17 Mar

Portland’s all-star dream could leave Blazer fans unseated

Portland feels good about itself for all kinds of reasons. The surroundings are pretty, the food is terrific, and how about those Trail Blazers?

In fact, Portland is the only city with a national cable TV show all about how good it feels about itself.

Take that, Seattle.

But there is one jagged thorn penetrating our rosy self-image, an absence that, especially in midwinter, even a place with our soaring self-esteem seems to take personally:

We have never hosted an NBA All-Star game.

Or even a dunking contest.

In 2016, Toronto will host its first All-Star game, meaning only two cities in the league, Portland and Memphis, have never hosted – and Portland has been in the league way longer than Memphis. Even cities that are no longer in the league – hey there, Seattle – have hosted All-Star games.

Does the NBA even watch “Portlandia”?

Portland has applied for both the 2017 and 2018 All-Star games, and of course the issue came up at the recent festivities in New York. In a press conference reported by The Oregonian’s Mike Tokito, NBA commissioner Adam Silver insisted, “I would love to have an All-Star game in Portland,” although that does sound a little like someone explaining how sorry he was that he couldn’t have lunch with his in-laws.

The problem, Silver explained, was lack of enough hotel rooms in Portland, an explanation the NBA has always offered, and indeed for many past years such a game might have had film crews staying in Kelso. But several more hotels have opened in Portland recently, and now local government is moving forward with a new, 600-room Hyatt Regency convention center hotel. The plan is backed by $60 million in bonds to be paid off by hotel taxes, with suites large enough for both NBA bodies and egos, not all of whom wear uniforms.

In the 30 years that Portland has been arguing over a convention center hotel, the idea that it would position us for an NBA All-Star game has come up often. It’s hard to think that a major convention center hotel wouldn’t at least put us on the list ahead of Memphis.

And, of course, holding an NBA All-Star game would be just a rightful recognition of our passion for the sport. Decades ago, the writer David Halberstam quoted an NBA ref as saying the league’s most manic fans were in Portland, because they had nothing else to do in the winter.

Perhaps a mixed compliment, but we accepted it.

Besides, since then Portland has at least added lots more Thai restaurants.

Still, for a long time, it’s been a mark of how excited we’d be about having an All-Star game here. As one writer put it, “Fans have always been a major part of the Blazers’ success, and they would come out in big numbers for the All-Star Game.”

If they could.

As The New York Times pointed out after last month’s All-Star game in New York, once the NBA had divided up game tickets among 30 teams and various corporate sponsors, it offered exactly none for public sale – for the fifth consecutive year.

The same situation applied for the skills exhibition, including the dunking contest and the three-point shooting competition. The host Knicks and Nets got hardly any tickets for their season ticket holders, although the Knicks have the most expensive tickets in the NBA.

According to the Times, there were some tickets available on the secondary market – what used to be called scalpers – for about $2,000.

(In New York, of course, that’s dinner for two. In Portland, it’s a mortgage payment.)

The same situation might not apply in Portland, of course; our tourism draw isn’t quite like New York’s, even if our won-lost record is a lot better. But the squeeze has extended to other cities; the Times quoted the former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers declaring, after hosting the game in 2003, that he never wanted it again.

“People think it’s our game,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “but it’s the league’s game.”

No matter how few Portlanders actually get into the Moda Center for the game, of course, there would be benefits to having an All-Star game here. Sweeping vistas of Portland would appear on network TV, and we’d run into sports reporters in steakhouses, which is always exciting.

But we might be realistic about the benefits from a Portland NBA All-Star game – and from the hotel we hope will help attract it.

At least we’ll always have “Portlandia.”

Which is more than Memphis can say.

This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/8/15.

17 Mar

On capital punishment, Oregon’s pointless pretense proceeds

Despite rumors on the subject, former Gov. John Kitzhaber did not commute Oregon’s 34 pending death sentences before resigning last month – although it wasn’t like it would have gotten him into any more trouble.

Kitzhaber, who’d been governor during Oregon’s only two executions of the last half-century, had made it clear he wasn’t going to sit through any more, but didn’t feel the need to extend the ban beyond his own tenure.

That left incoming Gov. Kate Brown as the new landlady of Oregon’s Death Row, and the subject came up almost immediately. Last week, Brown told The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes that she personally opposed the death penalty and expected to continue Kitzhaber’s moratorium. But she wouldn’t say an execution was impossible, explaining that her thinking on the issue had become “more nuanced.”

It’s possible to overstate the uncertainty here; offhand, you might expect Kate Brown to sign an execution order when Earl Blumenauer trades his bicycle for a rickshaw. And as she says, “I think there are a whole lot of issues that need to be resolved. And one of them is, can we even carry this out at this point in time in this country?”

Technique is everything. And lately, all over the country, there are issues about not only why but how we execute people.

(Or in Oregon’s case, of course, how we don’t.)

Supplies of the drugs that have been part of the three-drug combination used in most U.S. executions have been running out, as European manufacturers, opposed to capital punishment, have been refusing to supply them. (After Kitzhaber declared his moratorium, Oregon said it would sell its supply back.) Replacement drugs have produced extended, messy executions in Arizona and Oklahoma, and some states, such as Ohio, have declared their own moratoriums until the situation is sorted out.

For various reasons, the feds – who don’t execute a lot of people anyway – have declared their own freeze, and outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder has urged states to do the same. There’s anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling on which drugs are and aren’t acceptable.

Last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, another new Democratic governor – and there aren’t many new Democratic governors – declared an execution moratorium, as he said he would during his campaign. There are more than 180 convicts on Pennsylvania’s Death Row; since the state restored its death penalty in 1976, it has executed exactly three people. During that time, it’s estimated, going through the motions of capital punishment has cost the state $350 million.

It’s said that more people on Pennsylvania’s Death Row die of natural causes than of execution. Since six residents have been freed on appeal, you could also say more have been released than executed.

“This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences,” Wolf wrote in the moratorium order. “The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.”

Pennsylvania’s situation, in fact, has been greatly like Oregon’s – maintaining at considerable effort and expense a penalty virtually never used. Pennsylvania managed to execute one more convict over 40 years than Oregon did, but it had many more sentenced – and unlike Oregon’s, its executions may not have been voluntary.

Both states, like all the others, are dealing with the drug shortage. Last month, Utah’s House of Representatives passed a bill restoring execution by firing squad; it now moves to the state Senate, and Wyoming is also taking aim. It’s not as easy to imagine Oregon going in that direction, although we could probably find volunteers.

There is talk about putting a repeal of capital punishment on the 2016 ballot, where the odds might be against it; many voters like the idea of capital punishment, even if it hardly ever happens in practice.

People on Oregon’s Death Row have been convicted of doing hideous things, making it even more curious for Oregon to spend large amounts on a decades-long appeals process that ends up giving them the choice of departure. Now that process is muddied even more by the challenges of actually carrying it out, with legal and procedural complications joined by pharmacological ones.

And despite the great deal of attention that that the idea has gotten recently, we’re probably not going to take up beheading.

Although on this issue, we’ve been in no hurry to use ours.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 3/4/15.

17 Mar

John Kitzhaber was his own Brutus

Way back before March Madness, this month had another meaning. It proclaimed the fall of major figures, and the warning that even the highest might suddenly find themselves looking up from the bottom instead of down from the top.

Exactly 2,069 years ago, on another March 15, Julius Caesar discovered this, long before investigations and subpoenas. Just two months ago, with Oregon still in the glow of post-inaugural celebration, it seemed unimaginable that John Kitzhaber would mark today’s date out of power, facing intimidating legal problems and legal bills, with even his visits to the landfill closely examined.

Leaders fall constantly, in March and every other month, in Capitol buildings from Rome to Salem. As Julius Caesar discovered, sharply, there are always those plotting downfalls, conspiracies sometimes discovered and sometimes imagined.

But the striking aspect of John Kitzhaber’s fall, even a month afterward, is that there were never any political plotters eager to bring it about. The wounds that produced Oregon’s greatest recent political fatality were entirely self-inflicted.

It’s as though Caesar, at the dramatic high point, had whipped out a knife and begun dispatching himself.

John Kitzhaber’s fall seems to become more complete, and absolute, on a daily basis. Last week, new Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill abolishing Cover Oregon, officially marking the end of the image of Oregon as the national model in health care reform, with a governor ranked the second-most influential figure in the country on the issue. Earlier this month, Michael Jordan, Kitzhaber’s choice as the state’s first chief operating officer, resigned suddenly with no explanation.

The evidences of Kitzhaber’s presence are vanishing like the snowpack.

Downfalls from Richard Nixon to Bob Packwood to David Wu have been preceded by long stretches of angry demands by other political figures for the leader’s departure. The battles produced countercharges that that the entire scandal was politically driven, an effort to cause a change that couldn’t be achieved in an election. By the time the leader actually gave up, he seemed the last one to conclude he had to go.

The Kitzhaber story looked entirely different. Up until almost the last day, other Oregon political leaders appeared painfully reluctant to get out front in seeking the fall of Kitzhaber, who after three decades at the top of state politics seemed less an incumbent than a monument. In a controversy that extended for months, the other figures on Oregon’s political heights voiced their decision that the governor should go just barely before he voiced his own.

The process could never be called a partisan power grab. Republicans, uncomfortable with Kate Brown or just about any other Democrat, were dubious about calls for Kitzhaber’s leaving right up until the end. “He was really the only one, in my opinion, who could decide when it was time that he could not fulfill his constitutional duties,” House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, told reporters the afternoon of the resignation. “There’s a process in Oregon. Even the governor gets that process.” Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said he would “grieve” for the outcome, and expressed unhappiness about the new governor.

For the fall of Caesar, the attitudes of opposition senators were much more explicit.

Even at the finish, Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, said he’d hoped the process could have continued legally, but “tragically, it seemed like Gov. Kitzhaber seems to have been almost his own worst enemy in this regard, and just kept compounding his own problems on a daily basis.”

The knives into John Kitzhaber kept appearing not in the hands of his foes, but in his own revelations, and actions that repeatedly became public through press and federal investigations. Cut by cut, the word spilled out about overlaps between public and private operations, about Kitzhaber seemingly oblivious to obvious problems with nobody around to caution him as he got deeper, about tax issues that translated his problems from bad judgment to something potentially far more serious.

His troubles deepened, from October to February, while Oregon’s other politicians – except for his opponent in his re-election campaign – had relatively little to say. Even without rising political pressure, even with the rest of the state’s leadership seemingly hoping everything would go away, the revelations by themselves had a knifelike lethalness.

A part of this is that now, unlike 44 B.C. or even 1974, nothing ever goes away. Computer communications, endlessly echoing through cyberspace, turn misdeeds into permanently sharpened blades, each revelation slicing up Kitzhaber’s chances of survival regardless of the attitudes of other politicians.

Et tu, email.

This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/15/15.