WASHINGTON – Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber watched President Obama’s State of the Union address from a special spot Tuesday evening – from First Lady Michelle Obama’s box, typically reserved for special guests and individuals who may be singled out in the high-profile speech.
Kitzhaber received the invitation to attend just two days before the speech and shared the box with several other people. He sat a few spaces to the left and behind Mrs. Obama.
Contacted in Washington D.C. by KATU News Wednesday morning, Kitzhaber was asked if the tab to the see the speech will fall to taxpayers. Kitzhaber said “well, I’m afraid it does, but I’m making it count. I’m spending the rest of the day here with our congressional delegation and doing some other work on national resource issues that are important to the state.”
Kitzhaber agreed with one of President Obama’s key statements of the night – that no one working full-time making minimum wage should have to live in poverty – in reference to Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour.
“It’s absolutely true. You know, we’ve got millions of people in this country who are working full time who can barely make it, have no benefits,” he said, but noted that’s not always the case in Oregon, where the minimum wage is already $8.95 an hour. “Minimum wage [in Oregon] is indexed to inflation but the fact is the cost of utilities, the cost of health care, that’s one of the huge problems facing our nation and certainly our state.”
In a tweet before the speech, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein said the “most interesting guest tonight is John Kitzhaber, Oregon's health care obsessed Gov.” The Post had previously run an extensive article by Sarah Kliff on Oregon’s approach to the changes coming to national and state-level health care programs.
Kitzhaber said that in relation to the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, every governor is working to see how best to implement the plan at the state level. “Every governor is struggling with the cost of Medicaid and the prospect of expansion under the Affordable Care Act.”
But Kitzhaber said he thinks Oregon’s approach shows that “it is possible to expand coverage and improve health outcomes at a dramatically lower cost and so I think the [Obama] administration is very interested in being a partner with the state on that.”
On the issue of gun control, Kitzhaber said “I do support universal background checks” but said the “real issue” to him was mental health care. “We also need to adequately invest in mental health services which go hand in hand with many of these tragic events,” he said, referring to recent mass shootings in Connecticut, Colorado and in Oregon.
Outside of the issues, Kitzhaber said he thought meeting David Agnew with the Intergovernmental Affairs office was a highlight and called him a “very interesting person.” Agnew’s official title is Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs.
He said he also met and talked with the “president of Apple” but did not refer to CEO Tim Cook by name. In a still frame from video of the speech, Cook appears to be seated two spots to the right of Kitzhaber.