Neil Goldschmidt, former Oregon governor who confessed to sex with a minor in the 1970s, has died

Jun 12, 2024, 4:49 PM

Neil Goldschmidt, a former Oregon governor whose confession that he had sex with a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s blackened what had been a nearly sterling reputation, has died. He was 83.

Goldschmidt died at his Portland home on Wednesday, The Oregonian reported, according to family members. The newspaper said the reported cause was heart failure.

Goldschmidt served one term as governor, from 1987 to 1991. Before that, he was mayor of Portland, and he served as transportation secretary under President Jimmy Carter.

He was one of Oregon’s most respected public figures, credited with making Portland one of the country’s most livable cities. His decision not to seek a second term as governor left many Oregonians wondering why.

The question may have been answered when Goldschmidt admitted on March 6, 2004, that while he was Portland mayor, he had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl who was the daughter of a woman who had worked for him.

Under Oregon law, Goldschmidt’s relationship with the girl would have been considered statutory rape because of her age. Goldschmidt escaped punishment because the statute of limitations had expired.

Goldschmidt made his confession to The Oregonian as the Willamette Week newspaper was preparing to publish an article revealing the relationship with the girl.

In that confession, Goldschmidt claimed the relationship lasted for about a year. Later newspaper reports showed it had lasted as long as three years, and the woman told newspapers in interviews that were published after her death in 2011 that it continued for more than a decade.

Because of Goldschmidt’s golden-boy image, his admission was a blockbuster. Questions were raised about who else knew his secret, and whether anyone helped him cover it up over the years.

The scandal occurred months after Goldschmidt had assumed two high-profile positions: as chairman of the Oregon Board of Higher Education and as a point man for a Texas firm trying to acquire Portland General Electric.

Goldschmidt agreed to take on the higher education job at the bidding of Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a fellow Democrat.

As governor from 1987 to 1991, Goldschmidt led the state as it recovered from nearly eight years of recession following the decline of the timber industry. He was credited with reforming the state’s workers’ compensation system and pursuing international trade opportunities.

But in 1990, Goldschmidt stunned Oregon by announcing that he and his wife, Margie, were separating and he wasn’t running for a second term.

“It will require giving more of myself than I am prepared to give,” he said at the time. He never sought elected office again.

When the abuse became public, Goldschmidt’s portrait was moved from a prominent place in the state Capitol to a hidden library. In 2011, it was put in storage at the state historical society.

Goldschmidt was born in Eugene on June 16, 1940. After graduating from South Eugene High School, Goldschmidt attended the University of Oregon, where he received a degree in political science in 1963.

As student body president, he went straight to then-Gov. Mark Hatfield to seek more support for higher education. At law school in Berkeley, California, Goldschmidt pushed for campus reforms and marched for civil rights in Mississippi.

“He was like a machine gun,” Hatfield once told The Oregonian. “He had as many ideas as the trigger would pull.”

A legal aid attorney in Portland from 1967 to 1969, Goldschmidt began his political career as a city commissioner in 1971. Then, at 32, Goldschmidt became the youngest mayor of a major American city.

The fuzzy-haired, sideburned Goldschmidt was known as a civic visionary. During the Goldschmidt era, Portland’s widely praised light-rail transit system was conceived and built. He fostered strong neighborhoods and provided the spark for downtown revitalization.

Portland sports fans recall Bill Walton drenching him with beer after the Trail Blazers won their first — and only — NBA championship in 1977.

Goldschmidt remained as mayor until 1979, when he was named transportation secretary by Carter, earning national acclaim for helping to bail out ailing automaker Chrysler Corp.

After Carter lost his reelection bid, Goldschmidt returned to Oregon, where he headed Canadian operations for Nike.

In 1986, Goldschmidt entered the Oregon governor’s race, which saw him locked with Republican Norma Paulus in one of the state’s closest gubernatorial contests.

The campaign was conducted against the backdrop of the state’s continuing economic distress and high unemployment. Goldschmidt, buoyed by support from businessmen and his own business experience, won with 52% of the vote. Analysts attributed his victory to his economic program and to his record of cutting crime as mayor of Portland.

In office, Goldschmidt was willing to place more emphasis on economic growth and less on environmental protection, a reversal of state policies of a decade earlier when many state residents feared growth.

He also issued an executive order that gave gays protected civil rights status within state government. Voters, however, revoked that order in 1988.

His governorship didn’t win universal praise. Critics said his words outran his accomplishments and others said he lacked patience and had become bored with bureaucracy. He was also dogged by the highly publicized murder of a state prison official, which led to allegations of corruption in the prison system.

An independent investigation ordered by Goldschmidt uncovered problems in the prison system, but no links to the murder.

After leaving office, he founded the Oregon Children’s Foundation and volunteered for its literacy program in the schools. He served on many commissions and boards and started his own law practice in downtown Portland, which focused on strategic planning.

He is survived by his second wife, Diana Snowden; their daughter; two children from a previous marriage; and a stepchild.


The late Associated Press reporter Steven DuBois contributed to this obituary. DuBois died in 2021.

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Neil Goldschmidt, former Oregon governor who confessed to sex with a minor in the 1970s, has died