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) 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 in a conference room in downtown Portland on Oct. 4. “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.”
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 just-completed special session 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.
But Oregon is, in short, a close approximation of what liberal government could look like.