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Kitzhaber, from inside the statehouse

jorgensen W. SCOTT

In the Capitol

The official resignation of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber is set to take place Wednesday morning. It comes after a series of events that have thus far completely overshadowed the 2015 legislative session.

All the signs were there before the session that the scandals involving the governor and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, were going to continue dominating the headlines statewide. A big hint that it was all about to come crashing down was when the Oregonian published an editorial calling for his resignation. This was the same paper that had endorsed him mere months prior.

Rep. Margaret Doherty (D-Tigard) had held a town hall meeting, at which she was asked about the governor. She replied that it was like waiting for the other shoe to drop, but with an octopus. That was a very fitting analogy for what was going on.

By the time the session started earlier this month, it seemed like at least six shoes had already dropped. But a couple of shoes were left to drop and it felt like it wasn’t going to take much longer.

Last week saw the controversy cast a cloud over virtually all the rest of the official legislative business taking place at the state capitol in Salem.

Rumors about Kitzhaber’s resignation flew through the halls and beyond literally the second that Secretary of State Kate Brown abruptly flew back from a national conference in Washington D.C. She will, of course, become governor once Kitzhaber’s resignation takes effect.

On February 12, two days before the state’s birthday, the wheels came off completely. And it all fell apart in real time.
By one o’clock that afternoon, Democratic leaders were publicly calling for Governor Kitzhaber to resign. Throughout the building, legislators and staffers were visibly ashen. The atmosphere quickly became surreal. Visitors to the capitol began the trend of taking pictures in front of Kitzhaber’s official portrait, located just outside of his ceremonial office.

The following morning—Friday the 13th—it was expected that his resignation was imminent.

By noon, press outlets from all over the state were swarming the governor’s office. Reporters conducted live broadcasts in front of a set of closed doors as the crowd gathered and grew.
It was almost anticlimactic in that room when Kitzhaber’s official resignation announcement was released. The assembled TV news crews packed up their cameras and relocated to Brown’s current office downstairs.

Despite Kitzhaber’s official resignation, this situation is nowhere near finished playing itself out, and it already has all the elements of a Greek tragedy.

Here was a powerful man who served two terms as governor after stints in the House and as President of the Oregon Senate. He left office famously declaring the state “ungovernable” after fighting with the Republicans who controlled the Legislature at the time. His habit of vetoing their bills had earned him the nickname “Dr. No.”

Ted Kulongoski took over as governor in 2003 and Kitzhaber became a private citizen.

He sat on the sidelines for eight years, many of them in the company of a new and much younger lover whose ambitions had fueled her own meteoric rise. Kulongoski served two terms, after which Kitzhaber had the opportunity to have a redemption of sorts.

The former governor was able to defeat political newcomer and retired Blazers basketball star Chris Dudley in November 2010 and made history in the process.

The 2011 session saw the Oregon House of Representatives in an extremely unique 30-30 split, requiring a co-governance model that was eventually heralded nationwide.

Kitzhaber’s first stint as governor was marred by long and treacherous special sessions. But not this time around. Multiple special sessions were held—one in late 2012 and the other around a year later. The 2013 special session produced what came to be known as the “Grand Bargain,” a series of bills produced through months of bipartisan negotiations with leaders from the House and Senate.

The first signs of trouble came not too long after that, when the failed launch of Cover Oregon made national news and produced jokes on late night television shows in which the hosts opined that residents of the state were living in a cartoon.

Kitzhaber weathered the storm, though, and the prospect of investigations by the Congressional General Accounting Office and the FBI about the failed exchange still weren’t enough to keep him from being re-elected.

By then, he had long since already proposed to Hayes.

The final weeks of the campaign were starting to see revelations in the press about her various business dealings. Media outlets began making records requests during the summer, which were never completed until after the election. But when those records eventually became available, the press got a more thorough portrait of what they had been looking for in the first place.

No matter what happens, nobody will ever be able to take away from John Kitzhaber the fact that he served in the Legislature for many years, or that he was governor not once, but twice. He will always go down in history as the state’s only three-term governor, which is not to mention his extremely brief fourth term.

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