George Country

By Lisa Baker

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a George in Oregon politics.

Kathy George is a Yamhill County Commissioner.

Gary George, her husband, is a state senator for District 12 in northwest Oregon.

And then there’s their son Larry George, former background campaign man gone legit in his first run at the legislature in neighboring District 13. That’s Kathy, Gary and Larry, if you’re paying attention.

And those are just the ones you know about.

Cheryl Mueller, née George, daughter to Kathy and Gary, quietly got herself elected to the school board in Cottage Grove in 2003. Very quietly. “I didn’t campaign,” she says. “I just put my name in.”

Other George kin lurk behind the scenes, making it potentially only a matter of time before they step to the fore as well.

Some in the media are already using the word “dynasty,” to the consternation of the Georges, who consider themselves unassuming, git-r-done country types who were just heeding a call for helping hands—as they would if a neighbor’s tractor got stuck in the mud.

But they aren’t simple country hicks, and their political muscle likely isn’t the cogs-in- the-wheel variety they portray it to be.

Take their aw-shucks family business: a $7 million-a-year, Newberg-area hazelnut processing center—one of the largest in the U.S.

Of the other family business—politics—Larry George says, “It’s not like we’re major political players. These are not positions that people care much about. These seats are small and it’s hard to find people to run for them. I look at my race and 11,000 votes were cast—total. How do you make that a dynasty? And you know, the only one who gets paid for (politics) is my mom.”

Gary George agrees. “There’s nothing slick about us. We are common, ordinary people.” But it is clear that the Georges together wield a level of power and influence that others covet.

Larry George himself, known primarily for the popular property owner revolt behind Measures 7 and 37, was also behind the administrative rules reform effort to limit non- elected power in state government and to reform the state judiciary.

Most notably, he is the Hemi engine behind a raft of Republican candidates. While he was running his own campaign in May, he was simultaneously managing races for five other candidates.

Until this year, he was content to remain in the background, promoting other wannabes and installing them in strategic seats. But when Charles Starr, a fellow Republican, announced that he intended not to run again in District 13, Larry saw an empty seat in a heavily Republican district with no obvious candidate to fill the void. He needed someone unapologetically conservative. Someone with energy and will.

It was decided. He would do this one himself. Much later, Starr re-entered the race, but it was too late; Larry had the primary sewn up.

It was the same way Larry’s father ended up in politics. Filling a void, stepping in where there was a need.

Gary George was drafted by fellow conservatives in 1990, the first of the four to enter public office. But it was not the family’s first involvement in politics. They had been volunteers for some time already, participating in committees and stuffing envelopes. Now, Gary said, the party was desperate for candidates. “They asked Kathy first – she’s better-looking and smarter than I am. But she refused. She said she wanted to finish raising the children first.”

Gary George won his seat on his second attempt.

His wife followed him four years ago, dragged into office by family badgering. She now finds herself in the center of local debate on how to implement the property rights measure her son has managed to pass.

The family is in harmony on the big issues, each member conservative and Republican, coming by their views as a product of the long-haul tug-of-war between Oregon government and Oregon agriculture. They are property rights boosters, fiscally and socially conservative, and second amendment defenders.

“The criminals will never come to the Georges’,” Gary George says. “We all have guns. We’re a pistol-packing family, except for maybe Larry, and that’s because he’s been living in town.”

But it’s not to say that all branches of the George family are in lockstep. There are some relatives that don’t cotton to the conservative way. Like the time a George family cousin came to visit in the 1970s. Enrolled at University of California at Berkeley as a political science student at the time and carrying the liberal banner high, she ran into the buzzsaw that was the George family dinner table.

It was, recalls Mueller, a no-holds-barred debate between her father and her cousin. “We kids didn’t have a clue what they were talking about,” she says.

Politics was and is a common theme at mealtime, as is religion—two topics most families take pains to avoid. And while there is agreement on the important issues, the nitty gritty of method and timing—those are up to debate. And debate they do.

“We do not have a problem with conflict. A lot of people get frustrated in politics because they don’t like conflict,” Larry George says. “Yet our entire system of government is based on being able to disagree without disliking. It’s a lost art.”

“Most of our debates are about the fine-tuning,” Gary George says. “But we can disagree with each other and get nose to nose on something, and then later, we can be sitting having a soda together and talking about the grandkids. We love debate.”

Larry George says he remembers working campaigns as a youth and, for fun, rounding up a few friends to protest former Oregon Congressman Les AuCoin at campaign appearances.

It is Larry who actively recruits other Georges to run.

“Larry was always trying to get me to run for something,” Mueller says. “So when I decided to run for the school board, I didn’t want to tell him. When I did, he was very excited. Now, he talks about how, since I have my foot in the door, I should go for state office.”

Having family members in politics means Georges can always turn to other Georges for help on a policy or strategy. “If someone calls me with a problem that has to be dealt with at the state level, I call Gary or Larry and ask them if they can do something,” Kathy George says.

And each family member has an area of expertise. “My mom is really into local government issues,” Larry George says. “My sister is interested in education issues. Dad does transportation, and I do land-use and tax things. It’s a difference in emphasis.”

With family members running for office, campaign season can be, well, stressful. “Politics can be very humbling,” Kathy George says. “When you stand up in front, you’re basically vulnerable. A lot of people personalize politics.”

At the same time, the Georges say they don’t worry about each other, even when the heat is on and opponents are slinging arrows their way. “The whole family is like Timex,” Gary George says. “It can take a licking and keep on ticking…Kathy, for one, is one tough lady. People think she’s mild-mannered, but don’t push her, or she might step into that phone booth.”

And while family members support each other, they don’t expect the others to be their personal cheering section. “‘Supportive’ is a funny word,” Larry George says. “Sometimes I think it would be better if they weren’t so engaged, then they wouldn’t find all the flaws in what you do. They can critique you because they know what’s going on. And they have no problem with critiques.”

Gary George says he never intended that his family be a political family per se. It just turned out that way. And in the end, he says he’s proud that his family stands up for its convictions, whatever they are.

“The main thing I wanted for the kids was for them to be themselves. If they believe something, they should act on it. Of course,” he says with a laugh, “if they’re going to cancel my vote, then they should go somewhere else and do it.”

BrainstormNW - June 2006

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