Two Oregon politicians figure in Daschle replacement speculation

Oddly, both Sen. Ron Wyden and former Gov. John Kitzhaber could both be appointed to key roles, but chances are neither will get a call from Obama.

Two Oregonians are prominently mentioned as President Barack Obama searches for a replacement for Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services. A scenario can be constructed that both of them are appointed, but the prospects are better that neither will be named. Meanwhile, the leading candidate appears to be Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, though a decision is not imminent.

Sen. Ron Wyden, who seeks a third full Senate term in 2010, is widely mentioned; less so is former governor (1996-2002) John Kitzhaber, who has specialized in health-care issues and is the author of the Oregon Health Plan.

The unlikely scenario emerges if Obama splits the job and appoints a health czar apart from the HHS secretary; Daschle had engineered a joint appointment, but as the New York Times reports, that was a unique arrangement and the positions could be split. That could put Wyden in charge of HHS and Kitzhaber in charge of health-care reform.

It's hard for anyone who knows Kitzhaber to imagine him taking HHS, which would irrevocably tie him to Washington, something he has said repeatedly he wants to avoid. Wyden is already there, but he's carved out a solid niche in the Senate and is unlikely to face a strong opponent in 2010.

Wyden has no executive experience, and his forte has always been an ability to anticipate big issues and jump out in front of them, including health care. He's an effective advocate, but turning a huge agency over to him is improbable. Kitzhaber has the experience of running a state government for eight years, and before that he was president of the Oregon Senate; but in the last six years his efforts have all been intellectual. The Archimedes Movement, which he founded in 2006, is an effort to build public support for health-care reform, and he also holds a professorship at the University of Oregon Health Sciences University. He is a physician.

Most of the media attention has been devoted to Wyden. Oregonian reporter and blogger Jeff Mapes, who has covered both men for years, has devoted considerable attention to Wyden, less to Kitzhaber, but discounts either case. Blue Oregon blogger Kari Chisholm has also posted updates on both men. Wyden is playing coy, saying all the right things while insisting his heart is in Oregon.

I've known both Wyden and Kitzhaber since before they entered office, and if I had to pick a likely outcome, I would say neither for HHS but possibly Kitzhaber as health czar, if he could find a way to avoid making Washington a permanent home. Health care is his public passion (his private passion is fishing and river-running), and he is a creative thinker and a good advocate. He's had to work with Republicans — during most of his governorship the GOP controlled the Legislature — and he understands how to work a commission or committee. He has more legislative experience than Obama, although no D.C. portfolio.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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