The fall of John Kitzhaber

By Floyd McKay
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John Kitzhaber, Oregon's long-serving and now former governor, still faces ethics and criminal investigations.

By Floyd McKay

The political kettle in squeaky clean Oregon boiled over Friday as Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned in the face of weeks of controversy that embroiled the fourth-term governor and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. Charges of conflict of interest rocked the couple after newspapers uncovered cases where Hayes may have used her First Lady role to pad the coffers at her environmental consulting business.

Corruption is unusual in Oregon, which prides itself on resisting influence peddling by elected officials. Kitzhaber’s travails are all tied up with his decade-plus romance to a woman 20 years his junior who came to prominence through her networking, personality and ambition.

Kitzhaber’s resignation takes effect Wednesday, when Secretary of State Kate Brown, like Kitzhaber a Democrat, assumes the office and appoints her successor. Hayes, traveling in Europe, was not present when the Governor’s office submitted a written statement with a brief letter of resignation.

Referring to calls for his resignation from the Legislature’s presiding officers—he is a former Senate President himself — Kitzhaber wrote, "I understand that I have become a liability to the very institutions and policies to which I have dedicated my career and, indeed, my entire adult life. As a former presiding officer I fully understand the reasons for which I have been asked to resign."

Earlier in the week, the presiding officers of the state Senate and House and state Treasurer Ted Wheeler — all Democrats — called for Kitzhaber’s resignation. The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, had editorialized for Kitzhaber to step down.

The paper had endorsed him in November. Since the election, its blanket coverage of the controversy has dominated its news pages and resulted in scathing editorials.

Oregon’s heavily Democratic political family has been at high boil for weeks as one revelation follows another, all embarrassing to the governor and Hayes. Republicans have kept their heads down while Democrats bled.

Friday’s events may help the GOP to mount a stronger campaign in 2018, after two decades of weak candidates at the state level. All of Oregon’s top state office and the Legislature are in Democratic hands. Secretary Brown, the future governor, is expected to seek the office in 2016 and other candidates are expected.

My first connection with John Kitzhaber was in 1978 when I was reporting in Oregon and he began his first campaign for office. He struck me immediately as a bright and idealistic young man, totally committed to the environment. Now his face is lined and drawn — and not just from his many years fishing and boating — and the idealism has been put to the ultimate test.

John was one of the finest legislators of his time and deeply dedicated to public service. Only he can say what is in his heart as two people who certainly appeared to be very much in love ponder their future.

Ironically, his resignation came on the eve of Oregon’s birthday; the state is 156 years old on Feb. 14. State officials were attending various birthday celebrations tinged with sadness over the resignation of one of the state’s dominant political figures over the past three decades. "This is the only time I'll be smiling today," a visibly stressed Senate President Peter Courtney, a friend of Kitzhaber’s for many years, told one celebratory group. Amen from another old friend.

I’ve never met Brown (the first Oregon governor in 50 years I haven’t known on a first-name basis), who was serving a second term as Secretary and is a former legislator from Portland. She identifies as bisexual and is married with two adult stepchildren. Brown, 54, is an attorney with a degree in environmental conservation.

Associates describe her as skilled at working in a bipartisan way as a legislator. She will need those skills; the legislature has been totally distracted in the month it has been in session.

The governor has not been accused, to this point, of financially profiting from his relationship with Hayes. Public documents secured by The Oregonian and Willamette Week indicate, however, that Hayes has earned lucrative consulting fees that appear to be directly related to her role as Oregon’s First Lady, a title she and Kitzhaber agreed should be used. The governor said during his 2014 campaign that they plan marriage; they have had a relationship for the past decade. Kitzhaber had two previous marriages, and a son by the second, which ended in 2002.

Both Kitzhaber and Hayes have retained attorneys. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has opened a criminal investigation into various complaints and the Oregon Ethics Commission is also investigating.

Kitzhaber and Hayes took a much-publicized trip to Bhutan in 2013 to examine the small nation’s “Gross National Happiness Index,” and Kitzhaber later promoted the concept as a way to assess Oregon’s well-being. Hayes was paid $25,000 by a nonprofit to promote a similar plan, called the Genuine Progress Indicator; Oregon adopted the GPI. She was also paid $118,000 by one firm promoting clean energy and $40,000 by another, while serving as Kitzhaber’s unpaid energy advisor.

The governor referred to Hayes, who is traveling in Europe, in a statement accompanying the resignation letter. “The questions that have been raised about my administration —  specifically allegations against me concerning the work done by my fiancée Cylvia Hayes and the contracts she obtained during my last term —  and the escalating media frenzy that has stemmed from this —  has clearly reached the point of no return.”

The governor listed some of his accomplishments over four decades in elective office, including the state’s innovative health plan and major environmental gains.

Kitzhaber, 67, was sworn in last month to an unprecedented fourth term; Oregon limited governor to two consecutive terms, but Kitzhaber was out of office during the two terms of Gov. Ted Kulongoski and then won a third term in 2010.

When he ran for office in 2010 Kitzhaber referred to Hayes as his “life partner.” Hayes had a hardscrabble background as a young woman. Born into poverty in Seattle in 1967, she lived in a self-described “dilapidated little shack” in the Duvall-Carnation area and moved out at age 16. She married at 17, the first of three marriages, one a “green card” marriage to a young Ethiopian man with whom she never lived but for which she was paid. She also admitted to being involved in a proposed marijuana grow in eastern Washington. She graduated from Evergreen State College and began to work in the field of alternative energy and conservation, opening an office as a consultant in Bend, named 3E Strategies.

Hayes was popular, and successful. "She's social and attractive and fun, and she just excels at networking," Mike Riley, executive director of the Central Oregon Environmental Center, told The Oregonian for a profile of Hayes last October. By 2009, Hayes had converted the operation to a for-profit, and that’s where her conflict-of-interest charges are rooted.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.