‘We just went at it hard’: Rep. Greg Walden on his early Hill days

The Oregon Republican is retiring from Congress, but says he’s not ‘cranky’ or ‘down on the system’

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Posted February 27, 2020 at 5:31am

People know Greg Walden as the guy with radio in his blood, the one who used to own stations back in Oregon — good preparation for his time as top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he’s been a staunch advocate for broadcasters.

But radio wasn’t his first job. Walden got his start in politics as a staffer for Denny Smith, a fellow Oregonian who unseated Al Ullman in 1980.

Walden describes his former boss as someone who “didn’t sugarcoat anything,” and you can see some of that in his own career. (“Pull Up Yer Big Boy Boxers & Git ’R Dun” reads a sign affixed to Walden’s desk.) 

After 22 years in Congress, Walden is retiring at the end of this term, but he insists he’s not “one that’s leaving cranky and grumpy and down on the system.”

“Democracy is designed to be messy and loud,” he told me in a Feb. 25 interview in his office.

Q: How did you come to work for Rep. Denny Smith of Oregon?

A: He was this 40-something upstart running for Congress against the 24-year incumbent chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. I got hired as his press secretary.

Q: And you were still an undergraduate?

A: Yeah, I was kind of on the seven-year plan. I kept leaving college to go to work and be involved in campaigns.

I actually ended up finishing my degree back here in Washington at Northern Virginia Community College. I had six hours of undergraduate literature or English credits to get, and he insisted I get them and get the degree, which is in journalism from the University of Oregon [in 1981].

So we had a graduation ceremony in front of the Longworth Building. Somebody had a graduation robe, and we had a little party.

Q: How did you move up?

A: Well, I was press secretary for four years, and then our chief of staff, Judy Edstrom, decided to leave. I was chief of staff for about two years, and then I went back to Oregon.

We bought our family’s radio business in Hood River, and I still worked part time for him for about a year out of the district office.

Q: How have things changed for staffers since the 1980s?

A: We would get three or four deliveries of mail a day. There was no email. … I remember we had one of the first desktop computers, an IBM XT. People didn’t expect an instant response.

You had active press here, from Oregon. The TV stations had reporters. The Oregonian had two or three reporters. There was somebody from Gannett. I mean, there were bureaus here from the state. Now, you don't have much at all of that.

You can tell it’s an old photo because “I had hair,” Walden says. The Oregonian met former President Gerald Ford in 1982 while working on Denny Heck’s campaign. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)

Q: What do you remember about your boss?

A: He and former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart [of Colorado] formed the Military Reform Caucus to go after Pentagon waste and weapons systems that did not work.

We developed quite a cadre of insiders at the Pentagon who would tip us off to things that were being falsified, and it was a really fascinating period. He was about the warrior, that man or woman in uniform, because he had been an F-4 pilot.

He was a good boss. He was a business owner. He challenged you a lot to do better, in a good way I think.

He read a lot — every magazine that came in the office, he went through on the plane on the way home and would initial them.

He was, I’ll say, somewhat fearless in going after a goal. He wasn’t timid. He would lean into it and occasionally broke a little china here or there, you know? … He didn’t sugarcoat anything. That made my job interesting as press secretary from time to time.

We just went at it hard — he went at it hard. We reflected that.

Q: What’s your routine like now?

A: When I first got elected, my chief of staff drove me out to the airport to fly back to Oregon, and I looked at him and said, “I know what you’re gonna say when I get out of the car … ‘Thank God he’s on the airplane, now I can get something done.’”

Because that’s what I used to say every time I’d drop Denny off at the airport: “Oh, God, get ’em on an airplane.”

Staffers don’t always appreciate what members go through. They pack you up, and now they can have a weekend to themselves. The member gets on the plane, and you get a whole other set of staff that goes, “Oh, I got you for the weekend.”

You go do your thing out there, and you come back here and repeat. So I’ll finish my 629th round trip to Oregon since I was elected in 1998.

I was talking to a colleague of mine who was a former staffer, and now that he’s a member he’s saying, “I wasn’t very good to my former boss.”

Walden — here with his parents and his wife, Mylene, in the 1980s — took a while to finish college, working on campaigns instead. “I was kind of on the seven-year plan,” he joked. (No, this photo wasn’t taken in Oregon — it’s New Hampshire.) (Courtesy Rep. Greg Walden)

Q: What was your favorite Hill hangout in the ’80s?

A: Bullfeathers was just coming of age, but there was always the old faithfuls, like the Tune Inn. Usually I just went home.

Q: Last year you announced that this will be your last term in Congress. What will you miss?

A: The staff becomes part of your family. That was one of the hardest parts of making the decision not to run again. It’s not just me that’s affected.

We had a pretty active campaign operation going. That’s all closed down. Office is gone. We have a little storage unit now.

And the official office, it’s just a great team here and across the district.

For one of my counsels on the [Energy and Commerce] Committee — because I have all that staff too — her first day on the job was the day I announced I wasn’t running again. “Yeah, welcome aboard! Um, sorry!”

It was a long time coming to this decision. I didn’t want to be carried out. I didn’t want to be kicked out. It’s been 22 years, a great run, a great journey.

I'm not one that’s leaving cranky and grumpy and down on the system. Look, democracy was designed to be messy and loud. Sometimes it’s messier and louder than I’d like, but it still works.

At some point, I have to clean out the office. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all these trophies and plaques and things.

Q: And Pendleton blankets?

A: That’s right. The Pendleton blanket right there.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.