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Capital Chatter: Winters' death leaves Salem reeling

Winters was a caring, compassionate and conservative politician who could see the good in people, who crossed party lines in search of solutions.

As Jackie Winters walked out of our newspaper office after meeting with our editorial board, she whispered to a bystander, "They'll never endorse me. I'm too conservative."

But Rep. Winters and then Sen. Winters became someone our newspaper editorial board regularly endorsed. Why? Because candidate endorsements are made on character and experience and performance, not ideology.

She was the definition of a caring, compassionate politician who could see the good in people, who crossed party lines in search of solutions, and who also was politically conservative.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Sen. Jackie WintersIt's no surprise that the death of state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, on Wednesday at age 82 left the Oregon Capitol reeling.

Her word was good. Her friendships transcended political and generational lines. Her devotion to Oregon was unquestioned. Her commitment to human services and criminal justice reform was profound. Her leadership inspired intense loyalty.

Jackie was a success in life not because of being a politician but for who she was as a person.

Republican Sen. Brian Boquist of rural Polk County called her "a legend in her own time. She is the near last of a generation that is no more."

Former Republican Rep. Julie Parrish of West Linn recalled rooming with Winters at a conference. Parrish, who didn't always agree with Winters politically, said it was "like an all-night slumber party with a wise aunt."

When the Oregon Senate was equally divided, it was Winters who convinced her fellow Republicans to elect Salem Democrat Peter Courtney as president in what was then a power-sharing arrangement. Courtney has gone on to become the longest-serving Senate president in Oregon history.

When the Oregon Senate was reeling over the sexual harassment allegations involving then-Sen. Jeff Kruse, R- Roseburg, it was Winters whom Senate Republicans chose as their caucus leader. She stepped down from that position last fall.

Courtney and Winters were like brother and sister. She was among the few who could walk straight into his office without asking. Despite whatever disagreements they had, they usually had each other's back Both also had run for Congress and lost, finding their calling instead in the Legislature.

Both had Irish ancestry. Although the media often referred to Jackie as African American, she called herself a "Heinz 57." Her multiracial roots also included Native American as well as European heritage.

As caucus leader, Winters wanted to be called the Senate Republican leader, not minority leader. She took me to task when I said "minority" during a media interview, and then delighted in telling folks how chastised I was and came to her office to apologize.

One of the gigantic question hanging over the Oregon Capitol is how Courtney will do without Winters. Her absence for health reasons during parts of the 2019 Legislature, and in previous sessions, affected him deeply. As Gov. Kate Brown told reporters on Thursday, Winters could be a calming influence.

I knew Jackie as my senator. When I was seeking an extension for appealing an Oregon Department of Revenue audit decision on my 2014 income taxes, it was her office I contacted for help. (As an aside, that was resolved quickly without needing Winters' intervention.)

I knew Jackie from our many political interactions at the Capitol, with our editorial board and elsewhere, going back to the reign of Gov. Vic Atiyeh. She always could be counted on to speak her mind, sometimes to the consternation of other legislators who struggled to get a word in edgewise.

Our editorial board sometimes conducted endorsement interview in front of high school classes. At Central High School in Independence. Jackie was in her element, playing to the students as well as the editorial board, while her Democratic opponent was ill at ease and complained to me about the setting.

I knew Jackie as a friend – at least as much as journalists and politicians can be friends without creating conflicts of interest. She was so gosh-darn-proud of her family and loved to update me on her granddaughter's singing career — music runs in the family. She lectured me about my lack of understanding of Vanport — that its history was much more than the 1948 flood that left her family and thousands more homeless.

Her former Jackie's Ribs restaurants served marvelous barbecue, which my wife and I first sampled when we encountered her at the Bite of Portland, or whatever it was called those years ago.

Perhaps my fondest memory is when Jackie confided in me about how she prepared for tough debates in the Legislature. I guess it's OK to tell the story now.

A tree was planted on the Capitol grounds years ago in memory of her late husband, Ted Winters. When Jackie faced a significant challenge, she'd go to the tree and talk to him.

She said she was telling me because she thought I'd understand.

That tree soon will be joined by another one, planted in Sen. Jackie Winters' honor.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.