23 Feb

A swearing-in that just wants to return to normal

SALEM – This time, no procession.

The installation of an Oregon governor is a ceremonial occasion, with the Senate formally welcomed to the House chamber and the state’s high-level judges, statewide elected officials, former governors and ultimately the incoming executive himself (or, sometimes, herself) escorted down the House aisle by a legislative honor guard. For the last inaugural – exactly, and unbelievably, just five weeks ago – John Kitzhaber’s ceremony had everything but apes and peacocks.

Wednesday, Kate Brown’s inauguration had none of that. What it had was a pervasive sense of relief, swirling around the Capitol like a sunrise.

Last month, Kitzhaber delivered a lengthy, eloquent inaugural address, deep with vision and policy objectives. Kate Brown offered a much briefer message, less about a distant horizon to be imagined, more about land mines to be avoided – many of them exploding over the past weeks, others going off that very morning.

“I pledge to you today that for as long as I am your governor, I will not seek or accept any outside compensation, from any source,” Brown declared, speaking to the circumstances that had just made her governor. “And I pledge further that while I am governor, the members of my household and the members of my staff will not seek or accept any outside compensation, from any source, for any work related to the business of the state of Oregon.”

Brown’s pledge was underlined by the appearance of Willamette Week story that morning, revealing emails from Kitzhaber showing him trying to limit an ethics investigation and from his companion Cylvia Hayes laying plans to maximize her public and private income from Kitzhaber’s fourth term.

“Oregon has been in the national news for all the wrong reasons,” said Brown in her brief remarks, and the press gallery was jammed in a way none of the more elaborate ceremonies were able to draw, jammed with high-tech cameras and out-of-state notebooks.

To the national media, the story was about a governor’s sudden collapse, or the first U.S. governor with a bisexual background – a point that House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, also made in her congratulatory statement. In Oregon, it was about what seemed a Capitol-wide effort to reclaim credibility for state government, including what may be the first governor’s inaugural address to stress a faster response to Freedom of Information requests.

“You heard her talk a lot about what I’ve been saying about transparency,” said Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, after the ceremony. Moreover, “She came to my district to talk about it, to a little coffee shop in West Linn. She didn’t have to do that.”

It was a moment when everyone was reaching for a bipartisan moment – after saying he would skip the ceremony, Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, agreed to attend, although he insisted he wasn’t endorsing anything Democratic. Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, recalled working with Brown to organize the 15-15 Senate in 2003, and expressed confidence in being able to work with Brown again.

The installation of the second woman governor of Oregon seemed to set off a bipartisan stir among legislative women. “Look at all the women in state leadership,” said Rep. Jennifer Wlliamson, D-Portland, a list that now includes the governor, the attorney general, the House speaker and the majority leaders of both houses. Nobody knows if this arrangement will produce any greater cooperation, but people were eager to look for some anywhere.

A range of crosscurrents cut through the Capitol Wednesday. Unlike the typical pattern, the new governor was arriving in the midst of a legislative session, with bills and the budget already advancing, and the new Gov. Brown trying to jump onto a streetcar already speeding along. The building had all the ingredients of a hyperpoliticized feel; Brown would have to file for election just one year and one month after taking office, and run again two years after that. With the next open governor’s election suddenly receding from 2018 to 2022, other hopefuls might run out of patience.

But the hope at the Capitol Wednesday was that Oregon politics could now somehow return to something that could qualify as ordinary, even if ordinary included Democrats and Republicans calling each other names and Democrats elbowing each other on the way to a primary. That included the hope that a governor who knows state government but has an ordinary domestic relationship, with someone completely unconnected with state government, might get us there.

At Wednesday’s installation, even the benediction was shorter.

And hopefully, not as badly needed.

NOTE: Thisa column appeared in the Sunday Ore4gonian, 2/22/15.

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