by Jim Pasero (Portland Business Journal Weekly Editorial)
In early December at a school in southeast Portland, John Kitzhaber announced he would ask Oregon voters for a fourth term. If he wins and finishes his term, he will rank as one of the country’s top 10 longest-tenured governors. He would join quite a list, including George Wallace, Nelson Rockefeller, and Tommy Thompson. By January 2019, Kitzhaber’s days as Oregon ’s governor will number more than 5,500. JFK’s presidency, by contrast, lasted only 1,000 days.
Shortly after his announcement, the governor was feted by Schnitzer Steel Chairman John Carter and other business luminaries at the annual Oregon Business Summit. The behavior of Oregon ’s elites looked and felt more like a coronation than a conference. And why shouldn’t it be that way, after the crucial favors that Kitzhaber provided the few large companies still operating facilities in Oregon — Nike, Intel, Daimler Trucks — and after the governor pulled off the “Grand Bargain” in a special session in September.
All of this good feeling about the governor didn’t stop Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman from wondering on OPB’s “Think Out Loud” how this governor, with such a demonstrably weak record, could be considered a shoo-in for another term. Zusman cited the resignation of Oregon ’s education czar, Rudy Crew, and the failure of Cover Oregon’s launch as notable failures of Kitzhaber’s current term.
How could Oregon elites think the governor’s re-election so certain? Have the elites taken care of themselves at the expense of others, and by doing so, clouded their vision? Is this the current state of our politics — one party/winners take all/no accountability? There’s evidence that it is from both hard and anecdotal data.
In 1995, when Kitzhaber began his first term as governor, the state ranked 22nd in per capita income. The average Oregon resident made 95 percent of what a Washington resident made. Now, 19 years later and 11 years into Kitzhaber’s leadership, the state ranks 33rd in per capita income, and average Oregonians make just 85 percent of what Washingtonians make. That’s quite a decline, at least if you measure GDP in dollars, not happiness.
Anecdotally, an Oregonian front page post-Christmas Day story chronicled the poor children of Henry Hill Elementary School in Independence, Ore. The school found it critical to remain open during Christmas break to serve their free school lunches to children in the district, 30 percent of whom live in poverty. The story was Dickensian. It was also both depressing and common.
The number of Oregonians on food stamps, 21 percent of us, second highest in the nation, is not anecdotal, it is fact.
Pollster Tim Hibbitts sees cracks in the Kitzhaber mystique. “It’s a myth that he is at his highest ever level of popularity. When he was governor in the 1990s, his approval ratings were in the 60s. Today his numbers are good, but not great. His numbers are not so good, if the GOP had a credible candidate.
“Cover Oregon and Rudy Crew have happened on his watch. So it is dangerous to assume 11 months before an election that the outcome is assured. But I can’t see where (Republican candidate) Dennis Richardson provides a credible threat.”
In three decades in public life, John Kitzhaber has captured the essence of progressive Oregon – elitist, arrogant, indifferent to the daily struggles of most people, but passionate about fish and land preservation.
Give credit where it’s due: Oregon’s progressives have been masterful over the last two decades at deflecting attention away from the state’s economic data, thereby deflecting accountability from their ruling elite.
What Kitzhaber and the progressives never want to see is a clean shot at the progressive record — an “up or down” referendum on whether Oregon is a failed state. The business elites don’t want this either; their deals have been inked, their turf is protected for the foreseeable future.
At least once in Oregon history the progressive agenda was on the ballot, in the 1978 Republican gubernatorial primary between Vic Atiyeh and Tom McCall. A seminal moment in Oregon political history, Atiyeh won the primary and saved both Oregon and the progressives from themselves. But in 2014, when the state desperately needs a replay of 1978, the odds of a clean referendum on this ruling progressive agenda are remote. John Kitzhaber is poised to walk into the Capitol a year from now for a fourth inauguration.
It’s enough to leave newspaper editors, and many others, shaking their heads in disbelief at the state’s political dysfunction. What happened to the citizens of Oregon, once known for leading the nation in participatory democracy?
But we do know what’s left: One entirely unaccountable political party, one ever-shrinking segment of economic success, lots of poverty, lots of bewildered citizens still looking for jobs and health care, and an education system that further rots and crumbles with every passing year. Meanwhile a steady procession of Rudy Crew types in bureaucracies throughout state government walk away with Oregon’s wealth.
No one, not John Kitzhaber and not the voters, seems to care enough to stop them.
Jim Pasero is principal of Third Century Solutions, a Lake Oswego public affairs firm.