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Chairman of Oregon Lottery calls it a career at 94

Nov 24, 2003, 4:56 am

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E.D. Debbs Potts retires after almost 50 years of public service

Two decades after voters retired him, and three decades after most people retire themselves, E.D. Debbs Potts of Grants Pass said farewell Friday to his last state position as chairman of the Oregon Lottery Commission.

Potts has been the commissions only chairman in the 19 years since voters created the Oregon Lottery and he lost his state Senate seat. During that period, the Lottery has had six directors.

At 60 or 65, most of us are looking to do something else, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said at Potts final meeting as chairman. Debbs was just the opposite. I do not know of many Oregonians who have contributed as much to their state as Debbs Potts.

Potts officially turns 95 next month. Except for problems with hearing, a broken leg and needing help with driving, hes still alert.

After Kulongoski spoke, Potts said, I regret very much that the Lottery didnt buy you an airplane, referring to the recent controversy about Kulongoskis travels in a loaned motor coach.

He concluded almost a half century of largely unpaid public service. In Oregons recent history, only Mark Hatfield held public office as long, 46 years, most of those years as governor and U.S. senator.

He has taken to heart the Rotary Club motto, service above self, and meant it, said Sen. Lenn Hannon, R-Ashland, the sole remaining legislator to work with Potts during his 24 years in the Senate.

Lottery startup

The governor appoints the five citizen members of the commission and the director, and the Senate confirms them. But the 1984 measure lets the commission decide how to run the lottery and how to spend its operating budget.

The lottery reminds me of starting a business with a horse and buggy, and seeing it progress to a Model T stage, Potts said. Right now, were operating a Cadillac.

The lottery generates more than $700 million for the states two-year budget. Potts said that the real credit for growth goes to the staff and the 3,300 retailers of lottery games.

Among those on hand Friday was former Gov. Vic Atiyeh, who appointed Potts chairman in 1984. The Republican governor said he trusted the Democrat from their years in the Senate.

I never had a question about him, Atiyeh said. He had so much personal integrity as well as knowledge about government and how things should operate.

Potts ran commission meetings in the same way that he ran Senate meetings on time and all-business.

Hes in charge, he knows what he wants to get done and he does it, said former Sen. Lynn Newbry of Talent, who came to the Senate the same year that Potts did.

Potts is leaving with about a year remaining on his latest term. He was succeeded on the commission by Kerry Tymchuk, state director for U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Pendleton. Kulongoski will name the next chairman.

Potts still runs a machinery business, and he will play Santa Claus at the Grants Pass Elks Lodge for his 55th year.

By leaving here, I have a little more time to spend on local projects than I had before, he said.

After he received gifts from the commission, staff, state police and vendors, he said, I dont mind leaving the Oregon Lottery, but I hate leaving you people.

But before he gets home, he said, he will visit a new Oregon Lottery retailer in the Southern Oregon town of Glendale.

A different era

Potts has an air of mystery about him starting with the year of his birth in Buzzard Roost in northern California.

We found out he was older than he told people he was, recalled Judy Sugnet of Salem, who worked for Potts in his final four years at the Capitol. Hell tell people hes 95, but we think hes even older.

He was named for the Socialist Eugene Debs, but the extra b stuck in his nickname.

In 1960, after two years as mayor of Grants Pass, he won the first of six terms in the Senate. It was a different era.

He believed that a handshake and your word of honor would be sufficient, said Millie Kraft of Salem, who worked for Potts at the Capitol from 1967 through 1982.

Potts was a Democrat and Newbry was a Republican in an adjoining district.

But we became friends the day after we got to Salem, Newbry said. We thought alike and had a lot of common interests.

Then as now, Potts favored plaid shirts, string ties and cowboy boots.

He had an aura of being a folksy, down-home person, said Harriet Belnap of Keizer, who worked for Potts in the Senate from 1971 to 1985, and at the lottery until early 1988. But he was as smart as a whip.

His mastery of the state budget came from two decades on the Legislatures joint budget committee.

He also had a great network of people in the agencies who would tell him where the waste was, Sugnet said.

Running the Senate

In 1967 and 1969, Potts became president of the Senate, giving him the authority to appoint committee leaders and members, assign bills and control the flow of legislation.

He was a Democrat in a Democratic Senate, and I was a Republican in a Republican House, said Bob Smith of Medford, House speaker in 1969, who went on to the Oregon Senate and U.S. House. But we never had a cross word.

Potts was part of a conservative coalition of Republicans and Democrats that held sway over the Senate from 1957 through 1972. Six Democrats became president, but Republicans got key committee chairmanships.

He was not always beloved by regular Democrats.

Al Flegel of Roseburg joked that he was a majority leader without a majority during Pottss tenure.

Berkeley Bud Lent, then of Portland and now of Keizer, also felt the sting when Potts sided with 14 Republicans to block Lent as Pottss successor in 1971.

Acting governor

Until 1972, when voters changed the law, the Senate president was next in line to be governor and took over when the governor was out of state. Potts racked up 196 days as acting governor during the first term of Tom McCall.

One of those days was March 9, 1968 when a riot broke out at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and McCall was on the East Coast. Potts came quickly from Grants Pass but decided to defer to McCalls chief of staff, Ed Westerdahl.

I spent two days in the prison, Potts said. I learned one good lesson during the prison break that if you go in to stop something, youd better have the firepower to stop it.

Although 31 corrections officers and inmates were injured, and the prison suffered $1.6 million in damage, the riot ended without loss of life.

Debbs handled the riot magnificently and it was probably a good thing McCall had been out of town, said Newbry, who was co-chairman of the Legislatures budget panel.

McCall later described Potts as one of the most decent public men, anywhere.

Hannon said when he became Potts colleague after defeating Newbry in 1974, Potts offered him lots of advice and experience but the most important lessons were about human beings.

He taught me that if you are going to be a senator, you dress like one, talk like one, and act like one, said Hannon, who switched parties in 1980 and is todays senior member of the Legislature. You treat others with dignity and respect. He was a reflection of how the legislative process was intended to be.

John Powell, a former senator turned lobbyist, said Potts was a no-nonsense committee chairman during Powells years from 1975 to 1983.

Some of the meetings were over before committee members got there, said Powell, whose client GTECH Corp. is a lottery vendor. Debbs conducted a lot of business quickly.

Dont look back

Potts lost in 1984 to a Republican after raising campaign funds of only $3,475, two-thirds of which was his own money and the rest from the state Democratic Party.

Sugnet said Atiyeh had been prepared to sign an appeal on his behalf, but Potts did not want to do it, and asked that campaign contributions be returned.

He did not understand the changing methods of campaigning, that you no longer stood for election on your record, said Sugnet, the current party chairwoman in Marion County. Hed never had to campaign, a lot of new people did not know him, he had this young, energetic guy running against him and he didnt know how to respond.

His Republican successor, Bill Olson, was recalled by voters in 1988 only one of two legislators ever recalled and four other people have held the seat in the years since.

But I doubt he ever looked back, ever, Sugnet said. It was one of the qualities that has allowed him to live as long as he has what is, is, and we go forward from there.

TIMOTHY J. GONZALEZ / Statesman Journal

During his retirement party Friday, E.D. Debbs Potts (right) shares a laugh with former Gov. Vic Aiyteh, who appointed Potts chairman of the Oregon Lottery Commission in 1984.  Potts, who turns 95 next month, has been the only chairman the commission has had.

Statesman Journal

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