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 of Oregon.”)

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 toward mediocrity?

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 governing style.

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 along.

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 him.

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

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