His political career began with a failed run for the Crescent City Council.
Now Jason Conger, an Oregon state representative from Bend, is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Jeff Merkley.
Conger, 45, recently announced his candidacy, saying the economy is sputtering through an uneven recovery and he will focus on job creation if he’s sent to Washington, D.C.
Though he lacks statewide name recognition, Conger is the highest-profile Republican — and only elected official — to enter the race so far.
Conger devoted part of his candidacy announcement speech to his life story, which includes overcoming poverty to graduate from Harvard Law School, and touched on the traditional Republican theme of self-reliance. He said safety-net programs, though necessary, must be revamped to put recipients on a path toward taking care of themselves.
He left home at age 16, married at age 21, and that same year made his first run for political office — for City Council in Crescent City — before he even finished his four-year college degree.
Conger’s parents were part of the hippie movement in the ’60s and ’70s, he said. His father, a contractor, declared bankruptcy and divorced his mother when Conger was 8. His father remarried and moved around a lot: Conger lived in Oregon, Colorado and Washington before, at age 12, the family settled in Crescent City.
When he was a teenager, Conger left home because he didn’t get along with his father. He lived in a trailer park for a time and took night classes to finish high school while working day jobs at Burger King and Circle K. He moved to Sacramento and worked in the construction industry building homes and doing carpentry.
Conger then returned to Crescent City to work and go back to school, eventually graduating from Sunset High School.
It was here that he married his high school sweetheart, Amy, and became interested in politics. Four City Council members were recalled for malfeasance, and Conger ran for one of the seats. One of 11 candidates, Conger took fifth place with 246 votes; with just 21 more he would have been elected, according to the Del Norte County Elections Office.
After Conger lost his Crescent City Council bid, Frank Riggs, a local congressional candidate, invited him to work on his campaign. Riggs won and Conger spent a year in Washington, D.C., which he says opened his eyes to a “completely different world,” he said in 2012.
He went back to California to finish his four-year degree at Humboldt State. He went to work for Riggs in his district office there. He also served as director of the North Coast Small Business Development Center and sat on the California Small Business Development Advisory Council.
Conger then was accepted to Harvard Law School, where he spent three of his six semesters as a teaching fellow, teaching subclasses of students for $2,000 to $3,000 a semester. The rest of his tuition was funded from financial aid and student loans, he said.
Six years ago he and his wife decided they wanted to move to a small town and settled on Bend.
Conger acknowledged he’s a longshot to beat Merkley in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans. No Republican has won a statewide race in Oregon since 2002, and it’s tough to beat an incumbent not tainted by scandal.
The Merkley campaign has already raised $2.3 million.