oregon Forest Industries Council.
"Collectively, the people of Oregon view these things differently than do the people of Idaho," said Wilkeson, adding that he understands why Smith is supporting a Mount Hood wilderness bill opposed by the timber industry.
While Smith was cautious in an interview about endorsing Craig's positions on specific issues, he made it clear he intends to rhetorically champion the natural-resource industries he says are key to the state's economic health, particularly in rural areas.
"I do my best to represent Oregonians' interests as broadly as possible, but I start from a rural place -- Pendleton, Oregon," said Smith. "I'm going to stick with those who are my neighbors."
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