In Oregon, ‘Dr. No’ gets to yes

October 11, 2013
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, in one of the rare moments when he decided to wear a tie (AP Photo/Jonathan J. Cooper)
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, in one of the rare moments when he decided to wear a tie (Jonathan J. Cooper/AP)

PORTLAND — When John Kitzhaber left office in 2003, after eight years as Oregon’s Democratic governor, few expected he would remain active in politics. He had set a state record by vetoing more than 200 bills in his first two terms, so many that Republicans dubbed him “Dr. No.” He called the state “ungovernable.” He feuded with everyone: The Republican majority in the legislature, the state’s largest newspaper, even members of his own party.

A decade later, Kitzhaber is back. Along with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), he is one of three chief executives serving new terms after taking time away from government.

Age, and eight years out of office, have changed his outlook — and produced results: When Kitzhaber sat down for an interview in jeans, no tie, he was basking in the glow of a special session in which the legislature passed every one of his five priority bills, all by bipartisan margins. In the first three years of his third term, he has issued two full vetoes.

“I didn’t do a very good job [in his first two terms] because I think I approached this from the wrong lens, and I don’t think I used the bully pulpit the way I should have,” Kitzhaber said in an interview in a conference room in downtown Portland last week. “I don’t think I had developed the depth of relationships that I had before. I tried to be a super-legislator my first eight years.”

Observers who recall Kitzhaber’s bumpy first two terms in office barely recognize the collegial, calmer, happier person they see now.

“This governor, this time, is significantly different from his first two terms in that he engaged with the legislature and legislators in a way he wasn’t during his first two terms,” said Bruce Starr, a Republican state senator from suburban Portland. “He’s just more engaged in the legislative process than he was the first time.”

The special session is indicative of the kind of government Kitzhaber wants to run — and of the sometimes seat-of-the-pants style in which he runs it. Typical of Kitzhaber, who built a reputation as a fiscally moderate social liberal, the just-completed special session left a bipartisan heap of sacred cow corpses. Democrats swallowed hard when they voted for cuts to the state’s public employee pension system, while Republicans went along with tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals.

He even gambled on the package. When legislators returned to Salem, Democratic and Republican leaders weren’t certain they had the votes to pass all five bills. State Sen. Ginny Burdick, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, told Senate President Peter Courtney she wasn’t nervous about presenting the tax package in a floor speech because she didn’t think it would come up for a vote in the first place.

Some liberals grumbled that the package showed off another vintage Kitzhaber trait: His willingness, even eagerness, to compromise too much. The Oregon Center for Public Policy, a liberal think tank, called the grand bargain that came out of the special session “irresponsible,” for maintaining a subsidy for wealthy taxpayers. Other liberal groups complain that Kitzhaber gave in to Republicans, despite the Democratic majorities in both the state House and Senate.

Environmentalists have long been irritated by some of Kitzhaber’s priorities, including a bill he pushed in the special session to limit the ability of counties to regulate genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs. They will find themselves on opposite sides again next year, if Kitzhaber continues pushing for funds to build a bridge across the Columbia River, to connect Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

Despite the complaints, and lobbying efforts by some liberals to kill the package of bills, Kitzhaber went ahead with the special session.

“The willingness to go down in flames while attempting to fly makes it much easier to hurl yourself into the abyss,” Kitzhaber said, reflecting on the last-minute arm-twisting that won him the votes to pass the package. “Losing is not a preference, but losing in the act of trying is okay.”

Kitzhaber has hurled his state in a decidedly liberal direction. While the new Republican majorities in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina and new Democratic majorities in Colorado experience political blowback from electorates that want more moderate governance, Oregon is more reliably progressive: Republicans haven’t elected a governor since 1982, and many Republicans who serve in the state legislature would be considered liberal in other states. Oregon is, in short, a close approximation to what liberal government could look like.

To Kitzhaber, the economic recession that sent Oregon’s budget into a tailspin afforded the state an opportunity to reinvent government, in his mold.

“What 2008 was, was evidence that the systems we’ve relied on, whether it be health care, economic development, energy, education, all designed years and years ago, are simply no longer serving us. And the reason I ran again is because I think embedded in this crisis is an opportunity to truly transformational change. To rethink the basic way we provide public services, to rethink energy, our approach to economic development,” he said.

Kitzhaber has not said whether he will run for a fourth term — he’s already the state’s longest-serving governor — but the scope of the transformation he hopes to achieve offers a hint that he wants four more years. He has already begun conversations with business and labor groups over reforming the state’s tax code in a meaningful way, for the first time since it was instituted in 1957.

The reforms will almost certainly include a state sales tax, an effort to broaden the tax base. And the package will almost certainly end up on the ballot as an initiative. That’s what makes Kitzhaber’s job a tough sell: Oregonians have voted down a sales tax nine times in the last century, usually by wide margins. Kitzhaber himself has been involved in some of those losing campaigns.

This time, he plans to frame the question differently.

“Tax reform is part of this larger question of how we address growing income and wealth inequity, and frame it, not as a fight between the rich and the poor, but a more basic question of how do we ensure that the growing wealth of this economy is equitably shared among the people who are driving it,” Kitzhaber said. “The key is to frame it in a way that doesn’t create polarization but engages people in seeking an answer that will be beneficial to all of us in the long term. I think that’s impossible to do in the Beltway today. I think it’s still possible in the states.”

Winning over both business and labor will be crucial to a reform package’s success. The two sides split over labor-backed initiatives that raised taxes in 2010. And in an effort to get them together — to begin to explore what Kitzhaber calls the “solution space” — he has already commissioned polling that shows voters are apathetic about top priorities for both sides. Few Oregonians would feel the impacts of a capital gains tax, the polling shows, and few Oregonians have children in public schools. Kitzhaber wants to demonstrate that the standard talking points won’t move voters toward either side.

If he needs a fourth term to pass the package, there’s little indication he would face a serious challenge next year. Republican state Rep. Dennis Richardson has said he will run, but even party officials don’t give him much of a chance.

“Any elected official needs to make the case to his or her constituency that he deserves to be reelected, and this governor will have to do the same thing,” said Starr, the Portland-area Republican senator, not sounding too optimistic about unseating Kitzhaber. “There will be a Republican on the ballot, and voters will have a choice to make.”

The willingness to push for a reform package that has failed before, and his concept of the state’s political dynamics, comes from Kitzhaber’s sometimes bruising experience over three terms.

“The power of this office is not being the 91st legislator, it’s using the forum to set the agenda, it’s using the convening authority to try to get people together,” he said. “When I came back, I think I came back as a chief executive. I understood the nature of the job better, I think I clearly understood the convening power better.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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