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Rep. Elizabeth Furse says three terms are enough


HELVETIA, OR -- U.S. Representative Elizabeth Furse announced June 16 that she will not seek re-election in Oregon's First Congressional District.

"This is a job that is really public service and not a career," the Democrat said from her farm in Helvetia, near Hillsboro. "My family knew I was considering not running. After we discussed it, I realized that I missed them and I missed Oregon."

During her congressional career Furse -- one of only a few representatives with a full-time labor liaison staffer -- has compiled nearly a 90 percent pro-worker voting record as tracked by the national AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE).

In her position, Furse has been able to secure money for programs such as the Westside light-rail project and salmon recovery efforts that bolster the Northwest's fishing industry.

She broke ranks with President Clinton and several key Democrats when she voted with labor against the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it would "ride roughshod over our environmental laws."

After labor-endorsed Democrat Les AuCoin left the House in 1992 to run for the Senate against Bob Packwood, Furse -- who had never served in government -- secured the endorsement of the Oregon AFL-CIO and went on to narrowly defeat well-known Republican State Treasurer Tony Meeker. She barely held on to the seat two years later, surviving a recount to post a 301-vote victory against ultra-conservative businessman Bill Witt.

Not surprisingly, in 1996, a year after she briefly ran for the Senate, Republicans targeted her again. In a rematch with Witt, Furse survived a bruising, mud-slinging campaign to win with 52 percent of the vote. Her campaign cost $1.4 million.

Furse said that fundraising is a daunting task that takes a lot of time away from the job. She said campaign finance reform is needed so that members of Congress don't have to spend so much time raising money.

"We should not allow just millionaires to run, and unfortunately that could happen," she said.

Furse has carried the endorsement of the state labor federation in each of her campaigns, although in 1996 leaders of the Woodworkers and Paperworkers unions tried to block it, primarily because of her leadership role in legislation to repeal the salvage logging rider and her outspoken defense of the Endangered Species Act.

"I was passionate about certain issues," Furse said at her press conference. "We have tried to protect the environment. I was the author of the repeal of the salvage rider. Now we didn't win on that repeal, but what we did do was we stopped the rider from being extended."

When the scandal-plagued Packwood resigned from the Senate in September 1995, Furse jumped into the race to serve out his term. She said a woman in Packwood's seat "sounds like justice," and the women's fundraising group Emily's List backed her. Three weeks after getting in, she dropped out, saying she would be unable to raise her target of $750,000 in time.

The child of British parents, Furse grew up in South Africa, where her mother was a founder of the Black Sash, a women's anti-apartheid group. Furse became a U.S. citizen in 1972, working as a community organizer in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and on behalf of Northwestern Indian tribes. In 1985 she founded the Oregon Peace Institute.

As a House freshman in 1993, Furse won three committee assignments -- Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs; Merchant Marine and Fisheries; and Armed Services -- but in the 104th Congress she dropped them all for a chance to serve exclusively on the Commerce Committee.

In 1997, Furse shifted to Commerce's Energy and Power Subcommittee because that panel will be a major player in the proposed deregulation of electric utilities. She also moved to the Health and Environment Subcommittee to better protect the Oregon Health Plan, which she believes could suffer under GOP funding formulas for Medicaid.

Congressional Quarterly described Furse's voting record as "a fusion of progressive politics and fiscal discipline. Furse belongs to a recent vintage of deficit-conscious Democrats who work to safeguard certain social priorities while acknowledging that Republicans have shifted the terms of the budget debate."

Furse, 60, has been outspoken on womens' concerns. Several women came forward in 1995 with renewed allegations of sexual harassment by Senator Packwood. When the Senate appeared unlikely to air their complaints in a public hearing, Furse repeatedly called for Packwood to agree to the hearings or resign. Facing wilting pressure, Packwood resigned in September 1995.

Furse also offered a bill directing the National Institutes of Health to study the effects that environmental factors have on women's health; the measure was enacted as part of the fiscal 1997 Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill. And to address what she saw as pension inequities facing women, Furse proposed legislation that would change pension law to protect women in divorce proceedings and simplify spousal consent rules for survivor annuities. No action was taken on the bill, but she plans to keep pushing it.

Furse said she will stay in public service, working for environmental protection, people with diabetes, and for kids, and Indian tribes seeking sovereign rights.

"Those are the issues that have always moved me," she said. "Those are things I'll work on. I don't know where -- but I'll continue to work on those things."

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