May 2006 Primary Endorsements

The Democrat
Forgive the governor if he is losing the alphabet soup game.

OEA, SEIU, AFSCME, and OSEA—all public employee unions, all decided not to endorse him for reelection, and two of them, SEIU and OSEA, decided to endorse his opponent, former Sate Treasurer Jim Hill. It seems the governor, unlike Hill, forgot to pander to the public unions.

Or as Governor Kulongoski asked BrainstormNW’s editorial board last month, “Did you think I didn’t know that this day was going to come?” referring to the day of retribution for his efforts to reform PERS.

Ted Kulongoski is a talented politician, and if these days he is feeling a little unloved by his party, it’s his party’s fault, not his. Democrats have held the governor’s office since 1986. In 2002, when Kulongoski was elected, he inherited the worst economy in the nation, with unemployment at 8 percent and a state general fund that lost more than $2 billion in revenue.

Said the governor about those times in ’02: “No governor has ever frozen public employees steps in salaries, but I did. Because I had to get us through this difficult time, and I’ve had a very steady hand on this whole thing.”

Today, after more than three years of Kulongoski’s administration, unemployment is less than 6 percent and state revenues are up almost a billion dollars since the last biennium. Many would say that Oregon’s economic improvements were primarily driven by the national recovery and President Bush’s tax cuts. But the governor deserves credit for his oversight—in spite of the fact that twice he advocated an increase in Oregon’s personal income tax. Oregon voters defeated both tax increases.

The governor sees himself as pro-business Democrat, not unlike former President Clinton, and he sees his first term as an unqualified but unappreciated success. The Oregon economy is stronger than when he took office, but the problems of the public unions choking off reforms remains Oregon’s biggest public policy problem.

In ’02, we interviewed the governor before the election and said point blank: “People in business say your background with unions makes you not the right person to reform PERS.” His reply: “That’s exactly what they said when I took on Worker’s Comp, but I did it. And that’s exactly what they said when I reformed the juvenile justice system.”

After Kulongoski’s election, members of our editorial board half sarcastically said that his governorship would only be successful when members of the public employee unions drove past Mahonia Hall and took pot shots at the governor’s residence. Well, they may not actually be rioting in front of the governor’s mansion, but having the major unions endorse former state Treasurer Jim Hill or take a pass on the Democrat primary is close enough. Kulongoski signed the PERS reforms, but we question his belief that the problem has been solved even though the Oregon Supreme Court threw out three-quarters of the reforms.

The governor also told our board that he remains in favor of a “defined benefit” retirement plan for public employees rather than a “defined contribution” plan, which is the model that the private sector workplace will rely on this century so their financial futures are not threatened by out-of-control worker retirement plans.

The governor gets credit for his half step. The unions, and their petulant behavior in this primary, remind us that their motives are selfish—the preservation of their own lucrative retirement plans at the expense of all Oregonians, especially our children.

The bad blood between the governor and the public employee unions may reach a critical point in this year’s Democrat Primary. As Kulongoski told our board about this practice of the unions holding the kids hostage to their demands: “You don’t have to close schools. You don’t have to lay off all the teaching staff. You don’t have to cut school days. I just don’t believe that. Now, what I can’t figure out is, what do they want? Do you know?”

Incumbent governors don’t lose in their party primaries, and Ted Kulongoski won’t either, and we think his split with the unions may be eventually beneficial for Oregon.

BrainstormNW endorses Ted Kulongoski for governor in the Democrat Primary.

For the second time in four years, Jim Hill cancelled on the day of his appointment with BrainstormNW’s editors, even after he stated on KXL radio that if he were invited, he would be “delighted to come.” His message this campaign is to tell the public employee unions that they are being unfairly picked on. No, thank you.

As for Peter Sorenson, he is no substitute for a Vicki Walker candidacy, but he’s added passion and eloquence to the debate in this year’s primary. And he’s been particularly articulate in criticizing the governor for his inaccessibility in his first three and a half years in office.

We also found the governor to be inaccessible during his first term, especially after the Goldschmidt scandal unfolded in the spring of ’05. We don’t think his inaccessibility has been helpful to the public debate, and we thank Sorenson for raising the issue and credit him for helping get the governor to participate both in our endorsement hearings and in two other public forums this month.

The Republican
Oregon’s Republicans have a bit of a chip on their shoulders this primary election cycle that complicates the possible outcome. Why the chip on their shoulder? Well, the doors of power have been slammed shut and access to the governor’s office denied for as long as some can remember. With the prospect of a new governor on the horizon, it seems almost too much for the party faithful to bear the possibility that the door might slam shut once again. Like statewide Republicans who haven’t had access to a governor for two decades, we too worry that the next governor will follow in the footsteps of Kitzhaber and Kulongoski, closing the doors to all but a handful of inner circle elites.

Republicans have come to expect it from Democrat governors, but if a newly chosen Republican candidate were to turn his back on the party faithful, that would be the final insult.

That chip on the shoulder characterizes a lot of the turmoil in this Republican Primary election. Tired of being on the short end of the stick, the player that doesn’t get chosen, Republicans are desperate for two things—first and foremost, a win. Then, second, access to the power that a win brings.

On the issues all three candidates offer solid backgrounds of competent service and sound policy direction. Recurring, and non-differentiating, themes are economic growth, better schools, more roads, and better management of state government, including PERS reform and a complete retooling of state bureaucracies. Mostly no-brainer brochure messages for any good Republican.

But when all three candidates sat down with BrainstormNW’s editorial board, here’s what stood out. Two of the three candidates repeatedly turned to government solutions to the questions posed, while one candidate, Ron Saxton, pounded home the message that an improved private sector business climate was the key to solving Oregon’s fiscal problems.

Saxton stated, “We need to have an agenda about our private economy. To me the private economy, business, is not some special interest group off to the side. It is the agenda that drives everything else.”

Saxton also addressed the need for an agenda about our place in the federal system, criticizing Kulongoski for splitting with Gov. Gregoire over Columbia River salmon issues, effectively leaving the Bonneville system to be run by liberal Judge James Redden. Saxton called Kulongoki’s regional record “just a hit-and-miss, mostly environmentalist driven, reaction to things,” and said he would set clear priorities for our federal delegation.

Asked about the Donato/OSU salvage logging study, Saxton said they simply asked and answered the wrong question. “Even if you believe the study—that the forest will recover a little faster if you don’t salvage log—it’s the wrong question,” he said. “Not harvesting doesn’t produce any income, doesn’t produce any jobs; the stuff lays there and rots. If you harvest it, you create economic activity, you create jobs. If it takes a little longer for the forest to recover, so be it. The question has to be, what do we have to do to have a viable timber industry. I refuse to accept that timber is a dead industry in Oregon. There isn’t any reason for Oregon not to be in the forefront of a vital twenty-first century natural resource economy.”

While Saxton came off strong on private sector experience, the three are applying for a government job—top state administrator. And both Jason Atkinson and Kevin Mannix have spent more time in government, with admirable records in both cases. Both, rightfully, offer their government experience as an asset.

Young, brash and exceptionally articulate, Jason Atkinson rarely misses a beat on the party line, while still coming off as fresh and independent. Atkinson offers a possible glimpse to the future of Republican politics. Occasionally, youthful candidates have stolen the show—Packwood and Gordon Smith both fit this mold, but both went to the U.S. Senate. Atkinson, with his eight-year record in the state senate seems almost stunned and somewhat irked by the cool reception to his youthful candidacy from some donors and party insiders. Should he win the primary, would his office door still be open to them? Some wonder whether he has the experience to mend fences after a testy primary and bring together a strong, working coalition. Atkinson boasts a solid record, but politics, he will learn, is a long-term sport. Those not with him in this race are not necessarily against him, and he would signal his political maturity by holding no grudges.

Mannix makes a more convincing case about his much lengthier and weightier record of accomplishing tough objectives, including Worker’s Comp reform, tort reform, Measure 11, and countless pieces of conservative legislation. And he offers a plausible scenario for winning in November, citing others such as Vic Atiyeh who won his second race for governor after a first close call. Mannix is a tough, grassroots competitor who has made the rounds on the ground with the party faithful, earning every vote one party plank at a time, one bill at a time, one handshake at a time. Though he knows how to move votes and move legislation artfully, his default to the government perspective is not what Oregon needs most right now.

Oregon, financially strangled by the public employee unions and PERS, faces critical decisions over transportation, higher education funding, and land use issues, to name a few. The state’s competitive position in the global economy is inconsequential and moving backward. Only a healthy private sector economy can take the state where it must go. The next governor must advance a clear path from a to b, from financial backwater to vibrant economic future.

This is a unique moment in Oregon’s history, requiring a strong return to business-based solutions, and a resolute determination to carry the state into global competitiveness. Saxton seems most determined to stay focused on these solutions. He states a firm commitment to take on public employee union problems, in particular, PERS reform. BrainstormNW endorses Ron Saxton for governor in the Republican Primary.

That being said, the chip still sits up there on most GOP shoulders and nagging questions still linger about how long the door to a Saxton-governor’s office would stay open. Saxton’s strong business and social connections to Portland’s old guard will be a steady pull back to the status quo. A solid commitment to everyday access would go a long way toward reassuring rural voters, disenfranchised interest groups, 20-year activists, and even a few isolated reporters that their questions will be answered, their voices heard.

Said Saxton, “I was the right guy to be governor four years ago and I think the state would be in a better place today if I’d won that election. I learned a lot… I learned I had to build bridges with people I didn’t have bridges with then.”

We think he’s right, the state would be in a better place, and this state could really use a few new bridges.

BrainstormNW - April 2006

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