PORTLAND — When John Kitzhaber left office in 2003 after eight years as Oregon’s governor, few expected that he would remain active in politics. The Democrat had set a state record by vetoing more than 200 bills in his two terms, so many that Republicans dubbed him “Dr. No.” He had called the state “ungovernable.” He had feuded with everyone: the Republican majority in the Legislature, the state’s largest newspaper, even members of his own party.
A decade later, Kitzhaber is back. Along with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, R, and California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, he is one of three state chief executives serving new terms after taking time away from government.
Age (he’s 66 now) and eight years out of office have changed his outlook — and produced results. When Kitzhaber sat down for an interview earlier this month in jeans, no tie, he was basking in the glow of a special session in which the Legislature passed every one of his five priority bills, all by bipartisan votes. In the first three years of his third term, he has issued just two full vetoes.
“I didn’t do a very good job [in the first two terms] because I think I approached this from the wrong lens, and I don’t think I used the bully pulpit the way I should have,” the governor said. “I don’t think I had developed the depth of relationships that I had before. I tried to be a super-legislator my first eight years.”
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Observers who recall Kitzhaber’s bumpy first two terms barely recognize the collegial, calmer person they see now.
“This governor, this time, is significantly different from his first two terms in that he engaged with the Legislature and legislators in a way he wasn’t during his first two terms,” said Bruce Starr, a Republican state senator from suburban Portland.
The special session that ended Oct. 2 is indicative of the kind of government Kitzhaber wants to run — and of the sometimes seat-of-the-pants style in which he runs it. Typical of Kitzhaber, who has built a reputation as a fiscally moderate social liberal, the special session left a bipartisan heap of sacred-cow corpses.
Democrats swallowed hard when they voted for cuts to the state’s public-employee-pension system, while Republicans went along with tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals.
Some liberals grumbled that the package showed off another vintage Kitzhaber trait: his willingness, even eagerness, to compromise too much. The Oregon Center for Public Policy, a liberal think tank, called the grand bargain that came out of the special session “irresponsible” because it maintains a subsidy for wealthy taxpayers. Other liberal groups complain that Kitzhaber gave in to Republicans, despite the Democratic majorities in both the state House and Senate.
Environmentalists have long been irritated by some of Kitzhaber’s priorities, including a bill he pushed in the special session to limit counties’ ability to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They will find themselves on opposite sides again next year if the governor continues calling for money to build a new bridge across the Columbia River to connect Portland and Vancouver, Wash.
Despite the complaints — and the lobbying efforts by some liberals to kill the package of bills — Kitzhaber went ahead with the special session.
“The willingness to go down in flames while attempting to fly makes it much easier to hurl yourself into the abyss,” he said, reflecting on the last-minute arm-twisting that won him the votes to pass the package. “Losing is not a preference, but losing in the act of trying is OK.”
Kitzhaber has hurled his state in a decidedly liberal direction. While new Republican majorities in states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina and new Democratic majorities in Colorado have experienced political blowback from electorates that want more moderate governance, Oregon is more reliably progressive: The GOP hasn’t elected a governor since 1982, and many Republicans who serve in the Legislature would be considered liberal in other states. Oregon is, in short, a close approximation of what liberal government could look like.
Kitzhaber has not said whether he will run for a fourth term — he’s already the state’s longest-serving governor — but the scope of the transformation he hopes to achieve offers a hint that he wants four more years. He has begun conversations with business and labor groups over reforming the state’s tax code in a meaningful way for the first time since it was instituted in 1957.
The changes will almost certainly include a state sales tax, an effort to broaden the tax base. And the package will almost certainly end up on the ballot as an initiative. That’s what makes Kitzhaber’s job a tough sell: Oregonians have voted down a sales tax nine times in the past century, usually by wide margins. Kitzhaber has been involved in some of those losing campaigns.
This time, he plans to ask the question differently.
“The key is to frame it in a way that doesn’t create polarization but engages people in seeking an answer that will be beneficial to all of us in the long term,” he said. “I think that’s impossible to do in the Beltway today. I think it’s still possible in the states.”
His willingness to push for a reform package that has failed before, and his concept of the state’s political dynamics, come from Kitzhaber’s sometimes bruising experience.
“The power of this office is … using the forum to set the agenda, it’s using the convening authority to try to get people together,” he said. “When I came back, I think I came back as a chief executive. I understood the nature of the job better, I think I clearly understood the convening power better.”