Support Crosscut

A popular Oregon governor hopes for an encore

John Kitzhaber: back in the governor game Credit: U.S. Dept. of Transportation

John Kitzhaber is back in the game, the former two-term Oregon governor has announced plans to run again in 2010 and immediately jumped to the head of the pack. Gov. Ted Kulongoski cannot seek a third term but Kitzhaber can, because his third term would not be consecutive.

Only one other Oregonian has sought a third term as governor; the legendary Tom McCall, certainly one of the most popular politicians in Oregon history, sat out a term and then filed to return to the governorship in 1978. He lost-badly — but that isn’t necessarily a precedent for Kitzhaber. Times, and the people involved, have changed.

There are similarities between the two former governors. Both established indelible personal images: McCall as a tall and craggy television newsman with an accent that defied classification; Kitzhaber in standard blue jeans and cowboy boots, a lean and fit fisherman and river rafter. Both relied heavily on independents and both served with a legislature controlled by the opposite political party.

But the differences are instructive: Republican McCall defied party label and actually worked better with Democratic leaders in the Legislature than with his fellow Republicans; Kitzhaber was a pure Democrat, and faced Republicans in the 1990s who were overwhelmingly from the party’s right wing; he gained the nickname “Doctor No” by vetoing some 200 bills in eight years (Kitzhaber is a medical doctor). McCall left a huge legacy in environmental legislation; Kitzhaber labored mightily to keep Republicans from destroying it. McCall was open and public in his private life, Kitzhaber much more protective of his personal space. McCall was an executive with vision, Kitzhaber was a skilled negotiator and manager as president of the Oregon Senate for three terms.

The turf for 2010 is very different from the turf that Tom McCall ran on in 1978. McCall had returned to his old career, and was a news analyst for KATU-TV in Portland (I was his competition, at KGW-TV), but some of the luster of his previous television work had faded, and he spent much of his time sniping at appointments and other actions of his Democratic successor, Gov. Bob Straub. Although only 65, McCall was aging, and it showed. Most importantly, Oregonians were worn out from the activism of McCall and Straub, who had dominated Oregon politics for the previous 12 years, together crafting an environmental and social image for the state that gained national attention. Oregonians were ready for a slower pace.

Oregon has a closed primary, unlike Washington’s system; candidates must run in a party contest — in McCall’s case, as a Republican. He faced two experienced challengers, both well to his right, in State Sen. Vic Atiyeh and Rep. Roger Martin. McCall had campaigned for office in Oregon four times, but only in his first race, for Congress in 1954, had he faced a serious Republican challenge. By 1978, Oregon Republicans were more conservative than during McCall’s years as governor, and he could not draw on his support among Democrats and independents. He ran a poor second to Atiyeh, who was more of a moderate than the combative Martin; Atiyeh defeated Governor Straub and went on to serve two terms; McCall died of cancer in 1983.

Kitzhaber is comfortable in his own party and his most likely Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, is an old friend who was Senate majority leader when Kitzhaber ran the Senate. Both are strong environmentalists, as is U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Eugene, who may also be considering a run. DeFazio’s entire political career has been in Washington, D.C., however, and he is not well known in the Portland area. Unlike McCall, Kitzhaber appears to be in excellent health, and has spent his time since leaving office largely outside partisan politics.

Unlike McCall, however, Kitzhaber’s post-governorship life has not appeared on the big screen, and a whole generation of Oregon voters have never seen him on the ballot, or on their television set. Kitzhaber is telegenic and articulate, but Oregon broadcasters don’t devote the time to politics that they did when McCall was campaigning, and Kitzhaber will need a substantial media budget.

An unknown factor in a Kitzhaber campaign is the national debate over health care reform. Oregon under Kitzhaber’s leadership crafted a pioneering health plan to grant coverage to low-income families, and within the plan was a form of rationing, which is one of the hot-button items in the current national debate. Kitzhaber, upon leaving office, took a professorship at the Oregon Health and Sciences University and formed a foundation to promote public discussion of health care. The topic is a lightning rod today and will be in 2010, but most of the heat will be from Republicans. Kitzhaber should not have health care problems in a Democratic primary, but it will be difficult for him to avoid commenting on the national debate.

John Kitzhaber was a legislator of rare ability, and the three sessions that he worked with House Speaker Vera Katz (“Kitz and Katz”) produced a series of lasting legislation, including the Oregon Health Plan. The stalemate with right-wing Republicans in Kitzhaber’s two terms as governor left his agenda, and that of the GOP, unfulfilled.

Bitterness remains from those battles, so if Kitzhaber survives the Democratic primary the long knives will be out in the general election. But Republicans have no McCall in that race, or anyone close, leaving them with the tactic of trying to tear the former governor apart on rationed care and the usual shibboleth of “tax and spend liberal.”

This time, campaigner Kitzhaber won’t be able to cast a veto. It will be an interesting year for Doctor No.

Share On:
Support Crosscut