'Ungovernable?' No Kitzhaber apology for the word

Democrat John Kitzhaber
Democrat John Kitzhaber during an Associated Press interview Monday, May 3, 2010, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third of four articles about ideas central to the campaigns of the candidates for governor of Oregon.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Meet Democrat John Kitzhaber, once and perhaps future governor of Oregon:

Pressed blue jeans? Check. Jacket and open-neck shirt. Check and check. Cowboy boots? Not this day. Loafers instead. Nor a saucer-size buckle on the off-the-rack belt. Apologies for eight years ago describing Oregon as "ungovernable?" Not a one.

"I believe that more today than I did then," he said during an interview with The Associated Press. He described himself as still the wonky "systems thinker" credited with designing the Oregon Health Plan but also a man who has gone through "an interesting process of maturation."

Eight years ago at the end of two terms as governor, after five special session budget fights and after setting a record for vetoes of bills from Republican majorities in the Legislature, Kitzhaber said partisanship was making the state ungovernable.

With that, he retired to pursue his passion for reforming the nation's health care system.

This year, just a few months after a bitter partisan fight over taxes, Kitzhaber says it's central to his campaign for a third term as governor to keep Oregon from following California into political gridlock and fiscal disarray.

"We're very close to going that way, particularly after the ballot measure fight and this huge gaping hole we have in the budget," Kitzhaber said.

"I think the next two years - literally the next two years - are going to determine whether this state falls apart politically and fiscally ... or whether we create sort of a new way to talk with each other, a new way to solve problems and find a way to pull out of this ... "

Kitzhaber, a doctor and former legislative leader from Roseburg, was elected to two terms as governor in the 1990s. Oregon law forbids governors to serve more than two consecutive terms. But it doesn't forbid a governor to stand down for a time and then run again, as Kitzhaber is doing at age 63. No Oregon governor has ever served three terms.

In the Democratic primary, Kitzhaber is the leader in polls and fundraising over Bill Bradbury, the former secretary of state.

Kitzhaber says his values remain consistent with the party, but he's determined to run a centrist campaign.

He has broken ranks with Democratic legislative leaders over more than $700 million in tax increases on the wealthy and businesses that voters upheld in January. He says the taxes should have been temporary rather than permanent. He broke with organized teachers when Bradbury, his Democratic primary opponent, proposed a $200 million boost in education funding and won endorsement from the Oregon Education Association.

Kitzhaber clearly has his sights on a fall campaign.

For example, he has said little about how he would deal with what's expected to be a tough Oregon budget next year. He said he would, by about Labor Day, present a detailed plan and use the rest of the campaign to explain the choices the state faces, in the belief he can build political support for hard choices.

"If I'm wrong, I won't be elected," he said.

But how would a Kitzhaber II administration be different?

Kitzhaber says he wouldn't try to be "a 91st legislator," as he describes himself as governor.

Instead, he said, he'd use the tools of the governor's office, "the bully pulpit," to rally public support for the systems changes he'd like to see, such as a 10-year state budget and unitary oversight of education from preschool to college.

"I think where I missed the opportunity was in going straight to Oregonians and talking about the ideas and building support and sort of setting an agenda," he said.

The political landscape in Oregon has changed in eight years, with Democrats piling up advantages in voter registration and statewide offices and winning majorities in the Legislature.

Still, and even discounting election-year rhetoric, the response to Kitzhaber's campaign from one of the state's prominent partisans suggests that Kitzhaber II would have strong echoes of Kitzhaber I.

State Republican Chairman Bob Tiernan, a legislator when Kitzhaber was governor, says the state's problems haven't changed: mushrooming public pension expenses, out-of-control spending, a discouraging business climate, the influence of public employee unions.

"It doesn't have anything to do with being moderate or centrist or whatever," Tiernan said. "It's a matter of, 'Hey, Bucko, you had the chance to solve the problems, and you failed miserably."'
     
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