James Cason '76
Small-town Oregonian rises to high-ranking political post
By LeeAnn Kriegh ’94
James Cason ’76 has, in his words, “come a long way.” Raised in small Oregon towns and a graduate of what was then Hood River Valley High School, Cason’s first government job involved tending fires in eastern Oregon. Now, he is the Bush Administration’s associate deputy secretary in the Department of the Interior, essentially the department’s third in command.
“The first time I came to D.C. to go to work,” Cason recalled, “I just said ‘Oh my word. How am I going to do this? I’m so lost.’ It was a perfectly scary experience.” As time passed, Cason assimilated to the new culture and – as he has throughout his career – embraced the challenges that came his way. “You get used to the pace and what the rules of the game are,” he said. “Eventually, it’s not a difficulty at all.”
Just after graduating from Pacific with a business and administration degree, Cason’s adventurous side emerged, as he joined others in a real estate development project in Iran. Unfortunately, the Islamic Revolution, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionaries, interrupted their plans. “Our main selling facility was in downtown Tehran,” Cason said. “All of a sudden, people were shooting each other and tanks were rolling up and down our street. It was ‘Death to Americans’ time, and we had to get out.”
Cason and his fellow developers took the loss in stride, returning to Oregon’s much-safer real estate market. It was then that Cason’s work in politics began. He served as the campaign manager for Lynn Engdahl’s (former Pacific faculty) unsuccessful Oregon congressional campaign against another Pacific graduate, Les AuCoin ’69. “We did reasonably well, better than others did against AuCoin,” Cason said. The experience motivated him to work for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign one year later, and he then rose quickly through a series of private-sector and government posts.
In his current position in the Department of the Interior, Cason said, “My job is to work on particularly difficult issues where the problem has not been solved lower down in the organization.” Much of his current work relates to the many challenges the U.S. government faces as trustee for Native American land.
“In short,” he said, “we have to manage these properties, which includes extensive litigation on long-term stewardship. I spend a lot of time working on the underlying causal factors for the litigation. I look at all of our programs, trying to redesign how they work and to streamline how we manage the land and natural resources that are in our care.”
Cason said he does not shy away from the controversies caused by his work. “Pretty much all of the work we do is controversial. That just comes with the job,” he said. “You learn to make sure you follow the policies and procedures you have in place. Then you try to identify parties that will be happy with what you’re going to do, and make sure you let them know. The parties that will be unhappy, you give them a chance to have their say.” In other words, he said, “You try to accentuate your positives and mitigate your negatives.”
Cason said he will address his next career move, no matter what it is, with the same adventuresome spirit that has carried him thus far. “I just want to have really challenging work environments,” he said. “I thrive off having difficult problems to solve, and that’s what I’ll look for the next time after I leave this.”