Will Oregon Voters Opt for Kitzhaber a Third Time?
By Will Wilson, Special to Stateline
|Candidates for governor Chris Dudley (left)
and John Kitzhaber (right)
John Kitzhaber wants to govern Oregon again. It's been eight years since the state's two-term limit forced him out of office, and staying away even that long hasn't been easy.
In 2006, as a movement to draft him into another campaign took shape, Kitzhaber pondered the idea of a primary challenge to his Democratic successor, Ted Kulongoski, although he eventually decided against it. Kitzhaber, a medical doctor by profession, decided to spend his time on health-focused educational and nonprofit work. Now, four years later and with the state in fiscal and economic misery, Kitzhaber thinks it's time for him to get back in the governor's seat.
That's not unusual. Former governors in five states want to return this year to the position of power they once held. Three are Democrats: Kitzhaber, California's Jerry Brown and Georgia's Roy Barnes; the two Republicans are Terry Branstad in Iowa and Robert Ehrlich in Maryland. "High public office is addictive," jokes Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "The only cure for that addiction is being six feet under."
Ehrlich and Barnes each have unfinished business to settle. A strong Republican tide and a reputation for arrogance pushed Barnes out of office in 2002; Ehrlich was the lone incumbent governor to lose in the 2006 general elections, a casualty of the Democratic wave that rolled across the country that year. Brown and Branstad both left voluntarily — Brown in 1983 for an ultimately unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign and Branstad for retirement in 1999, after 16 years in office.
Kitzhaber was a popular governor, Democrats have won every gubernatorial election in Oregon since 1986, and the Republican candidate is a political novice. So one might conclude that there is little uncertainty here. But that might be premature. Kitzhaber's GOP opponent, Chris Dudley , is no ordinary novice. For one thing, he is an inch short of seven feet tall. For another, he is a well-known name among Oregon sports fans, having played six years with the Portland Trail Blazers at the end of a 16-year NBA basketball career.
And Dudley's résumé possesses some interesting elements besides his ability to handle a basketball. A graduate of Yale, he's had a successful second career in Portland as a "wealth strategist." One of the first professional athletes to disclose that he had diabetes, Dudley started a foundation dedicated to helping children suffering from the disease.
No Sports Magic
Ex-athletes rarely win governorships, at least not based on their sport celebrity. That one homer New York's Mario Cuomo hit for the minor league Brunswick Pirates in 1952 didn't propel him to the statehouse in Albany. California's Arnold Schwarzenegger — the most accomplished sportsman-governor among those who consider bodybuilding a sport — won his governorship based more on his movie career than on his front double bicep poses.
Some of the recent gubernatorial campaigns by famous athletes have been crashing disappointments. Republican Steve Largent, a wide receiver who is in the National Football League Hall of Fame, was considered a shoo-in for governor of Oklahoma in 2002. But he suffered an embarrassing defeat after he was shown making rude comments to a television reporter. Another Hall of Fame wide receiver, Republican Lynn Swann, didn't even come close in 2006 against incumbent Democratic Governor Ed Rendell.
At first blush, Dudley would seem to have little chance of going where athletes rarely tread. In the primary, Kitzhaber received more votes than Dudley and the other leading Republican combined. But anyone who thinks Kitzhaber is a cinch, says Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts, hasn't been paying close attention. Not only are voters in a pro-outsider mood generally, but they are not happy with outgoing Democratic Governor Kulongoski. "The Dudley people will link Kitzhaber to Kulongoski," Hibbitts says, "in the same way that Obama linked McCain to Bush." Kitzhaber won his first two terms by comfortable margins, he adds, but "this time he will be tested in a way he has never been tested before in a statewide race."
An emergency room physician by training, the 63-year-old Kitzhaber has spent much of his life combining medicine with politics. First elected to the legislature in 1979, he followed a one-term stint in the state House with three terms in the state Senate, during which he wrote state-funded health care legislation laying out priorities for which patients would receive priority care given limited state fiscal resources. Kitzhaber's measure was derided by critics as "health rationing," but was praised by many health policy experts nationwide.
Besides the rationing issue, however, the downside of Kitzhaber's résumé — and that of the four other former governors seeking a return to office — is the inevitable baggage that attends three decades in public life. During his first two terms as governor, Kitzhaber vetoed a record number of bills passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, earning him the nickname "Dr. No." The Dudley camp already has launched ads pricking Kitzhaber for having called Oregon "ungovernable" during the earlier recession that hit Oregon hard in his last term.
"I wasn't actually frustrated with how I was running the state," Kitzhaber says now. "I was frustrated with the unwillingness of both parties to belly up to the bar." He's running now, he adds, because he thinks he has some insights into "how we manage through our huge budget deficit," and, he emphasizes, "how we deal with each other in the process."
But Oregon may be no more easily governable for the next resident of the executive mansion in Salem. A recent report issued by a gubernatorially appointed spending and revenue commission warned that the state faces a decade of deficits if it doesn't change its ways. "Business-as-usual budgets will no longer suffice," the report reads. "Current services, as currently structured, will be unsustainable."
Unemployment in Oregon has been higher than 10 percent for the past 15 months, and the drop in overall revenues has been devastating in a state that has no sales tax and depends almost entirely on income tax and property tax dollars. Despite a $700 million increase to corporate and high-earner income taxes that voters approved in a contentious special election this January, a new $577 million shortfall — about one-tenth of the total budget — appeared on the state balance sheet just after the May primaries, leaving Governor Kulongoski to order nine percent across-the-board cuts to finish out the current biennium.
Kitzhaber supported the governor's decision, but Dudley and other Republicans called for a special session in order to make more targeted cuts, especially with respect to education. Dudley's main theme is that a quarter-century of Democratic governance — including eight years of Governor Kitzhaber — has brought the state to its current crisis.
Kitzhaber thinks the past is not the issue voters need to hear about. "So far," he says, "the campaign has been about whose fault this is. We should be asking, 'What are we gonna do about it?' There is no more money, whether I get elected or Chris Dudley gets elected." Although neither candidate has been heavy on policy specifics thus far, both call for new approaches to the state budget, beginning with a turn away from budgeting based on current levels toward "zero-based" reassessments of all government spending priorities.
Such reassessments require more political and managerial acumen than a rookie could muster, argues Mary Nolan, the Democratic majority leader of the Oregon House. "I don't think you have to have served in state government to be an effective and successful governor of the state. But you need executive experience and political experience to navigate the Legislature and executive branch." Dudley's lack of either, she says, makes him unfit for Salem's top job. "Although he is a very tall man," she quips, "he would be in way over his head."
But while Dudley will need to polish his expertise along the campaign trail — "He isn't ready to talk off the cuff about complicated issues," says public affairs consultant Jim Pasero — Dudley's fresh-face image could be an advantage for the out party in a struggling state. His non-ideological approach will help with the independent voters who form an unusually large segment of the electorate and have been crucial to Democratic victories in recent years. "Some of the nominees we've had have not had the ability to cross over," admits Greg Leo, communications director of the state's Republican Party. "Chris Dudley can talk to the political center of Oregon. He can get conservatives and independent-thinking moderates in the middle."
A recent poll shows a dead heat, but with Dudley holding a 10-point lead among independents.