Steve McClure was a bit bleary-e yed the morning of Nov. 9, 1960, when he walked into his first-period class at Elgin High School.
The 14-year-old freshman had reason to be. McClure had been up late following the returns of the presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, one which JFK narrowly won.
“I was listening to a radio. I had (the volume) very low (to avoid awakening anyone),” McClure said. “I was up until 2 a.m.”
McClure’s fascination with politics displayed in 1960, seven years before he would be 21 and old enough to vote, still burns brightly today.
“I have always been a political junkie,” McClure said. “It is a part of who I am. I’ve always been interested in the politics of the world.”
About five weeks from now, on Jan. 7, 2019, McClure will leave the political arena for the first time in 35 years, when he steps down from his position on the Union County Board of Commissioners. McClure has served as a Union County Commissioner for almost 28-1/2 years and before that was a member of the Elgin School Board for seven years.
McClure said he did not run for re-election partially because of health concerns.
“I’ve enjoyed my time on the commission. Now it is time for someone else to do the job,” said McClure, who will be succeeded by Matt Scarfo, who was elected in May.
McClure likes the give and take of politics because he sees it as the
heart of the democratic process. He unwaveringly believes that for democracy to work the voices representing all sides must be heard. This is why McClure begins many of his work days by taking a road less traveled. He checks his phone messages and determines which one he will return first. His criteria makes the decision easy.
“I pick the phone call that will be the most challenging — that is my rule,” McClure said.
The commissioner explained he knows after doing this there is a good chance the toughest part of his day is out of the way. He also knows that in many instances it means he has been unwavering in his effort to ensure all sides of an issue are heard.
“What democracy is about is the opportunity for citizens to address elected officials,” McClure said.
John Lamoreau, who served on the Union County Board of Commissioners for one term a little more than a decade ago, has long been impressed with McClure’s dedication to the democracatic process.
“He always treats people with respect and will often praise both sides. Steve knows how to bring parties together. He would make a great ambassador,’’ Lamoreau said.
Colleen MacLeod, who served as a Union County Commissioner with McClure from 1997 to 2009, echoes this sentiment.
“When someone has so much experience, he can find middle ground. He knows what will work and will not work,” MacLeod said.
She added McClure’s calm, friendly demeanor serves him well and he is adept at helping members of the Board of Commissioners get along.
“I never heard him raise his voice,” MacLeod said. “He is a fun person to work with.”
People who work with McClure are sometimes startled by his breadth of knowledge on local issues.
“I sometimes think he has a photographic memory,” said Donna Beverage, one of the three current Union County Commissioners.
She said his knowledge of forest issues is particularly impressive. Case in point: McClure’s understanding of the Blue Mountain Forest Plan, now being developed by the federal government for the management of forests in this region.
“All of the county commissioners in Oregon depend on Steve for information about it,” Beverage said.
McClure’s knowledge base is a credit to his experience and his work ethic.
“He reads everything cover to cover,” Beverage said.
McClure’s knowledge is impressive. She noted, for example, when transportation issues come up, McClure is looked upon by many as the primary source of background information.
“We will lose a huge chunk of history (when McClure steps down),” MacLeod said.
McClure first entered politics in the early 1980s when he was elected to the Elgin School Board. He won re-election four years later and served as the board’s chair for a portion of his tenure. Serving on a school board is an excellent way to get introduced to politics, the commissioner said. McClure noted being involved in decisions like whether a student should be suspended was a valuable learning experience.
“Getting between a
parent and a child (who may be disciplined) is very intense. You learn about politics up close,” McClure said.
With his school board experience under his belt,
McClure first ran for a position on the Union County Board of Commissioners in 1988. He lost in the general election to retired La Grande High School teacher and football coach Doc Savage by just 48 votes. McClure said that the defeat stung after months of hard work.
“I must have knocked on 7,000 doors (during the campaign). Picking up my campaign signs the next day, that was a long day,” he said.
Still, McClure did not give up in his effort to join the Board of Commissioners.
“I felt I had something to contribute,” he said.
Two years later, McClure was appointed to fill the five month unexpired term of Marie Lester after she retired as a Union County Commissioner. In November 1990, he won the election for a four-year term, the first of seven elections he would win.
McClure joined the Union County Board of Commissioners at a difficult time — the same year Oregon voters passed Ballot Measure 5. The measure drastically cut property taxes, leaving many public entities, including Union County, facing budget shortfalls.
“It had a major impact on Union County’s revenue,”
McClure said of Measure 5. “We had to cut about $600,000 from our 1991-92 budget. It was an intense time.”
McClure never let himself forget just how difficult the process was.
“That shaped my view of government,” he said. “Fiscally, it taught me a lot.”
McClure said from then on he made sure whenever the county received any extra money, it was used for one-time capital expenditures like building repairs, not for the creation of new programs.
“If we had a few extra dollars, I didn’t want to spend it on starting a program we could not sustain,” he said.
Budget challenges notwithstanding, Union County has made noteworthy strides during McClure’s tenure. These include rebuilding McAlister Road and Buchanan Lane in Island City and
La Grande, major renovations on South 12th Street in La Grande, replacing many old steel bridges with concrete ones, establishing the Mount Emily Recreation Area, major improvements at the La Grande/Union County Airport, and building a U.S. Forest Service rappel base for firefighting at that airport, which will be completed in 2019.
The Board of Commissioners played a major role in all of these projects, but McClure stressed that the county received significant assistance from other agencies and individuals.
McClure’s contributions to the county’s successes have not gone unnoticed. He was named Union County’s Man of the Year in 2014 by the Union County Chamber of Commerce. McClure also received an honor of note earlier this month when he was chosen as the recipient of the 2018 Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award at the Union County Farmer-Merchant Banquet.
The awards reflect the respect and admiration the community has for McClure and his compassionate nature.
“He has a huge heart,” MacLeod said.
McClure said after he retires he and his wife, Barbara, plan to spend more time with their son and daughter — Michael of Lacy, Washington, and Jennifer of Weston — and their grandchildren.