I feel sorry for John Kitzhaber—the soon to be ex-Governor of Oregon. He’s accomplished a lot, he loves this great state of ours and he seems like a decent enough guy.
I’m not saying I agree with him politically—I ran against him as the Green Party nominee for governor in 1998—or that he shouldn’t have tendered his resignation. But he is taking the fall for a media-driven “crisis” that owes more to stupidity than corruption.
Kitzhaber is an interesting political character. A former ER physician, his trademark accomplishment was creating the Oregon Health Plan; a state-based forerunner of the Affordable Care Act established long before “Obamacare.” In his third term, he also refused to enforce the death penalty. But there’s a lot about Kitzhaber’s tenure that is not as laudable. For example, he’s been far too cozy with the timber industry and, back in his first term, he signed a bill to re-criminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis. (Shortly after Kitzhaber signed the bill into law, it was overturned by the voters). Prior to becoming governor, Kitzhaber served in the Oregon House and as the President of the Oregon Senate. This past November, he was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as governor—though, per Oregon law, the terms were not consecutive. In short, he has enjoyed as fairly remarkable political career; the stuff of which legacies are made.
His downfall came fast and furiously.
A rule of thumb in politics is to avoid the appearance of impropriety. One should avoid not only impropriety but even the appearance of it. And that’s where the Governor blew it.
The accusations against him center around what some have labeled “influence peddling.” The amounts in question—less than a couple of hundred thousand dollars—are laughable especially when compared to, say, the $889 million dollars the Koch brothers are reported to be planning on spending legally in the next presidential election. The “influence” was in the form of consulting contracts his companion Cylvia Hayes had with non-profit organizations which were promoting sound public-interest public policy.
It was unquestionably stupid of the Governor and Ms. Hayes to blur so many lines of public and private roles. Especially when it could be argued that “the private”—advocating for cleaner energy and greater sustainability—was really in the public interest. But it gets back to that old “avoiding even the appearance of impropriety” thing and the Governor and Ms. Hayes, seemingly through a mixture of recklessness and arrogance, clearly failed to do that. They provided more than enough fodder for The Oregonian, a once-mighty, now shrinking and rightward-drifting publication, to call for Kitzhaber’s resignation. Once The Oregonian did so, it pounded a continual drumbeat which became hard for the political establishment to ignore.
Interestingly, the story about Ms. Hayes’ consulting contracts was first broken by Willamette Week. In fact, The Oregonian has a history of being scooped on scandals and big stories. It’s one-time motto—“if it matters to Oregonians, it’s in The Oregonian”—was spoofed by the Washington Post when the Post broke the Bob Packwood scandal a couple of decades ago and recast the motto as “if it matters to Oregonians, it’s in the Washington Post.”
Willamette Week “broke” the story just this past summer. Ms. Hayes had been seemingly blurring public and private roles throughout the entirety of the Governor’s third term. So where the hell was Oregon’s press corps for the previous three years? So much for investigative journalism and the Fourth Estate.
John Kitzhaber was just re-elected in an election where Oregonians famously legalized cannabis and not so famously denied drivers’ licenses to undocumented individuals who pick the grapes for Oregon’s fabled Pinot Noir. That election also saw a ballot initiative to protect consumers by requiring the labeling of GMO food products. That initiative lost by a mere 837 votes—but only after a recount and after Monsanto, DuPont and friends spent a record-breaking $19 million to flood airwaves and mailboxes with propaganda in opposition. That’s not a crime. But it should be.
Yes, the Governor let us down. But so did the press who let this go unreported for so long. And in comparison to the legalized bribery that passes for “campaign finance,” the financial aspects of the Governor’s or Ms. Hayes’ transgressions amount to chickenfeed.
Oregon’s Secretary of State Kate Brown will be sworn in as our new governor on Wednesday. I like Kate. She has taken steps to expand voter participation and has been open to protecting and expanding the role of independent political parties. She will have to run in a special election in 2016 in order to stay on as governor. On Wednesday, she’ll have to hit the ground running and it won’t be long before she has to stand for election on her own. But she can do two important things during that brief period of time. One, she can appoint a successor Secretary of State who shares her commitment to opening up the political process to all Oregonians. And two, she can take the lead in protecting our democratic process from the pernicious effects of private money which drowns the voices of public citizens.