07 24 2014
  8:22 am  
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Several years before the word "maverick'' was attached to a certain Alaska governor, Democrat John Kitzhaber was a proud and successful bearer of the same moniker. He served two terms as Oregon governor before leaving politics in 2003.
And now he's launched a comeback, announcing that he's a candidate in the 2010 gubernatorial race. He probably has a better chance of winning than any Democrat or Republican in the race so far.
When he was in office, Oregonians overall seemed to like Kitzhaber -- a former emergency room physician who chooses cowboy boots and jeans over a suit and who would be rather rafting the Rogue River in southern Oregon than backslapping at some political event.
But the state has changed since he was last in office. If he's elected, how would he tackle the challenges now confronting the state?
The top priority, of course, will be dealing with the severe recession that has left Oregon with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
In an interview, Kitzhaber noted that Oregon enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth during most of his two terms as governor, with high-tech companies and other manufacturers moving to the state.
"We focused on the basics; we did eight trade missions abroad and brought in huge investments to the state,'' he said. "So we know what to do. These are tough times, but I think we can get through them if we do it together.''
There's been a big political shift in Salem since Kitzhaber last served in the Capitol. Democrats now control both the House and Senate, which should help Kitzhaber move a political agenda that will include health care reform and improving higher education.
In contrast, Kitzhaber had to deal with Republicans running the Legislature when he was governor. His contentious relationship with the GOP-led Legislature was the key reason Kitzhaber vetoed 202 bills during his tenure, a state record that earned Kitzhaber the nickname "Dr. No.''
Oregon Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli said he's not looking forward to Kitzhaber's return to the Capitol -- assuming Kitzhaber regains his old office.
Ferrioli said both sides share blame for the acrimony that existed back then, but he said Kitzhaber at times seemed to go out of his way to antagonize Republicans.
"At times he ratcheted it up,'' the John Day lawmaker said. "It was his attitude toward people. He laughed in peoples' faces when he vetoed their bills.''
In announcing his candidacy this past week, Kitzhaber said he's learned a few things since he left office and became a health care lecturer that he thinks will help him be a more effective governor the next time around.
He said he will put more effort into building public support for programs outside the Capitol and move away from inside-the-building partisanship on both sides that he believes has stood in the way of solutions to problems.
"Unless we can add a new civility to our public discourse and get people engaged based on our common bonds as Oregonians -- not just party registration -- we're in big trouble,'' he said.
In addition to his fights with Republicans, Kitzhaber also had prickly relations with the national Democrats in the past.
In 1996, Kitzhaber begged off a re-election rally for President Clinton and went fishing in Alaska instead. Later that year, he rebuffed a White House request that he be on hand for Clinton's renomination at the 1996 convention in Chicago. Kitzhaber also refused to attend the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles where Al Gore won the nomination.
Jim Edmunson, who was chairman of the Oregon Democratic Party at the time, said Kitzhaber simply wasn't all that enchanted with either Clinton or Gore.
However, Edmunson said Kitzhaber is impressed with President Obama, believing that Obama and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean have turned the party into a more progressive, grassroots-based organization.
"It's much more in tune now with where he thinks the party should be,'' said Edmunson, a former state legislator from Eugene and political friend of Kitzhaber.
Kitzhaber endorsed Obama early on and admires the new president's attempts to reform health care at the national level. He thinks Oregon in the next few years can adopt new policies as well that will emphasize disease prevention and early treatment over just finding new ways to pay for the ever-rising cost of health care.
"What people really want isn't just health care; they want to be healthy,'' said Kitzhaber, who as a state legislator and governor was the leading sponsor of efforts to extend health care to more low-income Oregonians.
Although health care is the issue Kitzhaber is best known for around Oregon, his continuing popularity stems a lot from intangibles such as his blunt-spoken manner and iconoclastic persona, said political analyst Jim Moore.
"The cowboy boots and jeans; the wading out in the river with his fly-fishing rod; those kinds of things play well with Oregonians across the political spectrum,'' said Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

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