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Governor Kitzhaber’s fall from grace

The peculiar and spectacular undoing of Oregon’s top official.

 

In February, on an especially strange Friday the 13th, Oregon Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber announced his resignation. Over the past several months, Willamette Week, The Oregonian and other media outlets had revealed that clean energy consultant Cylvia Hayes — Kitzhaber’s fiancée and energy policy advisor — may have violated ethics and public corruption laws by using her access to Kitzhaber’s office for personal financial gain, possibly with his knowledge and participation. Since 2011, Hayes had reportedly landed at least $213,000 in consulting contracts with groups working to advance the same causes on which she advised him.

“I have become a liability to the very institutions and policies to which I have dedicated my career,” Kitzhaber conceded in a quavering voice. The state House speaker and Senate president, both fellow Democrats, had joined The Oregonian in calling for him to step down. Kitzhaber finally did so but remained defiant, denying wrongdoing and aiming a barb at his accusers and former allies, charging that he had been “tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process.”

Hayes and Kitzhaber last June in Wallowa, Oregon.
Former Governor’s Flickr

The reversal in his political fortunes was indeed stunning. Kitzhaber was a popular and effective centrist politician who vastly expanded health-care coverage for vulnerable populations and championed environmental causes. He had comfortably won re-election to an unprecedented fourth term just months earlier — after the scandal first broke. And though federal officials were conducting a criminal investigation, no charges had been filed. The extent of Kitzhaber’s involvement remained uncertain. So how did the governor fall so far so fast?

 

Public corruption appears about as scarce in Oregon as sunshine on its rainy coast. The state ranks eighth from the bottom for its rate of corruption convictions, according to unpublished research by Dartmouth professor emeritus Richard Winters. “In some ways, this scandal would be laughable in Ohio or Maryland or New Jersey,” says Bill Lunch, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s political analyst.

Consider, for instance, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who stayed in office through multiple years of media scrutiny, federal investigation and indictments of associates and was only impeached after being arrested for, among other things, trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Or New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who is still in office and nursing presidential hopes despite federal investigations into whether his administration closed bridge lanes and caused record traffic jams to retaliate against a mayor who refused to endorse his re-election.

But the last time an Oregon  governor left office mid-term was in 1952, when Douglas McKay stepped down to become Eisenhower’s Interior secretary. No one has ever resigned under a cloud. The state may be particularly queasy about scandal, Lunch explains, because of its deeply “moralistic” political culture: Oregonians still see government as a place for service and an agent for the collective good.

Even Hayes’ and Kitzhaber’s alleged transgressions fit this public-service mold, in a twisted way: They appear to have been motivated less by money than by progressive ideals. Hayes’ unpaid work as a policy adviser, and her paying clients’ agendas, involved fighting climate change and promoting clean energy and holistic measures of economic success that weigh the growth of the economy against things like environmental cleanup costs and income inequality. In a speech at Portland State University last April, Hayes described how she blithely dismissed Kitzhaber staffers’ early concerns about her ambiguous role. “One of them said, ‘You know, when you work for the governor. …’ And I said, ‘I don’t work for the governor, I work for the Earth.’ ”

As a last-term governor with a Democratic majority in the Legislature, it’s conceivable that Kitzhaber could have made good on his promise to price carbon. His successor, Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown, is subject to a special election in 2016 and seems unlikely to make such bold moves for awhile. But some observers doubt Kitzhaber had the political capital, and sources close to him say he had no immediate plans to try. His big climate priority for this session had been the renewal and full implementation of a low-carbon fuel program. After his departure, it still passed the Legislature easily.

In the end, as a rapid-fire legislative session ramped up, Democrats may have realized they had more to lose from standing by Kitzhaber than asking him to go. A poll last summer showed significantly more Oregon voters wanted Kitzhaber replaced than re-elected, due in part to the spectacular failure of the state’s healthcare exchange. But Republican challenger Dennis Richardson didn’t stand a chance in the left-leaning state. And Brown is a more liberal Democrat, with her own long legislative record of fighting for social and environmental causes. “I think there was a feeling that the governor needed to take one for the team,” says Democratic strategist Jake Weigler. “It was not a matter of his own political fortunes anymore, but rather about the larger progressive agenda for the state.”

In fact, for all the drama around Hayes and Kitzhaber, the ripple effects on the causes they championed have so far been undramatic. If anything, many of the state’s leading environmentalists seem optimistic. Most laud Kitzhaber’s ability to bring disparate sides to the table to compromise — particularly during his first terms in the ’90s, when he oversaw the creation of a massive collaborative effort to restore salmon habitat. But many felt his timber policies favored industry at steep environmental cost. “Our logging practices are the weakest on the West Coast,” says Sean Stevens of Oregon Wild. “They don’t keep water clean for wildlife or for people.”

Brown “is going to be a strong ally,” says Oregon League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Doug Moore. “I don’t think it will be a step back. In some regards, it could be a step forward.” Still, “a lot of people in Oregon are sad to see (Kitzhaber) go,” adds Oregon Environmental Council spokeswoman Jessica Moskovitz. “A lot of people are still in office in other states who have done a lot worse.”