Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) talks during a town hall meeting in Vale last summer. (The Enterprise/File).
VALE – Some of the best moments from Greg Walden’s tenure as a congressman happened far away from the lights and political drama of Washington, D.C. and occurred in places like Jordan Valley or Pendleton or Ontario.
It was in those rural and often secluded locations where Walden felt most at home. The memories of those visits will remain as he prepares to walk away from the nation’s Capitol.
“I’ve had an incredible opportunity. It has been a great, joyful journey,” Walden said in an interview with the Malheur Enterprise.
Walden, who is one of the most influential Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, announced last week that he will not run for reelection.
The longtime Oregon lawmaker said no single event triggered his decision.
“You know, it is a personal decision. For me, after 30 years of public service, 22 in the House, I am ready to turn a chapter and close the chapter on public service,” said Walden.
Walden said before every election he talks future plans over with his wife. Usually, he said, the vote is unanimous to continue.
“As we approached this one, it was a little different discussion. I was like, ‘I am ready to do something new and different,’” said Walden.
Walden’s decision is unique in that he will walk away from the halls of American political power at a time when his status and influence are at an all-time high.
He said people were surprised by his decision.
“Washington is not used to people in power who can continue in power giving up that power,” said Walden.
Walden has been a political fixture in Oregon for more than 25 years.
He kicked off his career as a press secretary and chief of staff for then-Congressman Denny Smith in the 1980s. Walden was elected to the Oregon House in 1988 and served there until 1995, when he was appointed to the Senate to fill a vacancy when Wes Cooley was elected to the U.S. House.
Walden rose to the position of assistant majority leader in the state Senate and even pondered a run for Oregon governor in 1994, though he eventually decided against the plan.
In 1998, Walden was elected to the U.S. House. Voters elected Walden to the position ten times and he never faced a serious challenge.
Walden is the only Republican member of Oregon’s delegation.
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Now, Walden serves as the ranking member on influential House Committee on Energy and Commerce, but has also over his tenure worked on other high-profile committees and subcommittees. For example, he was the chairman of the energy committee between 2017 and 2018 and was chairman of the energy and commerce’s subcommittee on communications and technology.
Walden said he is proud of his legislative success and while he “never kept a list,” he said several initiatives he pushed stand out.
Most recently, Walden said he was pleased of his work on the support for Patients and Communities Act in 2018. The wide-sweeping and complicated bill essentially changes the Medicaid program to include addiction treatment in an effort to tackle the opioid crisis.
Walden said the law “sets into motion new pain management concepts.”
“Hopefully non-addictive drugs will come out of this and hopefully treatment for people who have this disease of addiction. It is not just opioids. We expanded it to substance abuse disorder. I saw that as a big need to address,” said Walden.
Walden said he is also proud of the work he did to help regenerate healthy forests in Oregon and across the West.
He also noted the success of protecting the Steens Mountains area for dual-use in the early 2000s as a triumph.
The law, called the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, averted federal overreach, said Walden.
“That was one of the first things I tackled to prevent the Clinton Administration from declaring the Steens Mountains a national monument. Now, there have been different BLM folks who have interpreted it in different ways, but, you know, we headed off the national monument much like we did in the Owyhees,” said Walden.
Walden said he is also proud of his work to get more broadband access into rural areas like Malheur County.
“There are just lots of things, big and small, along the way,” said Walden.
Walden said he has “no idea” about what he will do after he leaves the House.
“I have no plans to do anything,” said Walden.
Walden said there is already speculation on why he is not running for reelection and what he plans to do after he departs Washington, D.C.
“If all the rumors were true I would have a banquet of opportunities before me but that table is pretty empty,” he said.
The job hasn’t been an easy one, said Walden. The political issues aside, for the past 20 years Walden spent a good share of his time flying over the county as he journeyed back and forth to Congress.
“You never settle anywhere. I live on an airplane. You are always in motion and we always plan out but you are always kind of living out there ahead of the clock and the calendar,” said Walden.
Walden said he made 621 trips across the county and sponsored 40 town hall meetings a year in his district throughout his tenure.
“You get to that point in your life where maybe it is time to move on and do something different,” said Walden.
He said he would miss his staff.
“They become family because I spend more time with my wonderful staff than certainly my wife because she is home in Hood River,” said Walden.
Just a day after Walden announced his intent, state Sen. Cliff Bentz declared he would run to succeed Walden.
Walden said he isn’t endorsing Bentz.
“At this point I am staying out of it. Cliff would do a good job but I am not going to get publicly involved in it at this point,” said Walden.
Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
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