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Oregon governor’s race: Bizarre

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

Oregon’s gubernatorial race, running beneath the radar as media attention focuses on California, features a matchup that in any other year would be bizarre, but in 2010 looks like a textbook example of the strange revolt that seems to be sweeping the nation.

In John Kitzhaber, Democrats have a candidate who served two previous terms as governor, was president of the Oregon Senate, author of an innovative state health program, and a man as knowledgeable about the state as anyone who has held the office.

In Chris Dudley, Republicans have someone who has never served in public office (or even run before), who has voted only infrequently and engaged in all sorts of maneuvers to reduce his tax payments. Resident of the state less than 10 years, the former NBA journeyman would bring the weakest credentials into the office of any Oregon governor elected in the past century.

Yet Dudley has at least an even chance of victory. Oregon’s mail ballots go out this weekend, President Barack Obama arrives Oct. 20 to give Kitzhaber a last-minute boost, and the contest has longtime political watchers shaking their heads and refusing to pick a winner. Voter turnout will likely decide the winner.

Several polls reflect a trend that shows Dudley coming from only 33 percent in February to over 48 percent in September; Kitzhaber began at 48 percent and has dropped to 42 percent in several polls aggregated by My favorite pollster, Tim Hibbitts, hasn’t published a poll since June, when he had the race dead-even at 41 percent apiece. It is a dicey time for political polling, with the number of cell-phone-only households climbing rapidly, but Republicans clearly smell blood, and the National Republican Governors Association has pumped $2,253,000 into Dudley’s camp, one of the association’s major commitments this season. Dudley, working primarily on business money, has raised $8.8 million compared to Kitzhaber’s $4.2 million.

Both men entered the fall campaign with issues to overcome. Ultimately, the race may be determined by whether voters are more resentful toward a tested but too-familiar face in public office or a new face with wealthy friends and Republican ideas.

Kitzhaber’s years as governor (1995-2003) saw the state prosper economically but state government engaged in a nasty standoff between the moderate Democratic governor and a staunchly conservative Republican legislature. At one point Kitzhaber declared the state “ungovernable,” and he has struggled to overcome that remark. No Oregonian has been elected to a third term as governor; even the popular Tom McCall could not change that pattern when he was ignominiously beaten in the Republican primary in 1978.

The 63-year-old Kitzhaber is no longer the young man in blue jeans who captivated the state more than a decade ago; his face is weathered by years fishing Oregon’s rivers and lined with the burdens of an office he says he is best qualified to hold. He is the “insider” in a year where many look for an “outsider.”

That would be Dudley, who is doing a decent job of overcoming a total lack of the usual résumé for the governorship. The 45-year-old Dudley graduated from Yale and played 16 years in the NBA, several with the Portland Trailblazers; he finished his career with the team in 2002. Never a star, Dudley was a reliable backup center and at 6-11 would be the nation’s tallest governor. Dudley is diabetic, and formed a foundation to assist diabetic children, his major foray into public life prior to entering politics this year. He presents a low-key, friendly approach to campaigning, but has shallow roots in the state.

During most of his playing career in Portland, he lived in Camas, Wash., a move he admits was to avoid Oregon taxes on his investment earnings. He now lives in an 8,500-square-foot house overlooking the country club in the ritzy Portland suburb of Lake Oswego, and assists wealthy people with investments. His voting record is spotty.

Dudley is not a Tea Party candidate, however, and appears moderate in his views on most topics; he fits the mold of Oregon’s last Republican governor, Vic Atiyeh (1979-87), that of a cautious conservative rather than a right-wing flamethrower. In this manner, he mirrors Kitzhaber, whose record is liberal on social and environmental issues but pragmatic and cautious in terms of finance and governance.

Oregon’s unemployment rate was 10.6 percent in mid-September, about a point over the national average; the state has been stuck in the “10 percent club” for 10 straight months, and Dudley is making the case that the state’s economy needs a major change of course. Kitzhaber has been out of office since reaching the limit of two straight terms in 2003, but Democrats have governed Oregon since 1987.

Dudley favors the national Republican theme of lower taxes on investment income and business earnings, which he sees as a way to jump-start the economy. Kitzhaber attacks Dudley for favoring wealthy taxpayers, who provide the bulk of his campaign dollars. Dudley also supports easing regulations on timber harvest, investing more in higher education and helping small businesses.

Kitzhaber’s response to economic woes is to increase Oregon’s role as a center for “green” businesses, in particular alternate forms of energy, and to encourage more Oregon businesses purchase inside the state. He also wants a state bonding program to weatherize Oregon schools, providing jobs and lowering education costs.

Kitzhaber has championed a “woody biomass” program to utilize forest wastes, which Dudley also backs. Kitzhaber, who created the Oregon Health Plan, wants to improve it further to lower costs to businesses as well as help more Oregonians gain health care.

Oregon’s economy is heavily dependent on resource-based exports, which have been particularly vulnerable to economic conditions beyond the state’s control. Although the state has moved away from heavy dependence on timber, its share of the growing information-technology industry has focused on hardware rather than software, leaving it vulnerable to offshore relocations. Intel is expected to announce this month a multibillion-dollar expansion of its Oregon research facilities, a rare and welcome good news story for the state’s economy. The state’s livability reputation and the lure of Portland as a center for urban living have attracted newcomers but insufficient jobs to keep up with the growth.

The state’s ability to cope with these challenges is limited by revenues that are unable to keep up with just the basics of education, social welfare and health, and public protection. Oregon’s public school and university systems, once among the best in the country, are now ranked in the lower tiers and unlikely to improve without funding that is not available regardless of who is elected governor.

The governor and legislature are also handcuffed with a lively citizen initiative tradition, which has forced large costs on the state while also requiring reductions in taxation. A prime example is a law requiring that if state revenues are above predictions, the money must be returned to taxpayers rather than put into a “rainy day” fund for future emergencies.

Regardless of who is elected governor, these structural impediments are likely to continue. Kitzhaber, working with a Democratic legislature, is likely to seek changes in the “kicker” law that returns surpluses to taxpayers, probably in tandem with a provision for a “rainy day” fund. Dudley is less likely to pursue that plan, which has been opposed by Republicans. The legislature is almost certain to be under Democratic control, but Democrats are likely to lose their 60 percent margin in both houses, needed to pass a tax measure without sending it to the voters. Dudley, if elected, would face a legislature controlled by the opposite party; as did Kitzhaber when he was governor in the past.

Although many faces have changed since Kitzhaber left office in 2003, he will have some old allies in the legislature, and he is known by all the leaders. Having the governor and legislature in the same party can produce easier results, although some of the state’s major legislation involved Republican Gov. Tom McCall working with Democratic legislative leaders in 1970-74.

Dudley would enter office without working relationships with Democratic leaders in either house, and without a cadre of friends in other state positions. Republicans currently have no statewide elected officers, the first time in the state’s history to be shut out of all the top jobs. Dudley would need to build an administration from scratch, in a state he is only learning; previous Republican governors have drawn from their contacts as legislators or statewide officers.

Not since 1938 has Oregon elected a governor with no experience in political office. The election of Charles A. Sprague in 1938 began Republican domination of the governorship; from 1938 until 1986, Republicans controlled the office all but six years. Since 1986, Republicans have lost two close races — in 1986 and 1990 — in which the party fielded highly qualified moderates; since 1990 the party has scrambled to find a credible candidate.

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