SALEM, Ore. – Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has been on a roll. Halfway through his unprecedented third term, he’s ushered in major changes to Oregon schools and the state’s health care system. Last month he won a special tax deal for Nike. But on the eve of the upcoming legislative session, Kitzhaber isn’t saying whether he’s preparing for his final act in Oregon politics, or setting the stage to run yet again.
In the closing days of the short 2012 Oregon legislative session, some of Governor John Kitzhaber’s priority bills were going nowhere. So, he called a state capitol press conference. Not once, but twice.
At one point his ceremonial office was packed with school children.
“And I want you to notice that all of these children are wearing their graduation class stickers,” the governor said. “Not 67% of them…every last one of them, 100 percent of them.”
Kitzhaber was also surrounded by business lobbyists, some of whom—like Intel’s Morgan Anderson—brought their own children along.
“We’re parents, we’re grandparents, we’re neighbors, we’re mentors and this legislation will really help all of our children,” Anderson said.
The bills passed just a few days later. Whether the press conferences made a difference is anyone’s guess. But in a way, they fulfilled a campaign promise Kitzhaber made when he emerged from retirement to run for governor again. He repeatedly said he’d use the so-called bully pulpit of the governor’s office to help put public pressure on lawmakers to pass his agenda.
“I view the bully pulpit as an external communication device,” he said.
And in an interview, the Governor told me that strategy helps explain how he’s managed to successfully push through an ambitious legislative agenda. This session promises to be just as challenging. The governor proposes major changes to the state’s public pension and corrections systems. All during a backdrop of some of the most challenging economic times in Oregon history.
“I just think there’s a huge opportunity embedded in the fiscal crisis. Instead of just continuing to do things we’ve done in the past, we have an opportunity to revisit systems that were developed 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago—education, health care, even our approach to economic development,” Kitzhaber says. “And that’s exciting.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time Kitzhaber has faced an economic squeeze. Near the end of his first two terms in office, the governor and lawmakers tangled over how to handle a rapid and dramatic economic downturn in the months following the 9/11 terror attacks. The political turmoil led Kitzhaber to famously call the state “ungovernable” as he was preparing to leave office in 2003.
Here’s how he explains that now.
“The bubble popped. And we weren’t very well prepared to address it. I wasn’t very well-prepared. I don’t think the legislature was very well prepared to address it.”
Kitzhaber largely disappeared from the Oregon political scene until he re-emerged nearly eight years later, winning a third term as governor. And he seems to be enjoying himself a lot more this time around. But why?
“I think it’s probably a complex set of factors,” he says. “I’ve certainly grown and matured, I think, in my understanding of this job.”
Long-time Oregonian columnist Steve Duin is impressed by Kitzhaber’s performance. Duin recently compared Oregon politics to a game of tennis being played by sluggish old men.
“And in the middle of this dink-a-thon suddenly somebody arrives who has some energy and creativity to actually put some pace on the ball, to swing away, to drive for the corners. And that makes everyone on the court a better player.”
But despite having covered the Democrat for 25 years, Duin isn’t sure why the governor is at the top of his game.
“I don’t think we have yet resolved or figured out what it was that John saw in his absence that brought him back and brought him back much more focused, much more directed, much less patience with the nonsense of Oregon politics.”
Kitzhaber does have his critics. Some liberals howled when the governor called a Special Session last month. The move allowed lawmakers to give Oregon apparel giant Nike a 30-year freeze in the way the state determines its corporate income taxes. Chuck Sheketoff of the Oregon Center for Public Policy called the deal “ridiculous.” And he says the governor is avoiding tough questions about how to pay for public services.
“What he needs to recognize is the way he can sell Oregon is if its public services are adequately funded and funded in a fair way and adequate to meet the goals that he wants,” Sheketoff says.
Kitzhaber isn’t saying yet whether he’ll run for a fourth term as Oregon governor. He says he won’t make up his mind until after this year’s legislative session. But Oregonian columnist Steve Duin has his own prediction.
“I think he is energized by what he is doing, energized by the fact that no one else is getting anything done but him seemingly at the moment, and I’d be stunned if he didn’t run for re-election.”
If he does, the Democrat would certainly be considered the hands-down favorite. No Republican has been elected governor of Oregon since 1982. And John Kitzhaber has never lost an election.
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