Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, announced Thursday that he would not seek re-election in 2024, ending more than four decades in politics.
“I did not realize it at the time, but in the fall of 1981, Margaret and I made a decision that would set the course of my life for the next 42 years," Hansell said. "Now we are making another decision that will set another course for us."
In the Senate, Hansell represented the community where he was born. He was born in Athena, left to earn a degree from the University of Oregon, a certificate from Harvard University, and work as an Christian evangelists overseas, but came home to the farm that had been in his family for four generations. He and his wife, Margaret, have been married 54 years, raised six grown children and have 11 grandchildren.
Hansell won election to the Umatilla County Commission eight times before moving to the Oregon Senate in 2013. He was last re-elected in 2020 and his current term runs through January 2025. His Senate District 29 sprawls across much of eastern Oregon - including Wallowa, Union, Umatilla, Morrow, Gilliam, Sherman and parts of Wasco and Jefferson counties. It covers an area greater than the state of Maryland.
Though it is 13 months until the May 2024 primary that will include the 29th District seat, Hansell said he wanted to make the decision early enough that anyone who would want to seek the office would have plenty of time to prepare.
"It is the second largest district in Oregon, and I am confident there may be a number of individuals interested in running," Hansell said.
Hansell said he would not endorse a candidate in the primary.
Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, the dean of the Oregon House, praised Hansell's tenure.
“I would like to acknowledge Senator Bill Hansell's exemplary service to the State of Oregon," Smith said. Hansell's district includes all Smith's district, but the House veteran said he wasn't interested in moving to the Senate. The eastern portion of Hansell's district is represented by Rep. Bobby Levy, R-Echo. Local political and civic leaders could also run - just as Hansell moved from the Umatilla Commission to a seat in Salem.
A strongly conservative vote in the Senate, Hansell received a 56% career voting record with the American Conservative Union and a 37% career mark from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. In 2020, Hansell was scored at 100% by the Oregon Chamber of Commerce and 20% rating from the AFSCME labor union.
Hansell played a key role in the evolving Republican approach to walkout that denied a quorum for the Senate to meet. He joined the 2019 and 2020 walkouts. But as more interest groups clamored for Republicans to shut down all legislative business over bills they disliked, Hansell sided with a more traditionalist-minded group of Senators who opted not to use the walkout in 2021 despite demands by anti-gun control groups. Hansell sided with Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, who opted to stay in the Senate and vote against the gun bill, but to not deny a quorum and endanger the state budget that required passage.
On the day of the vote, six Republicans came to the floor - Girod, Hansell, Lynn Findley of Vale, Tim Knopp of Bend, Bill Kennemer of Canby and Dick Anderson of Lincoln City. The bill passed 16-7, with Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, joining the opposition of all six Republicans. The issue caused a bitter rift within the caucus with four Republicans -- Dallas Heard of Roseburg, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, Art Robinson of Cave Junction and Kim Thatcher of Keizer, boycotting the vote. Independent Senator Brian Boquist was officially excused from the vote.
In the wake of the decision to go to the Senate and vote on the gun bill, Hansell and other lawmakers received anonymous death threats. Recall efforts against some of the Republicans who wouldn't walk out fizzled early.
In a rare legislative move, Hansell and Findley, introduced legislation to bar senators from simultaneously holding state party political offices. Heard, a leader in the gun walkout, was chair of the Oregon Republican Party.
After a failed attempt to get the state GOP to give him a pre-emptive endorsement as the party's candidate for governor in 2022, Heard dropped the idea, stepped down from the state party presidency, and eventually resigned from the senate prior to the 2023 session.
Hansell is a graduate of the University of Oregon, a situation that caused competition in his family dominated by Washington State University alumni and boosters. The Pullman campus isn't far from Umatilla County.
In a 2021 interview with the University of Oregon alumni newsletter, Hansell recalled arriving in Eugene in 1963, straight from the family’s cattle ranch.
“When I enrolled, JFK was in the White House,” Hansell said. “I could not find Vietnam on a world map, the only drug on campus was alcohol, and we all had crew cuts — the Emerald even ran a story about how unusual it was that two professors had beards.”
By the time he earned his degree, John F. Kennedy, Jr. had been assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, the U.S. was mired in a war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement was in full force, and the Daily Emerald was fighting in the Oregon Supreme Court to protect its sources in a story about campus drug use.
“We entered a particular university setting,” Hansell said, “and when we graduated it had all changed.”
Hansell's life plans also changed at UO. He switched from pre-law to political science, was elected senior class president and married his college sweetheart Margaret Eversaul, BS ’67.
Hansell joined the nondenominational Campus Crusade for Christ, and took an assignment with the missionary group in Sydney, Australia.
After five years, the Hansells returned to Eastern Oregon and the family farm.
During his time as a county officeholder, Hansell served as President of the National Association of Counties and President of the Association of Oregon Counties while on the Umatilla Commission.
Hansell thanked his constituents for supporting his elections.
Unless he can convince his colleagues during his remaining time in office, Hansell will leave without accomplishing one of his most consistent goals: Enshrining the potato as the official vegetable of Oregon.
Hansel took to the floor of the Senate in 2021 to extoll the spud, noting that $200 million dollars worth of potatoes, accounting for 25 percent of all french fries exported overseas, came from Oregon.
"Much from my very own district," Hansell said. To lobby his cause, he gave each senator a canvas bag that was sent to each senator that included a potato and spud-inspired recipes.
Hansell's good-natured nemesis has been Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, who has championed the onion for the official vegetable designation from the state.
The latest potato legislation, Senate Concurrent Resolution 3 has languished in the Senate Rules Committee without additional action since it was introduced in January.
In his statement, Hansell thanked his constituents for supporting his elections.
"It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve as an elected official, first as an Umatilla County Commissioner for 30 years, and two and half terms thus far as a State Senator, which will be 12 years when I retire," he said Thursday in a statement. "I am very grateful for my wife Margaret, my family, my friends, and the Good Lord for the opportunity to serve for over four decades.
When Hansell arrived at the Senate and opened a drawer in his new desk, he found — as is often Senate custom — a note from the previous tenant.
“Be a Statesman, not a Politician, it’s all about service," Hansell recalled the note saying.
"I agree and this I have tried to do."
I treasure the happy memories I made with Bill in the years I served as a Lane County Commissioner [1995-2002]. He was a HUGE ally of this Rural Telecommunications Evangelist back in the day on our mission to get affordable broadband infrastructure to rural Oregonians. What fun I had helping him win his bid to be the President of the National Association of Counties during the annual conference in my hometown of New Orleans. He and I share the same traditional values, which is reflected in one of my favorite keepsakes of that season of my life. Proudly displayed in my KNND Radio office is a photo we took in Seattle at Experience Music. The venue was open only to county commissioners one night and we created a photo op of our hastily created band: "Know Limits" and gave a brief virtual concert! Thanks Bill for the 40 years you carried out your elected responsibilities at the local, state and federal level with honor and integrity. Sending best wishes to The Hansells on this newest season of their lives! Crossing my fingers for the potato bill! :)
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