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Monday, April 30, 2012

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.

Overall, he appears to have taken a far more pro-consumer stand than his Republican PUC predecessors -- particularly as it related to the railroads. He also tried to throw up various roadblocks to the construction of private dams on the Snake River, but it seems he was in favor of federal government dams there. Morgan made headlines during that same era by telling a U.S. Senate committee that the Teamsters had offered a $10,000 bribe to the Holmes campaign in exchange for having a union flunky put on the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

Often mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate, Morgan ran for the United States Senate in 1966, losing badly in the primary to Congressman Robert Duncan, who went on to lose to Mark Hatfield. (Duncan would go down to defeat in two more Senate races before giving up.) Morgan was the first candidate to run on a statewide basis in opposition to the Vietnam War. Indeed, his was a single-issue campaign. One of his backers was Robert Vaughn, who played Napoleon Solo on the smash TV spy series The Man from UNCLE.

Opponent Duncan was a hawk, which is probably why his candidacies went nowhere in the general elections of the late '60s and early '70s. But he was supported in '66 by the Johnson White House, which wanted no part of the anti-war message coming from Morgan.

Here is a fascinating piece of Oregon political lore -- an election night profile of the defeated Morgan by a young Oregonian reporter by the name of Les AuCoin.

After his years in government, Morgan ran a gravel and construction business in Portland. He and his wife also continued to operate their sheep ranch in Monmouth, and in the late '50s they switched it out for Black Butte Ranch in central Oregon, which they operated as a ranch for many years. Morgan worked on the Eugene McCarthy campaign in 1968, and in 1969, the couple sold Black Butte Ranch to the folks who turned it into the resort that it is today.

After that, the Morgans retired and traveled the world, showing a Sauvie Island address at one point and eventually settling back down in McMinnville in the early 1990's. Morgan was still publicly commenting on politics when he was nearly 90 years old. In a 2001 op-ed piece in the Oregonian, he blasted deregulation of private electric utilities in Oregon, warning that corporate greed would push rates for consumers through the roof.

Among the newspaper clippings bearing Morgan's name is this one, reporting the death of his 14-year-old son, a Catlin Gabel student, in a gun accident at Ms. Morgan's brother's home in Central Oregon in 1967. The elder Morgan is survived by his other three children, as well as by his wife, seven grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.

Sifting through the many hundreds of news entries about Morgan, it's clear that there was much more to his life, for better and for worse, than a flimsy paid obituary can convey. He'd make a heck of a topic for a term paper, that's for certain. And it appears there were many aspects of his life and times that are probably impossible to know without having been there when it all happened. In any event, our condolences to his loved ones.

Comments (7)

Thank you, Jack.

Thank you. We could use a few more like Mr. Morgan today.
I hope the family will see your excellent article.

Some of the biggest cuts the O has made over the last 10 years or so are to the obituary page, which has been steadily shrinking and shrinking.

Yes, I also had never heard of Howard Morgan. However, it was an interesting read. I'm glad Bojack profiled Mr. Morgan.

I'm sure I wouldn't agree with all his politics, but by standing up to the large utilities, he was a populist in the best tradition. Mr. Morgan nailed what was to come via deregulation of electric utilities in California -- Enron rings a bell.

When Democrats stand up for the common man, that is when they are at their best, which seems to be what Mr. Morgan did when he stood up to the large utilities. Utilities are monopolies where no competition exists.

At one time both major parties stood against monopoly practices, Republicans succumed first, but, now, it would seem, many Democrats have, too.

Howard Morgan, I never knew of you, until now, but it would seem both Democrats & Republicans could take a few lessons from a man who stood up to the powerful, even if he stomped on a few toes in the process.

But, hey, any person who stands up to the powerful will make political enemies. Those that are used to getting their way won't take kindly to those who would get in their way.

Sounds like a profile in political courage right here in Oregon.

We sure could use a lot more Howard Morgan's today, both in Oregon and nationally.

With Mr. Morgan's passing, his life stands as a testament -- for his loved ones, a life well worth joyful celebration.

Great read. Thanks Jack. Mr. Morgan was quite a fellow. Wish I'd had the chance to meet him in McMinnville in the 1990s when I was there.

Thank you so much for this tribute to my father, Jack. You have certainly done your homework, and I know my father would be very honored with this piece.

He was a fighter for the working class all his life, and he will be missed, not just by family, but for everyone he stuck up for throughout his political career.

Yes, he did predict Enron. In fact, if there was one thing you could say about my dad, he saw the possible consequences for actions far before they came into being and he was constantly frustrated that others could not see them as well.

Please feel free to contact me as my family is planning a memorial service for him some time in coming months.

Thank you for your article which came to me thru my daughter Obits in the Oregonian are for profit $400 to $500 for starters so our son did a good job with the NEW Oregonian policies. My husband was a intense "Letter to the Editor" writer and there were lots of them. Your tribute to Morgan was much appreciated.
rosina morgan,


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