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Kitzhaber/McCall: Running parallels


Tom McCall

In our nation’s history, just one president, Grover Cleveland, got elected to the job in two separate runs, with someone else (Benjamin Harrison) serving in between. It’s an uncommon thing for governors, too, a point somewhat relevant now since a former Oregon governor, Democrat John Kitzhaber, is running in next year’s elections for the office he left about seven years ago, after serving two terms.

Oregon has never had such a case. Washington has elected the same person as governor in two separate runs just once: Arthur Langlie (also, oddly, the only mayor of Seattle to go on to be governor). Langlie, a Republican, was first elected governor in 1940 in a close and hotly-disputed election (in that year, it was Democratic legislative leaders who threatened not to allow the new Republican governor to be seated). He lost his run for re-election in 1944 (running hard against the Roosevelt Administration in wartime). But the Democrat who beat him, Mon Wallgren, turned out not to be much of an administrator, and Langlie went on to win in more favorable political climates in 1948 and 1952, becoming Washington’s first three-term governor.

In Idaho, Cecil Andrus was elected governor in 1970 and 1974, resigned mid-term to become secretary of the Interior, then ran again and won the governorship in 1986 and 1990. Idahoans probably most clearly remember Andrus’ 1974 and 1990 wins, which were landslides; but his 1970 and 1986 victories were narrow, and not until late election night in 1986 was it clear Andrus had actually won. A campaigning natural who had swept to re-election the last time on the ballot and was widely expected to win easily in 1986, Andrus almost didn’t.

Oregon never has had a three-term governor, nor a governor elected to two non-consecutive terms. It does have one historical case worth examining in the Kitzhaber context, though: That one of one of the state’s best-known and even legendary governors, Tom McCall. Kitzhaber and McCall have this in common: Both were elected governor in strong wins to two consecutive terms, and then later – four years later in McCall’s case, eight in Kitzhaber’s – sought to regain the job.

McCall, legendary (even then) and popular as he was, and despite initial expectations that he would succeed easily, failed – failed in fact to win his own party’s primary election. (There’s been some speculation that if he’d managed that, he might still have won the general.)

What lessons might be drawn from McCall’s 1978 campaign? Might any of them apply to Kitzhaber?

The short answer seems to be: Significant differences, and some possible similarities that might or might not emerge as the campaign progresses.

McCall was a larger than life figure – the subject of strong impressions, not all positive. He may be best known now as the key instigator of much of the state’s strong land use and environmental planning, and that was an important part of his story then too, but the whole picture was more complex. He gets described now as a “liberal Republican,” but that over-simplifies: He was more business-oriented than many people remember, and it doesn’t square easily with his support of the conflict in Vietnam.

A fine detailed biography of McCall, Fire at Eden’s Gate (by Brent Walth, now at the Oregonian), puts these uneasy pieces into focus. And it includes a solid description of why McCall, so popular in the 1966 and 1970 races for governor, lost the nomination in 1978. (Not all but much of what follows comes from Walth’s report.) If you’re thinking: The party was moving to the right, you’re mostly wrong – that shift in general was yet to come.

The governor then was Democrat Bob Straub (who McCall had earlier defeated for the job), and he had the misfortune of presiding during an economic downtown; Oregon’s economy had done better during McCall’s years as governor. Two Republicans got into the race early, state Senator Vic Atiyeh and state Representative Roger Martin, both caucus leaders and both to McCall’s philosophical right. When McCall announced in February, just three months remained to the primary, and both polls and “conventional wisdom had McCall as the winner . . .”

But even before he announced, some of his old top aides saw problems, advised him not to run again, and declined to campaign with him. McCall was well-known, and may have thought his history would deliver the organization and money he needed. Instead, declining until it was too late to work hard on either, he was outgunned in both areas by his opposition. A thin air of entitlement also began to waft over the proceedings; some people may have been turned off. He was never able, either, to very clearly describe why he wanted his third term – or rather, why the voters should give it to him. (Evidently, he just really loved doing the job; but by itself that’s not an adequate hiring rationale.)

Walth also notes, “What McCall also lacked – and what he had always needed – was someone to impose discipline . . . As a result, as McCall campaigned, his message veered erratically, and he acted at times as if he were trying to ruin his own chances.”

McCall was by profession a journalist, and he loved to talk and often was candid to a fault, but he did have some secrets. In March, in an interview, McCall unleashed a batch of them, about money and about lobbying deals, that he’d been carrying around for a while. None of them were horrible, but they shadowed what had been a very clean reputation. He was also taken down a bit by participating in debates with his opponents, putting them visibly on the salem level.

As governor, McCall had managed the trick of being pro-business and an environmental leader; he saw the two as in harmony. Now, in this season of economic trouble, both sides were used against him. The other Republicans (chiefly Martin) accused McCall of being anti-business through his planning efforts. Meanwhile, an environmental community which now took general planning for granted and had more ambitious goals thought of McCall as yesterday’s news, no longer willing to lead the charge where they wanted to go. He wound up losing support in both directions.

And there was another factor, one McCall alluded to at his announcement: “The legend always grows bigger than the guy ever was.” In person, now, years later, McCall seemed older, more tired, crankier.

Atiyeh, who would go on to two terms as governor, got 46% of the primary vote to McCall’s 33%.

How does any of this relate to Kitzhaber?

In a number of ways, Kitzhaber has been bypassing McCall’s problems. Rather than enter the race late, he entered relatively early – even now, he has been campaigning, fundraising and organizing for months. He cannot be accused of taking re-election for granted. He also seems to be a much more disciplined candidate than McCall was; messaging from the Kitzhaber campaign so far has an air of precision.

He has been widely viewed as the front runner, but since his announcement the in-party challenges have in some ways picked up rather than diminished. (Former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury has been running a highly active and even aggressive campaign.) That could cut either way.

Kitzhaber, strong campaigner though he is, is not quite the legendary-level figure that McCall was. That might be an advantage. Memories of Kitzhaber’s two terms are not quite so brightly-colored as were those of McCall’s, and some fresh definition may still be possible. Kitzhaber started this new race as popular, and there is this similarity in dynamic: He can win next year if his numbers don’t drop. Whether they will is harder to foretell.

Kitzhaber hasn’t yet made clear (there have only been some inexact stabs at) his rationale for a third term, what he would do it with it that he didn’t do with his first two. This was a logical point of attack for McCall’s opposition, and it will be for Kitzhaber’s too, unless he comes up with a way to more solidly address it.

In all, Kitzhaber doesn’t seem to be treading the same road McCall did. But the comparisons will be worth keeping in mind as this thing unfolds.

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