VALE – Don Hodge has no regrets.
The longtime Malheur County commissioner left his position recently, a result of contractor Jim Mendiola’s primary election win last May.
Hodge said he is proud of his accomplishments in his 12 years in office.
“You know, I enjoyed being a commissioner, just getting to help figure out what the county wanted to do or where we wanted to go,” said Hodge.
Hodge departs a Malheur County Court made up of two commissioners and a non-judicial judge at a time when the elected board faces nearly unprecedented public scrutiny for its support of the Treasure Valley Reload Center north of Nyssa.
Hodge was often at the center of the controversy over the project, which is overbudget and behind schedule.
He said he still believes the rail center will be good for the county.
“I want to see the rail facility get finished. We’ve got to get it finished,” he said.
Hodge said he is satisfied with his vote to approve a $2 million bailout for the rail center last month.
“The $2 million had to be done and I don’t regret that. I would make that motion every day,” he said.
Hodge doesn’t believe the rail center project defined his last term but the former banking executive said the controversy swirling around it did impact his reelection bid.
“It had some bearing on it. I think that showed in the voting. I got beat pretty soundly,” said Hodge.
Mendiola, who owns Jim Mendiola Gravel Products, defeated Hodge by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Hodge, though, said his defeat also hinged to some degree on his own actions during the campaign.
“Part of that might be because I didn’t really get out and campaign like I probably should have,” he said.
Hodge said he wanted a fourth term because he wanted to see the rail reload center finished.
As commissioner, Hodge often exhibited a calm, thoughtful method to problems and his departure means a sizeable amount of institutional knowledge goes with him.
“The commissioner position, there is really a lot more to it than people realize and it takes some time to really get up to speed on everything. We will miss him because of the knowledge he has,” said Ron Jacobs, county commissioner.
Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge said Hodge’s banking experience was an asset.
“His background really helped with respect to some of the departments and when bigger funding issues came about. He was good to work with and put deep thought into stuff,” said Joyce.
When Hodge was a young man, one of his main goals was to play professional baseball.
After he graduated from Vale High School, Hodge got a scholarship to what is now Cowley Community College in Kansas to play football and baseball.
He returned to Oregon, enrolling at what is now Eastern Oregon University and played baseball.
“Then I stayed there and was going to college and went from pre-law and got a degree in secondary education,” said Hodge.
Hodge graduated with his bachelor’s degree in December 1974 then played two years for a semi-pro baseball team in the Tri-cities.
While he played baseball he also was a student teacher in the La Grande area.
Hodge then began to work for U.S. Bank, starting a nearly 30-year career in the finance field. He worked for U.S. Bank and Pioneer Bank. As a loan officer and branch manager, Hodge was deployed all over the state including stints in Salem, Redmond, Enterprise and Ontario.
While he spent time in other parts of Oregon, Hodge said his heart was always in Malheur County.
“I was born and raised here and my dad worked for the BLM forever,” said Hodge.
After he retired in 2007, Hodge said he remained focused on local events and politics and in 2009 a “couple of prominent people in Malheur County came and asked me if I’d be interested (in running for commissioner) so I started to check it out,” said Hodge.
Hodge was first elected in 2009.
Hodge said he learned a lot about people as a banker and even more as an elected official.
“I think people are good. But if things get tough, people are going to blame everyone but themselves for what happened. When, in reality, 95 percent of the time it’s what they’ve done to cause the problem. They will blame the commissioner or the banker. It’s just human nature,” said Hodge.
Hodge said he is most proud of his public service. The 71-year-old is a fixture in many local volunteer programs, including the Vale Lions Club and the Vale 4th of July Rodeo Board, and taught hunter safety courses for more than 40 years.
Hodge said he isn’t oblivious to the challenges the county faces. Poverty, in particular, is an issue Hodge said was always a worry.
“It is no surprise to anyone that Malheur County has been one of the poorest counties in Oregon for a long time. That’s not a very pleasant distinction,” said Hodge.
Hodge said the poverty issue, while complicated, has been in place for 50 or 60 years.
“Whether people want to believe it or not, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, when we could have had some industrial growth we didn’t promote it. We, I mean my father and some of the fathers around the county, they didn’t promote anything around here. They thought agriculture would do it forever,” said Hodge.
While the rail reload controversy took center stage over the past few years, Hodge said the county’s biggest challenge was the Covid pandemic.
Hodge said he will miss the people he worked with at the county, including Jacobs and Joyce.
Hodge said those who run for office and get elected should be prepared to be busy.
“They tell you it’s a part-time job, like 20 hours a week. But you can spend anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week in meetings. If you don’t have the mind set and you are not going to do that, you shouldn’t sign up,” said Hodge.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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