What to do Next?


In 1986, when Oregon Democrats held the governor’s office for only six of the previous 48 years, then Republican Secretary of State Norma Paulus, favored to win the gubernatorial election, graciously offered her Democrat opponent Neil Goldschmidt seven primetime television debates. Paulus didn’t have to do this; 1986 wasn’t exactly a riveting political year in Oregon or nationally.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan had finally found a Soviet leader that wouldn’t die on him in Gorbachev; U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, shepherded the ’86 tax reform bill through Congress; and Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner watched New York Mets Mookie Wilson’s grounder roll through his legs. In 1986, when our president thought about Iran, it wasn’t to worry about their development of nuclear weapons, but instead it was to send their leader a clandestine birthday cake in hopes of improving relations.

No, 1986 didn’t have the gravity of a 1968 or 2006, but Paulus nevertheless agreed to an extraordinary seven televised debates. Ironically, her generosity toward the state and her opponent backfired. Neil Goldschmidt outtalked her and consequently upset her in the election. The big-spirited mistake Paulus made 20 years ago is one our current governor, Ted Kulongoski, has no intention of making, even though this is a critical year for Oregon that demands a conversation.

In 2006, the nation is at war. And the state of Oregon is on the verge of being late for the now fast-paced global economy (see cover story, page 14). The governor’s response to these critical times is to limit his exposure, rather than engage Oregon citizens in our democracy. Two weeks ago, the governor released his upcoming debate schedule with his opponent Ron Saxton. A brief look at the schedule shows four debates. Okay, not bad, you might think. A closer look reveals that only one of those four debates is scheduled for primetime statewide television.

There will be only one statewide televised evening debate before voters make their choice in this year’s election. Not much of a conversation for such a critical time. Saxton told BrainstormNW that he was willing to accept as many as 12 debates. Better still, Saxton even suggested the two travel the state together, campaigning as Robert Straub and Tom McCall did in the 1970 race when the popular maverick was running for re-election. But Kulongoski remains adamant about the limited schedule.

Kulongoski, however, just didn’t say no to Saxton. He also said no to BNW. After appearing in front of BNW’s editorial board in the 2002 primary, the 2002 general election and the 2006 primary election, Kulongoski has turned down an invitation to appear before our endorsement board this fall. He has also refused an interview request for a candidate profile feature. What’s behind the governor’s “Rose Garden” reelection strategy? When the governor can focus voters’ minds on federal and war issues, he sees the poll numbers between him and his opponent separate in his favor. This is easily accomplished in press releases, controlled speeches and paid advertising. When the governor has to defend his own record, his own political inconsistencies (supporting two losing statewide income tax increases while taking credit for the state’s economic recovery) or his lackluster leadership style, the polls tighten. These are the questions Kulongoski faces in public forums.

Reminding the governor of this political reality are two very smart, talented political operatives on his campaign staff: Josh Kardon, whose day job is chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, and Tim Nesbitt, longtime former leader of Oregon’s AFL-CIO. Their advice: Dump Oregon’s business community and run hardcore blue, blue populist—if there’s collateral damage, don’t worry, you can pick up the pieces in November after reelection. To run as a hard-nosed populist during a time of an unpopular war and an unpopular president, in a state that—though closely divided—is still decisively blue, is a no-brainer.

Another reason the incumbent chose not to talk to us this fall is because every time he appears before our editorial board or grants an interview, he gets in trouble with his base. In other words, the governor naturally warms to his audience (one of his best qualities), and he begins to talk and sound pro-business.

In a September 2002 interview with BNW, Kulongoski laid waste the notion popular in the state’s editorial boardrooms that Oregon is a low tax state. We asked Kulongoski, “Are Oregonians overtaxed or undertaxed? He replied, “What I believe is that when you look at the numbers, where Oregon is eighth in the country in expenditures and 44th or 45th in the tax burden on state and local taxes, you would conclude … Well, so how do you get to a balanced budget? I do not think that Oregon’s tax system is out of line with other states. The problem is that Oregon has moved to a system of fees and assessments.”

In the next four years, Kulongoski would often contradict this basic and essential understanding of our tax burden, by approving further tax, fee, assessment and spending increases and proposals.

Prior to the May 2006 primary, a too-relaxed governor appeared before BNW’s board and once again stepped into it with his base. About the practice of unions holding kids hostage to their demands, Kulongoski said: “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?”

Democrat Party insiders told BNW’s editors soon afterward that those comments did the governor no good, and much harm with unions. By May, the governor received only 55 percent in his party’s primary, an abysmal showing for an incumbent governor at anytime in any party. As for being exasperated by union demands and not knowing what might satiate their gluttonous demand for public monies? Well, union boss Nesbitt was apparently hired to shush the governor—no more rebukes of public employee unions until after November.

Kulongoski’s campaign strategy seems to be: Keep it simple, stupid. Oregon’s election for governor in 2006 is not about Oregon issues, it’s about avoiding them. And why not? Laying low has worked for the incumbent for the last four years. Criticism for his lack of strong leadership and lack of engagement on issues has nagged Kulongoski since he took office. Yet his strategy is to stay that course.

It is left to the New York Times to document in a Sunday, Aug. 20 feature article the abject poverty and hopelessness creeping over the rural landscape of our once proud and beautiful state. It is left to this East Coast newspaper to tell us about the deterioration of family wage jobs and “The Times That Try Working People’s Hopes.” While local media paint rosy scenarios to support the incumbent, this feature tells it like it is in so many overlooked parts of the state. Robert Hylton, whose family lives “hand to mouth” on a riverbank in an RV, catching fish for dinner or relying on food baskets, tells the NYT, “We’re trying to figure out what to do next.”

Aren’t we all?

Oregon remains a small state with serious issues and problems to address, and elections are supposed to be where those conversations take place. Right now, the governor doesn’t want us to have that conversation. Of course, he sends his regrets. But the precarious future of this state demands more—more debates, more openness with the press, and more of the vital, civil public dialogue that will lead us successfully forward.

BrainstormNW - Sept 2005

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