October 20, 2002 Sunday
Summary: Driven by his Oregon metamorphosis, Bradbury feeds on tests in life and politics
From the window of the Three Gables Restaurant, gulls and loons swoop across a backdrop of sea and sky so blue and pure and shiny, it hurts the eyes. Breakers curl across what seems like an infinite shoreline.
This is the view, almost unchanged, that Bill Bradbury encountered 31 years ago when he took a sharp detour from a budding broadcast journalism career in San Francisco and moved north to help run a shacky seafood diner, then called the Two Seasons.
He never looked back. Over the decades he underwent an Oregon metamorphosis -- falling for its natural beauty, working its land, running its rivers and immersing himself in its tumultuous politics. It has been an eclectic evolution by all accounts, from attempts to raise sheep to self-exploration at Landmark Forum seminars to his current job as secretary of state. It left him as one of Oregon's most experienced politicians and leading environmental advocates. And it imbued him with a determinedly cheery outlook on life, even as he remains the underdog in his effort to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
"Bill is one of the most decent, gentle human beings I've ever met," said Gov. John Kitzhaber, who nudged Bradbury into politics by encouraging him to run for the Legislature in 1980. "He's the most tremendously positive person I know."
At 53, Bradbury has taken on perhaps the most quixotic adventure of his career. Facing a depressing deficit in almost every recent poll and a huge financial disadvantage, he must move voters away from a popular and increasingly moderate incumbent, Republican Gordon Smith.
Bradbury knows the odds. And they have had little visible impact on the relentless optimism that guided him through the sudden death of his parents when he was a boy, an amicable divorce from his first wife and an ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis that requires aides to help him walk from his car to political events.
"Challenges," Bradbury is fond of saying, "energize me." And he has the dossier to back the boast.
Call of Oregon irresistible In his early 20s, Bradbury already had broken into a tough San Francisco journalism market, rubbing shoulders with California media heavyweights as a panelist on an hourlong political program on KQED, a public broadcasting TV station.
As a reporter for TV and radio, he'd covered the height of the counterculture movement -- the Summer of Love, People's Park, the first Earth Day.
"It was a period of remarkable cultural development and change," Bradbury recalled in a recent interview. "I was an observer," he stressed, "not a participant."
In fact, the whole San Francisco scene didn't do much for him. When a friend of a friend called from Oregon, telling him about the chance to buy and run a coastal restaurant, he jumped.
It was 1971. The caller was Rob Artman. The two didn't know each other, but that didn't matter to Bradbury. He and his first wife, Betsy Harrison, sped up the coastline, shook hands with Artman and sealed the deal.
"He just exudes that kind of persona where you feel like you're not going to get in trouble with this guy," said Artman, who now lives in Clackamas and works as a sales representative for a Connecticut publishing firm. "You just sense right from the get-go that he's going to be an easy person to get along with. You trust him."
The partnership worked but the restaurant flopped. Bandon in the early 1970s wasn't the quaint tourist village it is today, Artman said. It was a rough-around-the edges logging and fishing town. Locals looked at Artman and Bradbury -- California transplants, no less -- with suspicion. And they blocked their attempts to obtain a liquor license.
"We were the 'hippie element,' " Artman said. "I'd never describe myself that way, nor him either. But this was an area that was, you know, redneck."
After two years of hand-to-mouth struggle, Bradbury agreed to buy out Artman's share and they went their separate ways. The two rarely speak any more, but not because of any serious falling out.
"He's a good man," Artman said. "If I had to sum him up in less than 10 words, that's what I'd say."
Soon after Artman left, Bradbury traded the restaurant for a 40-acre chunk of ranch land south of Bandon in the tiny community of Langlois.
Margaret Gorman, owner of a Bandon motel that bears her name, made the trade. She remembers getting to know the vigorous but still naive young man who had back-to-the-land ideals but citified ways.
"He needed to get his act together a few times," Gorman said. "He's got good intentions, let's put it that way. But sometimes he got a little too extreme on this nature business."
Although he was still new to the area, Bradbury took a keen interest in local issues, especially environmental protection. Artman credits Bradbury with leading the fight to preserve the 4,400-acre South Slough estuary, which was established in 1974 as a reserve for wildlife and research.
As such, Bradbury was on the cusp of change in Oregon's south coast, which gradually transformed from a blue-collar community to a trendy beachside getaway. It set him apart from those rooted in Bandon's workaday past, but he began making in-roads with the movers and shakers of the town, who foresaw the day when tourism would shoulder aside the fading fishing and timber industries.
"He has his supporters around here, no question," said Lee Pestana, who runs the Langlois Market and knows just about everyone in the area. "But there are people who don't want to hear his name mentioned."
Social concerns lead to politics By the late 1970s, Bradbury was an entrenched member of the south coast community.
He had tempered his environmental activism with empathy for the growing number of out-of-work loggers and fishermen. But he also had watched with amazement as Gov. Tom McCall and the state Legislature hammered out the nation's first comprehensive set of land-use laws, prompting him to return to his journalism roots to do a series of televised town hall meetings on the divisive issue, as well as other environmental topics.
Politics had been part of Bradbury's life almost as long as he could remember. At age 11, he went door to door passing out campaign literature for John F. Kennedy. "I didn't know anything about political parties," Bradbury says about his first foray into campaigning. "I just knew I was very excited about Kennedy."
Orphaned at age 9 when his parents were killed in an automobile accident, his older sister, Joan Bradbury, became a primary influence on Bill's life. After living with his aunt and uncle for several years, he went to Chicago to live with Joan during his final two years in high school.
"I was going to peace demonstrations," said Joan Bradbury in a telephone interview from Chicago, where she teaches third grade. "He was thinking real hard about the war. Grass-roots organizing, participatory democracy -- it was all very important to him."
But his social conscience began developing even earlier, Joan Bradbury said. She recounted a story of a 5-year-old Bill Bradbury getting his first allowance. "He gave all of it away to me and my sister," she said. "We were older and got a bigger allowance. But that was his first thought."
Bradbury hit 30 about the same time his urge to run for office grew too strong to ignore. He traveled to Roseburg and sat down over a cup of coffee with John Kitzhaber, then a state senator. They established an immediate rapport, and Bradbury decided to run for the House. He won, partly because of his TV exposure, then went on to win a Senate seat four years later.
Off the bat, Bradbury jumped into the salmon protection debate, championing a bill in 1981 that created the Salmon Trout Enhancement Program, which lined up thousands of volunteers to help restore streams, count fish and work with hatchery programs.
Later, he was chief sponsor of the bill to create the Oregon Ocean Plan, which continues to prevent offshore oil drilling along the Oregon coast. But he also worked on bills to help displaced workers, including one that established small business development centers at community colleges and one that offered a relief package for laid-off timber workers.
However, he is best known for presiding over what became the longest and one of the most bitter legislative sessions in state history. By the time the 1993 session ended, Bradbury had sunk into a rare, weary malaise, a doomed sales tax measure had been sent to voters, and Democrats were about to lose the Senate majority for the first time in decades.
"I thought he operated in highly partisan ways and wasn't a very successful leader," said former Sen. Bill Kennemer, now a Clackamas County commissioner. Kennemer gave an example of what he thinks typified Bradbury's style. When Kennemer started being uncooperative on the Senate Human Resources Committee, Bradbury sent envoys to find out why.
"He never came to visit me himself," Kennemer said. "You'd think he could have found the time."
Meanwhile, Bradbury's friendship with Kitzhaber deepened. Besides becoming close political partners, they shared an appreciation for whitewater and deep river canyons. Together they ran the Rogue, the Snake and the Salmon rivers, Kitzhaber in a raft and Bradbury in a kayak. The trips brought them even closer.
"Going down a river is like going to church," Kitzhaber said. "It's a spiritual experience."
Not slowed by setbacks Kitzhaber, with his love of the outdoors and his relish for hardball politics, made a strong, lasting impression on Bradbury. Asked to name the person who influenced him most on environmental issues, Bradbury hesitated only briefly before choosing the governor.
But where Kitzhaber maintains an even, sometimes steely, public persona, Bradbury bubbles with outward displays of enthusiasm.
Bradbury's "giant laugh" is one of his biggest strengths, says his wife, Katy Eymann. Bradbury met the former lobbyist in 1982 at a candidates forum she had organized for the Coos County Bar Association. They were married four years later.
Some who know Bradbury attribute his bouncy mannerisms to training at the Landmark Forum, an offshoot of Est, the now defunct but more controversial personal development program. Run by the brother of Est founder Werner Erhard, the Forum is viewed by some as a cultish mind control outfit but by others as a serious effort at gaining personal control.
"It's a training seminar in how to much more fully express yourself and keep your life what you want it to be, not what others try to make it," Bradbury said. "I can decide if I'm completely messed up, which is useless, or I can decide to move my life forward."
Moving forward has always been Bradbury's operating style.
After the 1993 setback, Bradbury quit politics in 1995 to take a job as director of For the Sake of the Salmon, a group that serves as a clearinghouse for salmon protection and restoration programs around the Northwest. The group has been "ineffective" in restoring salmon runs, is the blunt assessment of Bill Bakke, director of the Native Fish Society of Oregon. But Bakke doesn't fault Bradbury.
"He did what he could do," Bakke said. "He tried to get the groups together to talk about wild fish. He's on the right side of the issue," but the organization was set up to funnel money into salmon programs that haven't worked.
When Phil Keisling resigned as secretary of state in 1999 to go into private business, Kitzhaber turned to his old river-running partner and gave him the job. One year later, Bradbury ran for election to the post and won.
His most controversial work to date has been to redraw the state's House and Senate districts. Critics charged that Bradbury purposely drew them to favor Democrats in the upcoming election, often snaking suburban district lines into Democrat-rich areas of Portland and Eugene.
Bradbury shrugged off the charges, and the state Supreme Court eventually upheld his redistricting plan after ordering two minor changes.
Perhaps the biggest blow -- personal or political -- that Bradbury has suffered since the death of his parents was discovering he has multiple sclerosis, an incurable, sometimes crippling disease that can cause bouts of deep fatigue. The doctor's diagnosis came just as he was preparing to run for the Legislature for the first time.
He kept the illness a secret for several years. Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, said he noticed symptoms when they were rafting together, and suspected MS. Bradbury went public after he developed a slight but noticeable limp.
Although he has a relatively mild case, it makes it difficult to walk distances of much length. Aides often take him by the arms after his speeches. He sits on a tall director's chair while waiting to speak. Once in the U.S. Senate, he said, he'll use a motorized scooter to get around.
His stoicism about MS has not been lost on friends, or voters. Or, in the case of Margaret Gorman, the Bandon motel operator, both.
"He's got a tough battle on his hands, but he has for a long time,"
Gorman said. "I hope he makes it. He deserves it."
© Copyright 2002 The Sunday Oregonian