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Oregon’s Kitzhaber faces tough road to keep his job

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (Don Ryan/AP)

In public, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) has resolutely declared that he has no intention of quitting his job in the face of an ethics scandal engulfing his administration. In private, his resolve wasn’t nearly as strong.

Behind closed doors, Kitzhaber told some of his aides as early as Sunday that he would resign just a month into his fourth term in office. By Tuesday, he asked Secretary of State Kate Brown (D), who would have ascended to the governor’s mansion if Kitzhaber had quit, to return from a conference in Washington, D.C. He met with state Senate President Peter Courtney (D) and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) to discuss his plans, and cancelled planned appearances in the Portland area Saturday, sparking furious rumors in the state capitol.

Kitzhaber told reporters late Wednesday that he never considered resigning. He said he called Brown back to Oregon to tell her in person that he was staying in office. Few believed his public declaration.

The ethics scandal revolves around Kitzhaber’s fiance, Cylvia Hayes, who has used her connection to the governor to win consulting contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Kitzhaber has struggled to answer questions about Hayes’s private work on state business. He said last month that Hayes would no longer serve in a policy role in the final three years of his term, a concession that failed to appease critics.

As he seeks to keep his job, and rebuild some of the political cache he’s lost, Kitzhaber faces three major challenges that could doom his final term.

Most immediately, Kitzhaber faces a criminal probe into the relationship between his office and  Hayes, who used the governor’s mansion for business meetings with clients of her consulting firm and state officials. Kitzhaber has said he wants an independent probe, and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (D) will give him one: She opened a criminal investigation into the matter this week.

Despite Kitzhaber’s claim that he’s open to the probe, his actions haven’t matched his public statements. Attorneys for Kitzhaber and Hayes argued in December that a state ethics panel shouldn’t have jurisdiction over Hayes because she isn’t a public official.

Last week, as Rosenblum considered opening her investigation, Kitzhaber sought a private meeting with the attorney general; Rosenblum’s office declined, saying she believed a private meeting would be “inappropriate.” Kitzhaber is now exploring a legal defense fund that could pay for his defense.

Kitzhaber faces a political threat from Republicans. GOP strategists are organizing a recall campaign that could force the governor to defend his record at a time when his approval rating is sinking to new lows.

The group, organized by Charles Pearce, would have to collect about 220,000 valid signatures to force a recall election. Pearce, who managed state Rep. Dennis Richardson’s (R) campaign against Kitzhaber in 2014, said his team will “put together a strong grass-roots network that will substantially lower the cost of a signature drive.”

And, he added, raising the money necessary for a recall shouldn’t be a problem: “I have every confidence that fundraising to recall a governor under criminal investigation will not be an issue,” he said. Pearce will have access to Richardson’s e-mail list, which numbers around 475,000 people.

Only three governors in American history have been subject to a recall — two of them in the past decade. And only one, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), has survived a recall election.

Whether or not Pearce’s campaign is successful, Kitzhaber faces one more challenge central to keeping his job and maintaining his legacy: He’s losing support among Democrats.

Kitzhaber has long been known in Oregon for his prickly personality. He clashed so much with a Republican-led legislature during his first term that the Oregonian dubbed him “Dr. No.”

Even Democrats have a mixed opinion of their governor: Kitzhaber’s predecessor, former governor Barbara Roberts (D), has never been shy about the mutual loathing they feel for each other. Earlier this week, Roberts twisted the knife again, telling the New York Times that Kitzhaber’s ethics problems were “disruptive, it’s disappointing, it’s occasionally shocking.”

The ethics scandal has strained Kitzhaber’s relations with legislative leaders, with Rosenblum and other Democrats slow to rally to his defense. Legislative leaders have warned that his agenda is in jeopardy, and the criminal investigation puts his entire legacy at risk. Without their support, Kitzhaber will be a lame duck even if a recall doesn’t materialize.

The story of John Kitzhaber, Cylvia Hayes and the ethics scandal consuming Salem is far from over. Whether or not Kitzhaber’s fourth term is finished, too, depends on how much more comes out, and how he faces the challenges knocking on the door of Mahonia Hall.