The Northwest’s diehard diplomat

by Adam Burke

Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber fought to bring a divided state together

John Kitzhaber held the reins through one of the most dramatic periods of change in Oregon’s history. Kitzhaber, who just finished eight years as governor, watched the state’s timber economy dive, while the high-tech industry rose in its place, then crashed toward the end of his term. But who could have been more prepared to manage the shift than this native of the logging community of Roseburg and former emergency room doctor?

Kitzhaber is perhaps best known as a diplomat, someone who is willing to bring people to the table with differing views, and to keep them there long enough to build solutions. As environmentalists sued to protect dwindling salmon runs under the Endangered Species Act, Kitzhaber, a Democrat, strove for real progress. He pulled together watershed councils, inspiring residents to voluntarily fence livestock out of streams, plant trees, and restore salmon spawning beds (HCN, 10/26/98: The Oregon Way).

In the end, Kitzhaber wasn’t able to accomplish all that he wanted. The economic bust and political quarreling blocked many of his efforts to bridge the state’s political divides. But in a recent interview with Radio High Country News, he said he still believes in finding common ground. Though he spoke about domestic issues, Kitzhaber’s philosophy of diplomacy is surprisingly relevant to events currently afoot on the world stage.

A progressive among conservatives

“(In the Oregon House and Senate), I represented a timber-dependent community in southern Oregon, which was politically conservative, and I was a strong environmentalist, I’m pro-choice, I favored the land-use planning system. I think generally people might think it was an aberration I got elected down there. But I worked with these guys that made their living in the woods. They came to see me in the emergency department; I patched them up; I drank beer with them in the evenings.”

What voters want

“I don’t think voters expect you to agree with them. I think what people want is for you to have an opinion and be able to defend it. I think the biggest thing that’s missing from American politics today is that there are fewer and fewer people who have an idea or a belief for which they are willing to lose an election. And when you go down that road, then you stop having a dialogue with people.”

Conflict Resolution 101

“It really has to do with recognizing that this doesn’t have to be framed as a win-lose situation. If you put people in the position where they have to choose between environmental stewardship and putting food on the table, they’re going to put food on the table. I’m not sure I wouldn’t do that as well. And the fact is that there’s ways to frame these debates that create a politics of abundance, rather than a politics of scarcity. (If you find) that common ground necessary to sit around a table and have a conversation, all of a sudden people recognize that they actually have something in common, and they get past the stereotypes. And it is incredible, the power you can unleash in a community when you can create that kind of dynamic and recognition.”

The ESA doesn’t engage people

“The Endangered Species Act is something that I strongly support, but let’s face it: It is a very litigious, cumbersome, bureaucratic, top-down process, and by the time you actually get something to happen on the ground, these species are not going to make it. The Snake River chinook have been listed for 10 years now, and there hasn’t been a single change in land-management action in the Columbia Basin as a result of that listing. But there’s been a lot of litigation.”

What’s wrong with government

“The polarization and alienation that people feel with their government is due in part to the fact that we haven’t adequately nurtured or developed community-based places where people can express their sense of common purpose. I have great respect for the political process or I wouldn’t have spent most of my adult life in it. I’m simply saying that there’s something missing. And we have to have the courage to step up and say, ‘OK, what’s missing, and what do we need to do? What do we as citizens have to do, to help solve these very serious issues?’ ”

What’s next?

“I had an opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate, but I’m not impressed with the ability of that body to actually solve problems, particularly on the domestic front. I’m going to look for where I can make a contribution in the area of natural resource sustainability and environmental issues, in health care and health policy, and in issues of education and at-risk kids. I still care about those issues. I’m not going to leave Oregon. And I’m going to spend some time trying to figure out what is that venue, what is that place where you can start to rebuild a sense of community here in this state.”

A Radio High Country News interview with John Kitzhaber is available on CD. Contact adam@hcn.org, or call 800/905-1155. © High Country News