The Courage to Follow
Sometimes you get lucky.
In 1913, Oregon got lucky when Gov. Oswald West gave Oregon’s beaches
to the public.
By all rights, West, a Democrat, never should have been elected governor
in 1912. At the time Oregon was a decidedly Republican state. But West
did win because the Republican incumbent, Gov. Jay Bowerman, father of
legendary University of Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman,
was having an affair with his secretary. Oregon voters didn’t approve.
In those days, it took a scandal to elect a Democrat. But given the choice,
voters took the risk. To put it bluntly, Oregon beaches wouldn’t
belong to the public today if Bill Bowerman’s father hadn’t
been caught sleeping with his aide. (The historical anecdote is told in
Kenny Moore’s biography of Bowerman, “Bowerman and the Men
In 2006, 93 years after Oswald West preserved Oregon’s beaches,
Oregon could use a little luck and a little leadership. But there is no
guarantee that this election will deliver either.
The facts in the 2006 gubernatorial election are threefold: 1) Oregon
needs leadership desperately; 2) Gov. Kulongoski is the favorite to win
reelection; and 3) Kulongoski’s leadership style is not strong.
Can Oregon afford more of the same? Can we continue a complacent slouch
Last spring the governor appeared before our editorial board and was
challenged about his quiet, weak leadership style. In some ways, the governor’s
response to the question was even more disturbing than his past performance.
“I learned a very valuable lesson when I was a young marine,”
Kulongoski said. “When you are out leading a group of people, and
you are all uncertain and it’s very dark, we used to all stay within
an arm’s length of each other. I always remember this, and it is
how I see government and leadership. If the leaders get over the hill,
and the public—when they are uncertain—haven’t quite
bought into it, it is very difficult to get them to continue. They want
to sit down.”
The issue that frames the governor’s remarks on leadership is tax
reform in Oregon, which he believes is the most critical issue of our
time, and his reference to getting too far out in front has to do with
convincing the public of the benefits of a revenue-neutral sales tax included
in the tax reform package. A careful review of the governor’s taped
remarks leaves it uncertain as to whether he means the leaders or the
public would want to sit down. Either way, this is Kulongoski at his worst:
weak, uncertain, playing for time. Oregonians know there has been way
too much sitting down in Oregon in the last two decades.
Another issue that deserves critical attention in Oregon is the PERS crisis.
However, the governor told our board that he believes the issue is stabilized,
under control, no longer in crisis, and that by 2010 when the Tier I PERS
recipients have moved through the program, a strong Oregon economy will
be able to absorb the rest of the PERS bills.
We interviewed the governor’s Republican opponent Ron Saxton last
month and told him that the governor believed the PERS problem was basically
solved. “I know he does,” said Saxton, incredulously. And
then Saxton dissected and explained why PERS is still a critical problem
for Oregonians today.
“In the ’02 election, I said that PERS was the elephant in
the room, that we can’t solve our problems if we don’t fix
it,” Saxton said. “It is bankrupting the system, cannibalizing
programs. At the time I was saying that PERS, on average, was costing
12 percent of the public payroll. Today, it is over 20 percent, and some
individual school districts and cities are paying even more. The mayor
of Medford is talking about how the city is almost in shutdown mode because
of what PERS is doing to them right now…the problem is now 50 percent
or a 100 percent worse than it was four years ago.”
Next Saxton addressed the band-aid changes Kulongoski made on PERS during
the 2005 legislative session. “Somebody told me that because of
the changes PERS is now 20 percent of the public payroll, rather than
25 percent if they hadn’t made the changes. That’s still an
unacceptable number. [Kulongoski] can say he doesn’t have ideas
to solve it. I believe him on that. He doesn’t have ideas. But to
say it is solved—that’s preposterous. That’s the most
outrageous thing he could say.”
In contrast to the governor, this is Saxton at his best: forthright,
incisive, direct, tough, unequivocating, and sounding every bit the part
of somebody who wants to get things done.
And Saxton offered strong thoughts on the governor’s leadership
style—not wanting to get too far over the hill for fear of being
shot. “That’s not leadership,” said Saxton, shaking
his head in frustration over the governor’s job performance and
There’s no mystery about this race. Everyone in the state knows
that a vote for Saxton means change, leadership and strong forward momentum.
Likewise we have all watched for four years while Kulongoski has muddled
The real question is not which candidate has the ability and the courage
to lead. The real question is whether the voters have the courage to follow
Kulongoski could not be more clear in his strategy. For the last four
years he has doubted our courage to follow, so he chose not to lead. Only
for the heat of this campaign did Kulongoski amp up the testosterone on
his consensus-minded staff with a union strongman to lead for him. Now
he’s betting that we won’t have the courage to follow a strong
leader like Saxton.
Saxton is betting that Oregon voters will have the courage to follow
him into the future. He not only sees a bolder future for the state, but
he trusts that Oregonians have what it takes to get there.
Those innovative policies—like opening the beaches—don’t
happen by accident. An exciting, vibrant future for Oregon will require
the courage to lead and the courage to follow. And a little luck (minus
the scandal, of course). What about it voters, do you feel lucky?
BrainstormNW - Oct 2006