A commitment to higher education

On Saturday, June 17, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) will deliver the spring 2006 commencement address for Portland State graduates at the Rose Garden arena.

DeFazio, who represents the fourth congressional district of Oregon, which encompasses most of the southwest section of the state, was chosen earlier this year to be the commencement speaker. The decision to have him speak was announced Feb. 20 by PSU President Daniel Bernstine.

“Congressman DeFazio has fought for investments by the federal government in education, transportation and the environment,” Bernstine said of DeFazio in a news release. “I expect his call to action to our graduates to be compelling and inspiring.”

DeFazio, who lives in Springfield, Ore., travels from Oregon to Washington, D.C. nearly three times a month, and has logged over three million air miles in the process. He was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 1986, the 100th Congress.

DeFazio has linked his pay to Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, and refuses to accept congressional pay raises while the government is in deficit spending. He has contributed over $194,000 from unaccepted congressional pay raises to education scholarships, which have funded 157 scholarships for displaced Oregon workers from five southwest Oregon community colleges, as well as University of Oregon.

DeFazio sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and is the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines. In August 2005, DeFazio visited the Portland State campus to celebrate the passage of a bill that would secure $16 million in funds for PSU’s University Transportation Center. The bill includes funding to expand the light rail and the Portland streetcar, as well as $160 million for reconstruction of bridges on I-5, and $40 million for reconstruction of other bridges throughout Oregon.

The choice of DeFazio as commencement speaker has been controversial on the PSU campus because of DeFazio’s yes vote on H.R. 4437, sometimes called the Sensenbrenner bill. The bill, as it exists now, would make illegal immigrants felons. Currently, unlawful presence is only a civil violation.

A group of students, calling themselves the Student Immigrant Solidarity Coalition, met with Bernstine last month to ask him to reconsider the choice of DeFazio as the speaker, but were unsuccessful in removing DeFazio. The possibility of protests is being discussed and Debbie Murdock, assistant to the president for government relations and executive committee member, told the Vanguard last month that there will probably be a designated “free speech” area outside the arena for students who wish to protest.

The commencement speaker is chosen by a group of seven administrators called the Executive Committee.

DeFazio responded to student concerns over his vote in favor of H.R. 4437 in the form of an opinion article published in the Vanguard May 26. In the article, DeFazio said the form of the bill as it exists will not be final. He said he does not support the provision that would make illegal immigrants felons, and that Republican leadership in Congress has indicated that the provision will be dropped from the final bill.

DeFazio said he supports the bill for its “strong penalties on employers who take advantage of undocumented workers,” and because it improves border security.

The Democratic representative was born in Needham, Mass., on May 27, 1947. He received a bachelor of arts from Tufts University in Medford, Mass., in 1969, and in 1977, a master of science from the University of Oregon. After graduation, DeFazio became an aide to Oregon U.S. Rep. James H. Weaver from 1977 to 1982. He then served as commissioner of Lane County from 1983 to 1976 and chairman in 1985 until his election to the U.S. Congress in 1986.

“Graduating with a college degree is truly one of life’s great achievements,” Rep. DeFazio said in a press release. “I hope to offer some last minute thoughts and advice to these students as they set off on the next phase of their lives, as citizens, professionals and productive members of communities throughout Oregon, the nation and the world.”