Howard Morgan, 98, led Blue Oregon, opposed war
A regular reader of this site e-mailed us last week to observe that Howard Morgan, the former Oregon public utility commissioner who died on April 14, "deserves a better obit" than this. We had never heard of the man, but we've Googled around a little, and prowled through the Oregonian archives on the Multnomah County Library website, and here is what we've found out about him.
Morgan was a colorful and important player in Oregon politics for many years, particularly the 1950's and 1960's. He was born in Tillamook in 1914 but moved to Portland with his father after his parents divorced; he lived in the Albina neighborhood and went to Jefferson High School. A graduate of Reed College, where he was president of the student body, Morgan served in the Navy in World War II. Returning home, he was active in young Democrats' organizations when he was in his early 30's, and he served for a short time in the state legislature. His politics were far to the left for his era.
Early in his career, he and his wife, the former Rosina Corbett, moved to Monmouth and started sheep ranching. Ms. Morgan was the daughter of Harry Corbett, twice acting governor of Oregon and president of the Oregon Senate; thus, she was a member of the storied Corbett family that goes back to the founding of Portland.
Howard ran unsuccessfully for state labor commissioner in 1950. But he became the chair of the state Democratic Party in 1952, winning by a one-vote margin over ex-state treasurer Walter Pearson. Morgan held the chair position for four years. He pulled few political punches, to say the least, and was frequently found asserting his party's views, and his own, most bluntly and forcefully in the newspapers. In 1954, he filed charges that the state's Republicans had engaged in crimes by failing to report campaign expenses, and he was not kind to Tom McCall when the latter was running for Congress that year. McCall later recalled Morgan as "the most brutally caustic man I've ever known." Morgan had mud slung back at him as well, as evidenced by this article dredging up his arrest as a Reed student.
Morgan was there to welcome Sen. Wayne Morse into the Democratic Party fold when Morse switched allegiances in 1955. In 1956, Morgan stepped down from the party chair, possibly because he had made too many foes, and he worked on the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign. That year, the sitting Republican governor of Oregon, Paul Patterson, died, and a Democrat, Robert Holmes, was elected to fill out his unexpired term. It was the first Democrat in the governor's chair in 22 years. Holmes appointed Morgan as the state's public utility commissioner, a job he had long coveted, and he served as PUC from 1957 to 1959.
In his PUC days, Morgan jumped right in and went after Portland Traction Company, which operated a trolley service from the Portland suburbs. Morgan ordered Portland Traction to provide buses from the east side to downtown after the Hawthorne Bridge was closed to the trolleys. Portland Traction wanted to discontinue the connection over the bridge, which it had maintained for a short while through an agreement with another private bus company, Rose City Transit. Morgan alleged that Portland Traction simply wanted to get out of the passenger business to convert entirely to a freight operation.
At one point Morgan reportedly became convinced that public ownership of the Portland transit system was the best course, but the Port of Portland wasn't interested and Tri-Met didn't exist. The legal hassles between the PUC and Portland Traction made it all the way to the state supreme court, which held in favor of Morgan.
As soon as Mark Hatfield became governor, Morgan was out like a light at the utility commission. The two men were nemeses; Morgan appears to have assembled more than a few. Later, John F. Kennedy appointed Morgan to the Federal Power Commission, on which he sat beginning in 1961, including a stint as vice chair. He quit in 1963, saying his colleagues on the board were too soft on the power industry.