In The Northwest: Oregon still reeling from Goldschmidt sex scandal
April 4, 2005

  A real-life version of the Italian political melodrama "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" reportedly has earned a Portland alternative newspaper a spot amid finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prizes.
  Willamette Week revealed last spring that former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt began a three-year sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl while serving as mayor of Portland and engaged in a cover-up that lasted nearly three decades.
The story was a bombshell. Its aftershocks aren't over.
  It blew holes in Oregon's close-knit power structure, sidelined the state's premier backstage fixer, embarrassed its dominant daily newspaper and damaged Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Kulongoski was a Goldschmidt protégé.
  "Most politicians and officeholders in Oregon appear to have been terrified of Neil and his web of influence," said Dan Meek, a Portland consumer attorney.
  The downfall of Goldschmidt shorted out an electrical power play.
  The state's public utility commission recently denied an application by Texas investors to absorb the Portland General Electric Co. from its bankrupt corporate parent Enron. Goldschmidt had lined up a prestige set of Oregon citizens to front for the Texas Pacific Group.
  Editor and co-owner Mark Zusman sees a curious twist of fate in that Willamette Week revealed the ultrasecret of Oregon politics.
  "To some degree, the success of this newspaper rests in that we live in a city that works -- and works because of Neil," he reflected.
  Neil Goldschmidt was Oregon's superstar. As Portland mayor in the 1970s, he torpedoed the proposed Mount Hood Freeway, championed light rail development and created a glorious waterfront park along the Willamette River.
  He left Portland to become U.S. secretary of transportation, came home to take a top job at Nike and was elected governor of Oregon in 1986. He shocked the state by leaving after one term, but stayed active backstage through a vast network of former aides and protégés.
  "Oregon is a small state and does not produce many celebrity leaders. Neil was in a class by himself," said Stephen Ponder, University of Oregon communications professor.
  In more ways than one, it turned out. Goldschmidt started having sex with the 14-year-old, baby sitter to his children and daughter of a political supporter, in 1975. The relationship continued until he went off in 1979 to become transportation secretary under President Carter.
  Once an honor student, the young woman went on to a troubled adulthood. She battled drug dependency, served time in federal prison and was victim of a rape. Goldschmidt began paying her money in the 1990s to head off a lawsuit.
  Willamette Week is a rare "underground" publication, born in the Age of Aquarius, that hasn't become shallow in news coverage and supine to its entertainment advertisers.
  Zusman and publisher Richard Meeker have owned "WW" since 1982 and raised families in Portland. Meeker even belongs to the same synagogue, Beth Israel, as Neil and Diana Goldschmidt.
  The "ultrasecret" was known to a circle of Goldschmidt associates. According to Willamette Week, rumor of the relationship wafted into The Oregonian -- the state's major newspaper -- as early as 1986.
  "A web of relationships protected the story," said Steve Forrester, publisher of The Daily Astorian. "It was a giant case of co-dependence. People depended on Neil in various ways, for contracts and personal meaning and memories of the best days Portland ever had. An offshoot of co-dependency is often denial."
  Willamette Week began examining documents a year ago. Once calls began, the story instantly reached the Goldschmidt network. Four days later, Meeker's voice mail had a message: "Rich, this is Neil Goldschmidt. I'm at the airport, but I'd love to get to lunch with you and Zusman."
  They did get together at Carafe, a popular Portland bistro, after declining Goldschmidt's invitation to a private dining room.
"It was like having another, silent person at the table: He didn't mention the subject on all of our minds, and we weren't going to touch it," Zusman recalled.
  "On the street outside, Goldschmidt looks at me, takes my hand and then said 'Go get 'em!' I wonder to this day what he meant."
  Willamette Week finished its research. It contacted Goldschmidt's attorney and said it had documentary evidence of his sexual relationship with the 14-year-old.
  Goldschmidt had one final gambit. On the eve of WW publishing the story, his publicist called The Oregonian. Goldschmidt went to the paper, confessed to an "affair with a high school student" saying it lasted for nearly a year, and apologized "publicly and completely."
  The spin briefly worked. The Oregonian described Goldschmidt's relationship with the 14-year-old as an "affair." It ran an unctuous editorial headlined "Goldschmidt's tragic choice" and termed his decision to leave public life "an incalculable loss to the state." (The Oregonian had been a cheerleader for the Texas Pacific deal.)
  Instead, however, The Oregonian found itself enmeshed in criticism -- and blasted by one of its own columnists -- for its choice of words and gentle treatment of Goldschmidt.
  The episode revived memories of how in 1992 The Oregonian failed to pursue reports of womanizing by then-Sen. Bob Packwood, although an inebriated Packwood had planted an intimate kiss on the lips of a Washington, D.C., reporter for the paper.
  As with Oregon's greatest natural eruption -- the blast that blew the top off Mount Mazama and created Crater Lake 12,000 years ago -- the dust from Goldschmidt's collapse is taking a long time to settle.
  "The ramifications of all this are not fully played out yet," said Tim Hibbitts, Oregon's leading pollster.
Or in Zusman's words: "It has created a power vacuum the likes of which has never been seen in this state. There was Neil, and then five floors down was the next tier of leadership in this state."

P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or