Neil Goldschmidt Dead at 83

In the 1970s, he launched a political career that made him a national celebrity and put Portland on the map. He also began sexually assaulting a teenager who suffered for the rest of her short life.

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Neil Goldschmidt, the Oregon governor and Portland mayor who remained a major political player until it was revealed that he had sexually abused an underage girl, died June 12.

The Oregonian was the first to report that Goldschmidt, 83, died with his family by his side. The reported cause of death is heart failure.  

Goldschmidt was elected to the Portland City Council in 1970 and became mayor just two years later, in 1972. At 33, he was the youngest mayor in the country, garnering national fame for him and remaking Portland’s image from a sleepy logging town to a monument to walkable urbanism. He’s credited with spearheading the creation of landmarks like Pioneer Courthouse Square and Tom McCall Waterfront Park and for blocking the construction of a freeway that would have cut across Southeast Portland to Mount Hood. He and his allies convinced the federal government to use the money to build a light-rail project instead.

It was during his time as mayor, though, that he began a sexual relationship with a teenage girl who lived in his neighborhood and babysat his children. She was 13 or 14 when the relationship began: Under Oregon law at the time, sexual contact with a child under 16 constituted third-degree rape.

The abuse was not reported to law enforcement, and while rumors swirled around Goldschmidt, over the next three decades his political star continued to rise. He served as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of transportation, as a top executive at Nike and then as Oregon’s governor.

In 1990, he declined to seek a second term as governor — surprising observers who believed he would easily be re-elected — but continued his involvement in public life, serving on the board of Oregon Health & Science University and on the Oregon State Board of Higher Education. He also founded the Oregon Children’s Foundation, which runs the literacy program Start Making a Reader Today, and served as a political consultant representing clients like Weyerhauser and PacifiCorp.

In 2004, under pressure from Willamette Week, Goldschmidt admitted to repeatedly assaulting his former neighbor over a period of three years. By that time the statute of limitations had passed, making him immune from prosecution.  

The paper reported that in 1994 Goldschmidt had paid a $350,000 settlement to the victim, which required her to sign a nondisclosure agreement. It also reported that counseling records in which she discussed the abuse were nearly entered into public record in 1998, when the victim was raped by a different man while living in Seattle. That man was subsequently convicted. Most of her counseling records were not admitted into evidence, but the presiding judge said, “I have never seen a victim who was so completely psychologically and mentally, emotionally destroyed. She will never be well again.”

Willamette Week won the 2005 Pulitzer for investigative reporting for revealing the abuse. Goldschmidt resigned from several posts, including his role on the Board of Higher Education, and retreated from public life, dividing his time between Portland and France.

His victim, Elizabeth Dunham, died in 2011, at which point some media outlets named her publicly. Once a star student at All Saints Elementary and at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, she struggled with mental health and substance abuse problems for most of her adult life. (In its obituary, WW revealed that Dunham had told the paper and several other people that her sexual relationship with Goldschmidt continued until she was almost 40.) She died at 49 in a Portland hospice.

A 2011 Register-Guard column by former Goldschmidt speechwriter Fred Leonhardt likened her to the child in Portland writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” about a fictional utopia whose prosperity depends on the hidden suffering of a single child.

“For the privilege of being in on ‘The Deal’; for the money made from corporate takeovers, condo developments and light rail extensions; for the cushy executive position with all the perks; for the high political office; for the entry to the Arlington Club; for the skids greased and the backs scratched; for nothing more than an occasional pat on the head from the Great Man himself; for a young girl’s life — the best and the brightest looked the other way,” Leonhardt wrote.

“There was no conspiracy of silence. People talked. People knew. Instead, there was a conspiracy of indifference — which is far worse.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to provide an archived link to Leonhardt’s full column.

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