Thursday, March 11, 2010

Madame President, I rise today to honor my colleague and my good friend, Oregon State Treasurer Ben Westlund, who passed away this last Sunday after a protracted battle with lung cancer.  A true independent voice in Oregon politics, Ben entered the legislature to improve the lives of all Oregonians, and he remained committed to that cause.

I first met him in 1997 when I was working for the World Affairs Council – I went down to talk to the legislature about education in Oregon.   And I was fortunate enough to start serving with him two years later, in 1999.  

Ben was an unwavering advocate for affordable and available health care.  He helped stabilize Oregon’s college savings plan.  He increased the state’s credit rating.  And over the years, I worked with Ben on many issues, including setting up Oregon’s Rainy Day Fund, a savings account to protect Oregon solvency and critical programs when the economy turned down.  I also worked with my friend Ben Westlund to create Individual Development Accounts, to help empower low-income families, a savings program matched by grants that help families buy homes, start small businesses, return to college, pathways from poverty into the middle class.  And I think it speaks to Ben’s belief in helping families succeed, that he took a lead role in that program.

Ben’s political affiliations ranged at times from Republican, to Independent, to Democrat.  But no matter what party he belonged to, his focus, first and foremost, was always on creating a better Oregon.

Ben gave, in 2003, one of the most passionate and moving speeches that I have ever witnessed in my life.  He gave this speech shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.  He wasn’t sure he’d return to the legislature, and he wanted us to know that we couldn’t retreat in the face of the challenge of passing reforms for affordable and quality health care.  He knew it was an enormous challenge, but he took his personal story and turned it to the cause.   

And his work ethic was unmatched – Ben was working as recently as just last week.  It was an honor to serve with Ben in the Oregon legislature and to consult with him as he took on new challenges as Oregon’s Treasurer.  Now, if you knew Ben, you knew he was gregarious.  He lit up the room.  At every moment his enthusiasm for improving our state and our world was inspiring.  And I will miss him, and I’m sure that his passion and his presence will be missed throughout our state, and I know that all Oregonians join me today in honoring the legacy of Ben Westlund.