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Kitzhaber Hopes To Reclaim Oregon Governor's Office

The Oregon State Archives hold 317 cubic feet of records from John Kitzhaber's two terms in the governor's office.

His portrait graces the halls of the state capitol building in Salem. But like a lot of Baby Boomers, John Kitzhaber isn't content to stay put in retirement.

The former two-term Democrat is trying to win his old job back. But he faces another political veteran, Bill Bradbury, in the May 18 primary. Chris Lehman reports.

When John Kitzhaber left office in 2003, the economy was in shambles and the acrimony was thick in the Oregon legislature. But to audiences like this one in Salem, that all seems like ancient history now.

 John Kitzhaber
Former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber addresses a gathering of the Marion County Democratic Party in Salem.

Emcee at gathering of Marion County Democrats: "Would you help me and join me in welcoming Doctor and now candidate for governor, John Kitzhaber."

After Kitzhaber outlined his policy proposals for job creation, health care and the environment, one of the first questions from the audience was how he's changed since the last time he held the office.

John Kitzhaber: "I can't go without sleep as long at 63 as I could at 47."

With eight years as governor under his belt, you can't blame Kitzhaber for having a sort of "been there, done that" attitude. In fact, he says that's why people should elect him.

John Kitzhaber: "I spent eight years in the office. I don't need any on-the-job training. I don't need a transition."

Of course, Kitzhaber could be talking about any candidate in the May primary when he says he has more experience being governor. But it's a point he especially raises when talking about his opponent in the Democratic primary, Bill Bradbury.

Kitzhaber and Bradbury are long-time friends, and as former Oregon Secretary of State, Bradbury also knows his way around Salem. The two Democrats don't have a lot of major differences, policy-wise. But Kitzhaber says with Oregon facing a potential multi-billion dollar deficit next year, the state needs someone who has experience in the governor's office.

John Kitzhaber: "I think I have a set of experiences and perspectives and some hard lessons learned that I think can help provide some leadership. I've learned a great deal. Looking back, I've gained some experiences out in the private sector that I think I can bring to bear on the problems facing the state of Oregon."

Kitzhaber is not alone in seeking a return trip to the governor's mansion. No less than five former governors are trying to win their old jobs back this year, including California's Jerry Brown.

Anne Murray Allen directs the Executive Development Center at Willamette University. She says Kitzhaber could be part of a trend of Baby Boomers who reach retirement age and decide they're not that old, after all.

Anne Murray Allen: "That generation is thinking quite differently about — I'm not done yet, I'm not that old, I've got a lot to give back.'"

But some voters think Kitzhaber should think about hanging it up.

Lynn Partin: "You know, he kind of had his chances."

Lynn Partin is a lobbyist and former Democratic state House candidate. She says she remembers the partisan bickering that marked Kitzhaber's final term in office.

With Republicans in control of the Oregon legislature, Kitzhaber earned the nickname "Doctor No" because he vetoed so many bills. Partin says that left a bad taste in her mouth.

Lynn Partin: "He had to veto so much stuff, but he wasn't willing to do the hard slogging of the politics to get a legislature that he could work with, and try to get things done, as opposed to just having to say ëno, no, no, no' all the time."

But Kitzhaber does have his share of supporters who want to see him back in Salem. He's staked out a wide lead in fundraising. And he's been racking up endorsements.

Back at the Marion County Democratic luncheon, Kitzhaber said that if elected, he'd use the so-called bully pulpit of the governor's office more this time around.

He'd try to convince lawmakers to budget with more than just the next two years in mind. And he'd try harder to create a political center in the state.

It's a message that resonated with Irv Fletcher, the retired chair of the Oregon AFL-CIO. He says he likes both Kitzhaber and Bradbury. But he says Kitzhaber is doing a better job at creating a broad support base.

Irv Fletcher: "I think that John will have a much better chance to win the general election than Bill would. That's one of the major reasons I think that I'm supporting John and will work for his election."

If Kitzhaber does win the Democratic primary, he could have his work cut out for him in November. In a year when many political observers are predicting strong Republican gains, Kitzhaber is trying to become the first former Oregon governor to successfully win another term in office.

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