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Oregon's bike-riding Republican senator changes gears

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on March 13th, 2012 at 1:52 pm

State senator Jason Atkinson calls himself Oregon's, "Most hardcore cycling fan who is a registered Republican."
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

After a 14-year ride in the Oregon state legislature and one serious attempt to become governor, Republican Senator Jason Atkinson announced last week that he won't seek re-election. For Oregonians that care about bicycling, this isn't good news. Or is it?

"People would say, 'You know, you were going to be a great statewide candidate until you went all liberal and got with the bicycles.'"
— Jason Atkinson

In the past few years Atkinson — whose now dormant gubernatorial campaign website features photos of him suited up in spandex at the 2009 Oregon Bike Summit — has distinguished himself for his support of several bike bills. And not just any bike bills. Atkinson unabashedly threw his weight behind a bill to amend the bicycle equipment requirement so it would specifically legalize fixed gear bicycles without hand-brakes, he supported a bill that would have used State Lottery funds to build several velodromes throughout the state, and he was an early sponsor of an attempt to pass an Idaho-style stop law.

Speaking via phone from his home office in Central Point this morning, Atkinson told me his support of bike issues came at a cost: Both his constituents and colleagues bristled at his bike-focused forays.

fixie bill in Salem
Jason Atkinson (in his "Ride a Fixed Gear, Go to Jail" t-shirt) testifying in favor of the fixed-gear brake bill in front of a Senate committee in 2007.

"I got a tremendous amount of angry email from all over Oregon every time I involved myself with a bike issue," he recalled, "People would say, 'You know, you were going to be a great statewide candidate until you went all liberal and got with the bicycles.'"

But to his credit, Atkinson doesn't cower at the criticisms. Instead, he worked hard to burnish his bike-cred during our conversation this morning. "The fact is," he said, "I've been a cyclist a lot longer than I've been in politics." As a competitive racer, Atkinson says he used to train on fixed-gear bikes. "I was into fixies before fixies were cool." He also recounted being hit by a car, learning how to ride defensively, and understanding what it's like "to have people do bad things to you on the road."

Unfortunately, not only did all three of the aforementioned bills eventually sputter out and fail, but Atkinson also distinguished himself in other ways that don't evoke such happy memories for bike and transportation safety advocates. He voted against Oregon's ban on cell phone use while driving (which went on to pass) and he was behind a push to raise the speed limit on Oregon highways last session.

Legislator bike ride at the Oregon Bike Summit-3
Atkinson and fellow legislator, Portland Democrat Jackie Dingfelder,
near the capitol steps in 2009.

Those blips aside, Atkinson's record and rhetoric around bicycles could do wonders to help Oregon bridge the urban/rural divide that often dominates our transportation politics. To do that, Atkinson advises, we shouldn't forget to talk about bicycling's potential as a sport and an economic development tool — especially around tourism and handmade bicycle manufacturing (which flourishes in his southern Oregon district).

"Too often, when you talk about bicycles in Salem, you get into this weird, urban/rural, Portland-centric transportation sphere... People, I don't think, have an appreciation for how much broader cycling is... Cycling is more than Portland transportation issues."

Atkinson talks about cycling like some sports fans talk about football or baseball. After sharing that the wall above his desk in his home office has three framed pictures — one of the Fausto Coppi winning the Tour de France in 1952, that famous old photo of a group of Tour de France riders smoking cigarettes while racing, and a "random picture of three guys in a breakaway at Paris-Nice" — he said he wants to see Oregon produce more Olympic cycling athletes.

My day in Salem
A spokesman for cycling?

"My contention has always been, outside of Belgium, Oregon is the greatest cycling state... We should have Olympic athletes on the track coming out of our state." One of those athletes might be Atkinson's young son, who apparently does a mean Phil Liggett impersonation. "I have a nine-year-old who knows who the 'God of Thunder' is!," referring to Liggett's nickname for pro racer Thor Hushovd.

It's clear Atkinson loves cycling ("I am without question the most hardcore cycling fan who is a registered Republican," he says); but without his Senate seat, his ability to influence major bike policy might be diminished. Or maybe, free from the shackles of party politics, he might be able to do even more.

When I suggested he would make a great spokesman for cycling in Oregon, he perked up. "I'm currently available and looking at all offers. I can show up on my cruiser bike anywhere I'm needed."

Something tells me we haven't heard the last of Mr. Atkinson.

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Comments
  • jeff March 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    and what exactly is a "typical Oregon Republican politician"?
    do tell.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 13, 2012 at 2:46 pm

      aahh, good catch Jeff. I meant no offense by that but I see how it comes off that way. My feeling was that by his voting record and his strong support for bicycling, Atkinson is atypical among his republican colleagues. That being said, I don't want readers to get the wrong impression, so I'll edit the "typical" part of that caption. Thanks

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    • Chris I March 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm

      A typical Oregon Republican would vote against anything pro-bike.

      There.

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      • middle of the road guy March 15, 2012 at 2:48 pm

        and a typical liberal would stereotype anybody with a different opinion. Good work.

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  • Rol March 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Well it is sort of an urban/rural thing. Biking 30 miles to the nearest town to haul back a trailer of [anything] gets old fast. Life is sustained out there by gasoline, and before that, horses, and before that, survival skills that nobody I know still has.

    It's not a liberal/conservative thing though. Legs push pedals, they don't think or have ideologies.

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  • Kenji March 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Here's what we need to keep hammering home. Cycling is a non-partisan issue. It's great to have folks like Sen. Atkinson.

    "We shouldn't forget to talk about bicycling's potential as a sport and an economic development tool."

    Exactly. Economic development is key. Bike business is big bucks in Portland and in Oregon. Heck, I'll be visiting with US Travel next week in DC to talk about the importance of cycling and tourism. Cities are starting to understand this- the City of Newport is going to be putting on a mountain bike race this season. Bend gets it- Doug LaPlaca has done wonders over there.

    If you didn't know Portland was highlighted in Pedal Magazine in Japan. 21 pages were devoted just to Portland. Travel Portland, Travel Oregon, Cycle Oregon- we all worked to make this happen. More tourism = more people on our side- hospitality, restaurants, bike shops- they all benefit from tourism.

    When it comes right down to it- cycling creates jobs. Talk to Slate Olson at Rapha, talk to Rich Desmond at Castelli, talk to the CCC, talk to all the builders. Cycling creates economic value for the state.

    When you talk to folks who don't think cycling isn't important- make sure to talk to them about jobs, jobs, jobs.

    That's why the Oregonian has it all wrong. They see biking as an issue to bash. It's not. They fail to see cycling as the economic driver that it is. I wrote Beth an e-mail responding to her article a while back offering to help them get information about bike businesses - I received nothing in return.

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    • A.K. March 13, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      Kenji,

      Have a link to that article in Pedal Magazine? I'd love to read it, or look at it if the whole thing is in Japanese.

      I guess it's a little late now, but Business Oregon (http://www.oregon4biz.com/) has a great group of folks whose job is to help export Oregon goods and services around the world and to promote Oregon companies overseas. I've worked with them on a lot of export business to Japan and China which in turn has helped my company grow.

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      • Kenji March 13, 2012 at 3:36 pm

        Shoot me an e-mail I can get you some of the pages.

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  • wsbob March 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    The Statesman Journal story (first link in this story.) is informative. It tells enough to explain that as Republicans go, Atkinson has been comparatively moderate, looking out for the interests of residents of the state, avoiding partisan extremism.

    I don't think much of his support for proposals such as bicycle equipment requirement amendment for fixed gear bikes, an Idaho stop law, or raising the Oregon highway speed limit. The Statesman Journal story says though, that he was a strong supporter for education and protecting fish habitat. Also something to do with helping to restructure Oregon's energy policy.

    Those of us in the Portland Metro Area probably don't hear enough about what people east of the Cascades think and do. That part of the state is obviously not as populated as the metro area. Communities are farther apart, so of course the need to drive is likely greater than it is in some parts of the metro area. Maybe that accounts for some of the animosity some of his constituents expressed towards Atkinson when he supported bills encouraging biking. The areas relatively sparse population, low level of residential development, and its vast open country seems like it would make it an excellent location for recreational biking and exploring. Income opportunity for area residents. Could be, Atkinson has the right values and experience to help develop that sort of thing.

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    • Kenji March 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      It definitely does provide opportunities. For example from our side we just had Echo Red to Red which was a mountain bike race. That brought 525 racers to the little town of Echo. Many actually stayed out there. We had a tremendous number of people show up from states outside of Oregon include ID, WA, AZ and CA.

      There are some folks who are working on doing an economic impact study on the race.

      We also have events in Baker City, Ashland, Medford and Bend.

      Cycle Oregon is also great because they take people through rural areas.

      Remember that transportation and recreation go hand in hand.

      The more recreational riders there are the more likely that many of them may try commuting by bike. The more cyclists out there- the better for everyone.

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    • DK March 13, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      "Those of us in the Portland Metro Area probably don't hear enough about what people east of the Cascades think and do...Maybe that accounts for some of the animosity some of his constituents expressed towards Atkinson when he supported bills encouraging biking."

      I think he's from Central Point, down near Medford. West of the Cascades, southern part of the state.

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      • wsbob March 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm

        DK...thanks....I looked more carefully this time, and that's right...Central Point and his district, Senate District 2 is west of the Cascades. White City and Eagle Point appear to be among the cities and communities closest to the eastern boundary of SD 2. Medford is just outside the eastern boundary. Crater Lake, part of the Cascade range is further east, 76 miles by road.

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  • Lenny Anderson March 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    re the so-called urban.rural divide? Who buys all that beef? wheat? and in the good old days, beaver!?! Folks in the urban world here and aboard. We are their customers, and those who don't wise up to that will just become more dependent on and resentful of public financial support than they already are.
    As someone who would rather see a coyote than eat a steak, I think our rural suppliers need to listen to their market, their customers and adjust. Demand for open space, wild life viewing, and recreation are growing a lot faster than red meat or white bread consumption.

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    • DK March 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm

      So…I guess it's not just the conservatives making it a conservative/liberal thing eh?

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  • nuovorecord March 13, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Atkinson is a throwback to days when Oregon Republicans were a lot more moderate than they are now. Too bad he's hanging it up; we need more politicians like him.

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  • old&slow March 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    *** This comment has been deleted. - Jonathan ***

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    • DK March 13, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Out of curiosity, do you actually know anything about his voting record, or is this just some sort of ignorant partisan rant? I don't know much about him, but all I found when looking up his voting record was this: "The Oregon League of Conservation Voters gives Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, a perfect 100 percent for his voting record on environmental issues in the 2011 legislative session. It's the first time the league has given a Republican a 100 percent rating in the 40-year history of its legislative scorecard." You're right, sounds like a real jerk that's completely out of line with Oregon values. I think it's interesting that much of the article and follow on discussion was about the de-politfication of cycling and then you were nice enough to come along and put a big 'ol partisan stamp on cycling.

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    • jim March 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm

      It sounds to me like Atkinson isn't afraid to vote for what he feels is right. Being registered as a republican gives him the ideals closest to what a democrat used to be 40 years ago. Perhaps he may find some more effective ways to help cycling than his office.
      Good luck with your next venture whatever it might be.

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  • velo March 14, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I think looking at someone like Sen. Atkinson is an important reminder about the need to build alliances across party lines. As someone who works as a political organizer and advocate I can speak from experience that a lot of issues become more partisan than they actually are. It becomes about perception of who supports the issue instead of the merits of the issue itself.

    Developing relationships and understanding before issues come up is critical for protecting your interests. I hope that bike advocacy groups will reach out to Sen. Atkinson to get his advice on how to broaden support for cycling though out the state. It would be great to leverage his relationships for an activity he clearly loves.

    I know that building non-conventional alliances often feels unholy, and it is legitimately odd to be working with someone on one issue while fighting them on virtually every other, but having this kind of flexibility can help us win for bikes.

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  • Geoff March 14, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Cycling advocates often point out that riding a bike is better for the environment, reduces traffic, promotes health, is good for the economy, and so on. But I think one thing that really transcends politics is that riding a bike is FUN.

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  • GlowBoy March 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I'll be sorry to see Atkinson go. There are few other Republicans in Salem I'd say that about. I do hope he continues to advocate for cycling in some way. He could have a lot of influence, and help to bridge the urban-rural divide in Oregon. I do hope that more rural Oregonians will see cycling as a positive thing for their communities.

    With 5 1/2 new state Scenic Bikeways east of the Cascades (and another one on the drawing boards, not to mention many more possible) we've got the seeds for an influx of tourist dollars. From what I've heard most people in the communities along these routes are enthusiastic, even if the impact won't be large at first. And in the Gorge we have the promise of more improvements for cycling, which could eventually make it as much a a cycling as a windsurfing destination ... there are plenty of corners of Oregon with scenery to rival Hood River's who would want a piece of that once they see what's possible.

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  • Lee March 16, 2012 at 10:51 am

    As a cyclist and driver, I find the following part of the article to be frustrating: "... but Atkinson also distinguished himself in other ways that don't evoke such happy memories for bike advocates. He voted against Oregon's ban on cell phone use while driving (which went on to pass) and he was behind a push to raise the speed limit on Oregon highways last session."

    Implying that bike advocates should be against raising the speed limit on highways needlessly complicates the driver vs. cyclist divide which needs no further fuel. I don't see the need to raise the highway speed limit, but I don't hold that opinion because I'm a cyclist.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 16, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Lee,

      I hear your concerns with that passage. Please note that I specifically said "bike advocates" and meant that to imply professional advocates and advocacy groups — not necessarily everyone who rides and supports bikes. Thanks

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