By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
FORTUNA — The broad smile, a trademark of his 20 years of representing the North Coast in Congress, still flashes across Don Clausen’s face.
“I had a good run,” Clausen said during a 90-minute interview at the Fortuna nursing home where he has lived for the past year.
Taking cues from the photographs on the walls of his room, and with some prompting from son-in-law Jim Baumgartner, Clausen reflected on his youth in Ferndale, his prowess as an ambidextrous baseball pitcher, service as a World War II aviator, two decades in Congress and 63 years of marriage to his late wife, Ollie.
Saturday, Clausen will celebrate his 90th birthday at a public event at the Ferndale Town Hall, not far from the blue, three-story home at the edge of town where Clausen grew up in the verdant Eel River Valley.
“Lucky, I guess,” Clausen said of his longevity, but age has taken a toll on the once-energetic Republican who held office for two decades in a Democrat-dominated district from Sonoma County to the Oregon border.
Diabetes, lung disease and recurring headaches have sapped his strength, and two falls last year that involved head injuries diminished his memory.
“I don’t feel like I’m as sharp as I used to be, by a damn sight,” Clausen said, sitting in a wheelchair, wearing khaki slacks, a striped shirt and nylon jacket.
Glancing at a painting of Ollie on his wall, Clausen said: “She was a jewel.”
He remembers meeting the former Jessie Oleva Piper, a waitress at the Hi-Ho ice cream shop in Crescent City, in 1948.
Clausen, who established an insurance agency and an air ambulance service in the Del Norte County seat after the war, offered to teach Ollie how to fly.
She became a pilot and a congressman’s wife, hosting Hollywood stars and political leaders and compiling a paperback cookbook of family recipes that Don Clausen still autographs and hands out to people he meets.
Ollie died of cancer in July, and Baumgartner said his father-in-law hasn’t been the same since her death. The Clausens lived in Santa Rosa from 1990, when Clausen retired from a Federal Aviation Administration job, until they moved a year ago to the nursing home.
Clausen got into politics in 1955, when he was elected to the Del Norte board of supervisors. In 1962, he lost a bid for Congress to Clem Miller of Marin County, a popular Democratic incumbent who died in a plane crash a month before the election.
Three months later, Clausen won the special election to fill the vacancy created by Miller’s death.
An affable, talkative man, given to slapping other men on the back and kissing women’s hands, Clausen proved a natural at politics, hailing from the far north end of the coastal district in which more than half of the registered voters were Democrats throughout his tenure from 1962-82.
The night he was unseated by Democrat Doug Bosco in November 1982, Clausen said he was “sort of ending where we started” with election losses book-ending his career.
“The really happy man is the one who can enjoy the scenery when he has to make a detour,” he told friends in the banquet room of a Santa Rosa hotel.
Clausen, who served in Congress under six presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, was a moderate Republican, a political species that is “practically extinct today,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.
His goal, like many of his Capitol Hill colleagues in both parties, was to “deliver the pork,” McCuan said, securing federal funds to build highways, bridges and airports, dredge harbors and dam rivers.
With a seat on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, Clausen was in a position to do just that. A 17-mile stretch of Highway 101 north of Orick is the Congressman Don Clausen Highway, bypassing Redwood National Park, and the fish hatchery at Warm Springs Dam, a $330 million project that assured Sonoma County’s water supply, also bears his name.
To secure money in a Congress run by Democrats throughout his tenure, Clausen said he had to cultivate friends across the aisle.
“There was no alternative,” said Clausen, recalling a more collegial body than today’s Congress, gridlocked by partisan warfare that contributes to a public approval rating below 20 percent.
Bipartisanship was “in our mutual interest,” Clausen said, recalling a close relationship with Rep. Harold “Bizz” Johnson, a Democrat from Roseville who chaired the Public Works committee.
Bosco, who also sat on the committee, said he followed Clausen’s pork-procuring approach. (Bosco is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.) The House passed 13 appropriations bills every year, he said, each one packed with projects spread over red and blue districts, assuring approval.
“To get along you had to go along,” Bosco said.
But Clausen’s 20 years on the Hill spanned a transformative era from the relative innocence of the early 1960s into the civil rights movement, Vietnam war protest and Watergate, the scandal that embedded cynicism in American politics.
On the North Coast, the battle over PG&E’s proposed nuclear plant at Bodega Bay and rampant logging of redwood forests sharpened the battle line between left and right.
Clausen said he had always depended on corralling thousands of Democratic votes, calling it “a matter of survival.” He campaigned hard among Democrats, he said, assuming that Republicans were in his corner.
In 1962, the Republicans’ 44 percent share of registered voters in the district was sufficient. But by 1982, the GOP’s share of voters had slipped to 33 percent, 20 points below the Democrats.
A nagging recession, with unemployment at 20 percent in Humboldt County, and reapportionment that removed Lake and Napa counties from the district helped Bosco beat Clausen by 6,000 votes in 1982.
Clausen, whose politics were aligned with Ronald Reagan’s — his favorite president — was undone by the demographic shift in the district and the focused, media-savvy campaign that Bosco mobilized, McCuan said.
Bosco said he took advantage of the nuclear weapons freeze, a dominant national issue embraced by liberals in 1982. Californians approved a freeze initiative by 52 percent statewide; in Sonoma County the measure got 58 percent approval.
Another factor was Bosco’s stature as a state legislator, the first formidable challenger Clausen faced. His previous opponents included Norma Bork, a Napa County speech pathologist, and Oscar Klee, a Mendocino County accountant convicted of failing to file personal income tax returns.
Before the end of 1982, Clausen secured a $58,000 a year job with the Federal Aviation Administration under the Reagan administration, a post he held for seven years.
Bosco, who served four terms in Congress and is now a Santa Rosa attorney, said he and Clausen developed a “mutual appreciation” of one another.
Clausen said he harbors no ill will, describing Bosco as “a good guy.”
Sitting among his mementos at the nursing home, Clausen said he would not do anything different if he had to live life again.
As a high school pitcher, he could throw curves left- and right-handed, and later his Navy team beat a squad led by Red Sox slugger Ted Williams.
In Congress, he pitched for the GOP in the annual ballgame against the Democrats, and his memory of that is sharp.
Did he win?
“Yeah,” Clausen said quickly, with that smile.