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

Former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, who as mayor of Portland was credited with starting the city on its path to becoming a magnet for the young, hip and liberal but whose reputation unraveled after it was revealed he had sex with a 14-year-old, has died. He was 83.

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

Between converting a busy highway into a popular riverfront park and developing the seeds of a robust public transit system, Portland’s fuzzy-haired, sideburned mayor had a secret double life. For years in the 1970s, he engaged in an illegal sexual relationship with the teenage daughter of an aide.

At 32, Goldschmidt was elected the youngest mayor of a major American city in 1972. Seven years later, he left City Hall to become President Jimmy Carter’s transportation secretary. He served one term as Oregon governor, from 1987 to 1991.

Goldschmidt announced in 1990 that he and his wife, Margie, were separating and he wouldn’t seek a second term, saying, “It will require more of myself than I am prepared to give.” He never sought elected office again. The decision by one of Oregon’s most revered politicians was shocking, and left many wondering why he’d walk away from a career on the rise.

The question may have been answered when Goldschmidt admitted on March 6, 2004, that while he was mayor, he had a sexual relationship that began when the girl was 14. Under Oregon law at the time, the sexual encounters would have been considered statutory rape because of the girl’s age, but he escaped punishment because the statute of limitations had expired.

Goldschmidt confessed to The Oregonian as the rival Willamette Week was preparing to publish an article revealing the abuse. He claimed the relationship — which he called an “affair” — lasted for about a year. Later newspaper reports showed it had lasted as long as three years. In interviews that were published after her death in 2011, the woman told newspapers that it actually continued for more than a decade and contributed to a tragic life of alcohol and drug abuse.

The abuse was revealed 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. He retreated from public life.

“In the 35 years since I failed this young woman, her family, and my family, the pain has never eased,” Goldschmidt told The Oregonian in an email after the victim died in 2011.

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.

The scandal reverberated among Oregon’s political elite, where rumors circulated about who knew Goldschmidt’s secret and kept it quiet.

As governor, 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 Oregon’s workers’ compensation system and pursuing international trade opportunities.

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 and was elected mayor the following year.

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.

He left in 1979 to run the U.S. Department of Transportation, 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 athletic apparel giant Nike, Inc.

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 the business community and his own business experience, won with 52 percent 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 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.

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

Steven Dubois And Jonathan J. Cooper, The Associated Press