In Pursuit of Rural Prosperity

Lessons learned in the Oregon Legislature are a benefit of John Huffman’s new role

By Kathy Ursprung

John Huffman
Last fall, former Oregon Legislator John Huffman was appointed the state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development - Oregon.

John Huffman strolls through the Oregon Veterans’ Home, a site that exists today because of the committee he served on in the 1990s to get a construction bond passed in Wasco County.

The home was a glimpse of a career to come: serving the people of north-central Oregon and now, the entire state.

After more than a decade of working to improve the quality of life and a stronger economy as a legislator in the Oregon House of Representatives, John focuses on the same thing at the statewide level.

Last fall, John left his seat in House District 59 to take the role of state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development—Oregon.

“I think my work is summed up well in Secretary Perdue’s directive to increase rural prosperity,” John says from The Dalles, where he makes his home.

USDA Rural Development is dedicated to improving the quality of life and economy in rural America. Its more than 50 programs provide loans and grants to support rural areas with business development and expansion; infrastructure improvements; homeownership; community services such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access.

As state director, John manages those programs in Oregon. He also serves as the eyes and ears of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in rural Oregon, communicating the state’s unique challenges and needs to officials in Washington, D.C.

Investment in modernizing and building rural infrastructure is another part of the organization’s role.

“Ultimately, long-term targeted investment in rural infrastructure will mean more jobs in rural America, access to capital for rural communities, more commerce and international trade, accelerated startup of small businesses, and entrepreneurial innovations,” John says.

He is also working to develop innovative options for policy, program delivery, and administration, and enhance customer service through efficient and effective delivery of resources.

“In some cases, this might mean coming up with solutions that get government out of the way,” John says.

Another part of his job is developing a sound organizational structure and good management practices that use taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible.

John tackles his new role with the benefit of his experience in the legislature.

“It was a real growing experience for me in many ways,” John says. “I practiced patience. I tried to listen more, not just talk. I knew going into the House—in fact, I mentioned this to the county commissioners when they appointed me—that relationships are everything.”

John says building those relationships and working across the aisle in the House set the stage for virtually all of his accomplishments.

“From getting lots of money for great projects in the district to legislation putting the welcome mat out for the drone industry to comprehensive public records reform,” he says, “I am able to look back fondly, with no regrets.”

Those relationships also helped John gain his current role. He and his predecessor, Vicki Walker, served in the legislature together in 2007 and 2008.

John also has had a longstanding relationship with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Dist. 2). In 1986, John considered running for the House, until Greg shared his intentions to run for the seat once held by his father, Paul Walden.

“That was the day I decided to put any political ambitions I had on hold,” John says.

Twenty years later, after John sold his business, the congressman sent a message through his good friend, Gary Grossman.

“He basically said that since I had sold Q104 Radio, I didn’t have an excuse to not say yes,” John says.

After 10 years in the House, John decided he had more to give.

“I promised constituents that I wouldn’t be a career politician, and 10 years sounded about right,” he says. “But I’m only 60 years old, and I still have a desire to do as much as I can for folks in rural Oregon.”

While John’s new service area is larger, he still works with many of the same folks he worked with in the legislature and private business for the past 34 years.

“I’m helping connect businesses, communities, people, and organizations to USDA grants, loans, and loan guarantees,” John says. “But I also do the consulting that I have always done. If I meet with someone and I don’t have a USDA solution that meets their need, then I work to help them find assistance through a state agency or a partner organization. I enjoy helping people meet their needs and solve their problems.”

Many of those people are in his old legislative district. In Wasco County, for example, USDA Rural Development helped Columbia Gorge Housing fund the construction of Heritage Heights—an affordable apartment complex for farmworkers and their families.

Throughout rural Oregon last year, USDA Rural Development provided:

  • $402 million in housing loans and guarantees.
  • $1.3 million in grants to help low-income families buy, build, or repair their homes.
  • $22 million in rental assistance to help keep housing costs reasonable for low-income families living in USDA-financed apartments.
  • Site coordination for a children’s summer food program.

After running a radio station for decades, it’s no surprise John is particularly interested in telecommunication, which is also a priority for the organization.

“Years ago, I helped bring US Cellular to Wheeler County,” John says. “Now, Secretary Perdue has a real focus on getting broadband infrastructure into rural and frontier parts of the state. I am meeting with a number of potential partners that can help expand broadband options into the very rural parts of Oregon.”

Despite his busy statewide role and maintaining a Portland office, John returns to The Dalles on weekends to be with his wife, Korina. She used to travel with him to Salem and served as his office administrator at the legislature.

“Korina and I made a great team for the district in the Oregon Legislature,” John says. “We got a lot done for the region. Now, she is blessed to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. However, I do miss working with her on a daily basis.”