For most of his political career, John Kitzhaber was known as a loner, a cowboy-booted contradiction to the image of the chummy politician, someone who made the lone, don’t-look-back decisions of the emergency room doctor. After each legislative session, over three decades, Kitzhaber gave the impression of riding off into the sunset.
But he had never been as alone as he seemed Thursday afternoon, as his fellow state Democratic leaders, one by one, slipped away from his barricades, some with statements previously unimaginable in the genteel world of Oregon politics. By the end, it seemed the only one left by Kitzhaber’s side was the first lady – whom he had previously banished from any public role.
It was hard to imagine that it was only six weeks since Kitzhaber marched down the center aisle of the Oregon House of Representatives to his unprecedented fourth swearing-in as governor. At that point, he was unquestionably the center of the Oregon political universe, surrounded by the entire legislature and statewide officials, delivering what was considered one of his best speeches.
Now, not two weeks into the legislature with the widest Democratic majorities of his times as governor, it seems Kitzhaber’s last landmark event will be his disastrous press conference at the end of January, when he asked for questions and then couldn’t answer them.
In his first two terms, Kitzhaber’s loner persona served his purpose, as he stood against Republican legislatures and set Oregon records for gubernatorial vetoes. Even occasional outbursts of prickliness just seemed to confirm his Clint Eastwood, M.D. image. Kitzhaber’s popularity ran so strong that he publicly toyed with challenging his chosen successor, Ted Kulongoski, when Kulongoski sought re-election in 2006.
In his third term, Kitzhaber propelled health, education and PERS overhauls through the legislature. Facing re-election, he seemed so strong that only Rep. Dennis Richardson wanted to run against him – a situation helpful to Kitzhaber when the Cylvia Hayes issue erupted in October. Kitzhaber’s poll standings dropped, but he had a big enough lead to survive.
Entering his fourth term last month, Kitzhaber was marking three decades of Oregon Democratic leadership, since he became Senate president in 1985. He even seemed happier, after 10 years with Cylvia Hayes.
Which, of course, turned out to be the problem – especially since there seemed to be a steadily dwindling number of people in the governor’s office who could warn him things were getting out of hand.
And last week, the fall – and the sudden isolation – was thunderous, as each of Kitzhaber’s fellow state leaders peeled away.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum replied to Kitzhaber’s request to begin an investigation with a crisp note saying that she already had begun a criminal probe – and a wholly appropriate rejection of his request to meet with her privately on the investigation.
Tuesday, Kitzhaber told Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek that he proposed to resign – they didn’t try to talk him out of it – and called Secretary of State Kate Brown, next in line for his job, to come back early from a Washington, D.C., conference.
Then on Wednesday, he changed his mind, after consulting only with Hayes and his lawyer – demonstrating a Nixon’s final days level of isolation.
Thursday morning, Brown issued perhaps the most unimaginable statement in the history of Oregon politics. She related that in her meeting with Kitzhaber, after she had hurriedly flown back at his request, “He asked me why I came back early from Washington, DC, which I found strange.” Kitzhaber then told her he wasn’t resigning, but began to discuss transition.
In all, concluded Brown, “This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation.”
Now the state was faced with the idea of Kitzhaber not only having serious legal problems, but operating somewhere well off the coast of reality.
Thursday afternoon, state Treasurer Ted Wheeler called for Kitzhaber to resign, saying the situation was “untenable” and that the governor needed to “do the right thing for the citizens of the state.”
The same day, Courtney and Kotek again met the governor, and this time they were the ones saying that he had to go. Kitzhaber’s chief of staff and legislative liaison reportedly departed, possibly concluding there was no point being advisors to someone apparently isolated beyond advice.
In his resignation statement Friday, Kitzhaber took angry exception “on a very personal level” to the reality “that so many of my former allies in common cause have been willing to simply accept this judgment at its face value.”
The loner had finally become monumentally alone.
That keeps happening in politics:
Eventually, the image becomes reality.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 2/15/15.