A governor (or president, or other elected executive) who comes in by way of election can readily either embrace or dismiss the immediate past, depending on circumstances. A newcomer to the post who gets there not by voter approval but by succession – properly, legally and according to process as it may be – has a more subtle task. Some parts of that voter-approved past have to be acknowledged and portions should be stuck with. Other parts, bearing in mind the circumstances leading to the transition, need to be jettisoned.
Taking over as governor of Oregon last week from the scandal-plagued John Kitzhaber, new governor Kate Brown appeared to recognize that dual reality. Her sensitivity to it should be no surprise, given her nearly quarter-century of immersion in Oregon politics. But it’s a fair case study of how to thread the needle.
The ethical cloud of the old administration had to be acknowledged and responded to, and she did. The phrasing may have been a little awkward, but in her inaugural speech she pledged not to do what her predecessor did, and spoke strongly about the need to improve public transparency and ethics law – and somewhat sternly said that the legislature should not think about leaving town until those things ere done.
On the other hand, there was Kitzhaber policy, which was not part of the reason for the resignation. There, she has so far stuck generally to Kitzhaber’s path, maybe most clearly by continuing his moratorium on executions in the state. But she drew a distinction there, a fork in the road: She would allow no more executions until the state had undertaken a full and strong discussion of what to do about the death penalty. That last was a move Kitzhaber had briefly referenced but never pushed, and she gave some hint (albeit not much more than that) that her moratorium was conditional on a good faith effort to seriously grapple with the subject.
Moving ahead in a similar direction, with occasional forks in the road that provide distinction, may be a useful route for the new administration.