Guv Watch

Kitzhaber: Sequel or Rerun?

By Randy Gragg December 11, 2009 Published in the January 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

John Kitzhaber’s current gubernatorial campaign has all the makings of an Eastwood flick: the boot-clad hero emerges from exile to right the wrongs of a reign marred by fisticuffs with a Republican legislature.

The ex-gov laughs at the comparison. “I don’t know about that,” says Kitzhaber, who served from 1995 to 2003. “But then again, I probably wouldn’t go with It’s a Wonderful Life, either.”

Seven years after leaving office, Kitzhaber insists his decision to run again is inspired not by unfinished business or the promise of governing with a Democratic legislature, but by a sense of responsibility. After all, a politician who already steered the state through the depression of the ’80s and the recession of the early ’00s would be a mighty handy guide in the current troubled economic waters. “I’m 62,” he says. “I don’t need the job. I just think I still have something to contribute.”

That’s hardly Harry Callahan’s “Go ahead punk, make my day,” much less a rallying cry for reform. But retread govs may be a 2010 fad. Jerry Brown in California, Roy Barnes in Georgia, and Terry Branstad in Iowa are all following similar scripts.

Yet an impolite question remains: will Kitzhaber’s return be a triumphant sequel to his earlier tenure or the political equivalent of a late-night cable rerun? Things to consider: 12 Oregon State Senate Democrats are up for reelection in 2010, and voters are in a throw-the-bastards-out mood; Kitzhaber will be 68 in 2014; and he was more interested in fishing than leading his first time around.

Local politicos suggest Kitzhaber will pass the office off to the Secretary of State or Attorney General in 2014. His campaign insists he’s in it for the long haul. When pressed, the man himself is noncommittal: “I’m taking it four years at a time.”

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