The Captain

Chris Dudley

Complete Interview Transcript

March 18, 2010 Published in the April 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Emma Hall 

Chris Dudley, 45, played NBA basketball for 16 years, 6 of them for the Portland Trail Blazers. Since retiring in 2003, the Yale University graduate has served as a vice president at M Financial. In 1998, he founded the Chris Dudley Foundation, which is devoted to helping people with diabetes. 

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Judy Peppler, state president of Qwest in Oregon: What makes you want to run, and what makes you think you’re qualified to be the governor of Oregon?

I’m increasingly frustrated and concerned by the direction of the state. We’re not even coming close to our potential. We’re among the national leaders in unemployment, second in the misery index, a national leader in homelessness, hunger. Higher education funding is 48th. New job creation, 47th. Go down the list. It’s not pretty. As for qualifications, the role of governor is about leadership. You don’t have to spend 30 years in government to be considered a leader. If you look at our last two governors, they’ve had over 60 years of experience between them, and here we sit. Life experiences outside government are just as valuable. For me: head of a foundation, 16 years in the NBA, senior vice president of M Financial, partner at Filigree Advisors. Negotiating multimillion-dollar deals. Life experiences matter, too. I started off struggling financially. I got diabetes when I was 16. My whole family is educators. Playing in the NBA is a good example of working with people from different backgrounds toward a common goal.

Maria Wulff, executive director of the World Affairs Council of Oregon: I have a hard time translating working in the NBA to the political environment in terms of getting things done and building coalitions. How does that translate into the incredible complexity of state politics?

It’s not apples to apples. But it is people with huge egos laughter. My best coach was Chuck Healy. He was great at getting people with huge egos and diverse backgrounds working toward a common goal. I talked with former Governor Vic Atiyeh a few weeks ago about it. You need to be a strong leader. But you need accessibility and communication, and that’s something that’s, frankly, been lacking.

Wulff: Did you consider a lower office—say, Mayor of Lake Oswego?

I considered everything. I looked at how you can have the greatest impact for the greatest amount of people.

Wulff: By that logic, why not run for president?

That’s not realistic. Governor is.

Karla Chambers, cofounder of Stahlbush Farms: Your costs are completely out of control, and your income has fallen off the cliff. It’s your first day as governor. You’ve got businesses running for the border. What do you do in the first six months?

It is scary to me right now when I’m talking to business leaders who have said (a) I’m leaving or (b) I’ve had it. And these are leaders who have been around awhile. You need to look at the tax structure and make it more favorable to business. But the most important is attitude: sitting on the same side of the table with business. As governor, I would have the power of the veto pen, the power of the pulpit, and the power of appointment. And that’s putting people in those positions who actually work in those fields. Business doesn’t feel like it’s getting a fair shake. Governor Atiyeh said it’s about walking the aisles and meeting with both sides once a week. I was just down in Roseburg and I asked Senator Sean Cruz, “When was the last time you sat down with the governor?” He said that in eight years, he never had. That tells you something.

Orcilia Forbes, educator, chair of Meyer Memorial Trust: Have you looked at the proposals for moving Oregon’s universities to a public corporation model?

I’ve talked with former higher ed board member John Von Schlagel and former University of Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer. I’ve endorsed it. We should not have 6,300 line items for higher education. We should have one. The bottom line is to release the universities from legislative micromanagement.

Wulff: On your website, you apparently oppose any kicker reform. Does this mean you would do nothing about the kicker?

There is a real trust deficit. The symbolism of the kicker is that it’s the one thing holding government excess back. The first place you have to start is on the spending side. Government needs to prove it can build a reserve fund when times are good. We have one of the most volatile revenue systems in the country. That’s the way it is. Until you score that trust, you can’t go after the kicker.

Chambers: How will you control health care and pension costs?

Frankly, there are going to be some negotiations that aren’t going to be easy. But you have to ask what’s best for Oregon as a whole, not for one group. It’s very important how that debate is framed. Teachers, firefighters—they’re great people. My whole family is educators. But the system is broken. We’re not going to be able to educate our kids. I was just in New York talking to NBA commissioner David Stern, and he and I had some tough negotiations, and it went to lockout, but at the end of the day we came out with something good for everyone. 

Wulff: Where would you start with the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS)?

The trouble with PERS is that it’s been such a huge part of overall compensation. So we haven’t been able to use it as a negotiating tool. When employees look at where they work, their number one concern is salary; two is health benefits; and three is retirement. And we haven’t received any benefit for that.

Peppler: We’re one of only 14 states whose employees pay nothing toward their health benefits. Would you change that?

It makes sense that they participate at a level that teachers are: 6 percent pickup [where the employer is picking up 6 percent for a defined contribution plan]. Going forward, that can be negotiated.

Chambers: Going forward, how would you manage the Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) and the conflict between the needs of business and those of the environment?

The BETC is part of the failed leadership. It was estimated as $10 million. It ended up at $400 million. How does that happen? Measures 66 and 67 caused a real divide. We should never have gotten to this point. It’s not that hard with BETC: you cap it. You need to have a design where you give credits at the front end and they’re cashing them out to third parties. They should get credit when they’re paying revenue in. I’m in favor of incentives, but it’s gotta be a win-win. But that said, we should embrace the green agenda. Oregon is known for being green. But BETC also was only for new businesses. So companies that come from out of state are getting all these benefits, while the companies that have been here for a hundred years are being told, “We don’t have enough revenue; we need to tax you.”

Forbes: Some of us have worked with the Chalkboard Project [a multi-foundation supported study on school reform]. Some of the proposals are similar to the federal Race to the Top. Would you favor those proposals, with or without federal funding for K–12?

Yes, I would. I have three kids in public schools. I applaud Chalkboard.

Chambers: How are you going to bring the union to the table to embrace these recommendations?

I think Race to the Top has done a good job of dangling the carrot out there for innovation. I’d look at ways of rewarding success.

Wulff: What do you think of the Oregon Business Plan?

I’ve read it. I like it. It has a lot of points. There are good people working on that.

Peppler: The way to get more revenue is to get more jobs. What’s your plan for your first six months to create jobs?

One way is taxing to encourage rather than discourage business. Oregon is now tied with Hawaii for the highest capital gains and personal income tax in the country. It’s across the border from the state that has the lowest taxes. It’s naïve to think that’s not going to impact where capital and labor will flow. Education is crucial. And, frankly, attitude is a big one: working with business, how do we keep you here?

Wulff: How would a person in the primary decide between you and Allen Alley?

I haven’t focused on Allen’s platform. It’s about who you think can lead, and electability, and who can bring people together.

Wulff: Allen says exactly the same thing. How would one choose?

I’m biased. I’m the more natural leader. The one thing I haven’t had is government experience. But frankly, at this time, I think that’s an advantage.

Peppler: What’s your strategy for working in Salem, particularly if the Democrats retain control?

For one thing, I don’t think they’ll have a supermajority. People will at least have to talk. As governor, you have some power. I can be pretty persuasive.

Chambers: We’re in the fourth quarter, and Oregon is behind. The mind-set is that we’re going to keep taxing the business community for the income we need so that government doesn’t have to change. It’s going to take a tremendous mind-set shift. What does leadership look like?

There’s a feeling out there that it’s a zero-sum game. Private and public are fighting over a static size of pie. I was just reading two books by Jack Kemp from the ’70s, and they could have been written today, other than the inflation. The message is: we have to grow.

Chambers: We just passed a $14.1 trillion debt ceiling at the federal level. And the feeling is, we’re going to grow our way out of it. For a business, that’s 100 percent leverage. At the peak of Gross Domestic Product, we were at $14 trillion. We’re not there now. How do we change the game? 

Let’s fund our top priorities: 1, 2, 3, 4, but maybe not 18, 19, 20 or 21. We’ve got to address PERS and cut that spending down. 

Peppler: A lot of the policies in Oregon are the result of the initiative system. Does it need to change?

It can cause problems. But it’s there for good reason. It’s the one place citizens feel like they have some control.

Chambers: I’ve watched so many good jobs go to India, Singapore, and Ireland. Ten years ago, Oregon had more income than any time in its history. How do we create that environment so that those good jobs stay? 

Business has to have more of a voice at the table to help business expand. And then you recruit. It’s not healthy right now. We’re lagging in employment and personal income. 

Peppler: What specific programs would you cut?

When I sat down with government workers, they say, come every June 30 we’re under tremendous pressure to spend every dollar we get, because if we don’t spend it, we don’t get it next year. That’s a false incentive. So it’s looking at zero-based budgeting. Let’s look at what’s working and what’s not. 

Wulff: The Tea Party could make or break any Republican. What’s your relationship with that group and that philosophy?

With that group, it’s been good. As far as the philosophy, when you say “Tea Party,” it’s not a defined thing. It’s basically, “We can do better.” And they’re scared, and there’s a complete lack of trust in government. Last week, there was a poll that asked, “In the federal budget, how much is waste?” And the number across the country was 53 percent. There’s a sense that the leaders in government are beholden to special interests. I guess that’s the Tea Party, but it goes beyond that. It resonates with me because I’m an outsider. I won’t owe anyone anything.

Chambers: There’s a perception in rural Oregon that whatever Portland wants, Portland gets. How would you try to bring rural and urban Oregon together?

You spend as much time outside of Salem as inside. You should have a town hall with representatives from every county every year. That’s not been done. And make sure they have a voice.

Peppler: What does Oregon look like after four years of a Dudley administration?

We have jobs. Our education has improved. We have stable funding for education. And we’re growing. I would like us for once to be below the national level of unemployment. And balance is restored. If we can do that, our future is bright.

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