A Devil on Each Shoulder: Oregon’s Race for Governor
In a little less than a month, Oregon will vote to either keep or replace incumbent governor John Kitzhaber. It is highly unlikely that he will lose, and so any thoughts as to which candidate might best sit in the Governor’s Mansion are almost entirely academic. Still, I find myself having this very academic conversation inside my own head on a daily basis these days. Because the Beaver State’s executive race puts in unusually stark focus the following question for voters:
Which kind of leader is the lesser of two evils — the very corrupt, or the very incompetent?
First, some quick background: Oregon is a safely Blue state, and as such there has been little drama thus far in the governor’s election race. The last time Oregonians elected a Republican to a statewide office was 2002, and the last time it elected one as its chief executive was 1982. And while the Oregon GOP has its share of far-right, liberals-are-the-real-terrorists voices, overall it’s far more moderate than its national brethren. GOP Senate candidate Monica Wehby, for example, supports same sex marriage, appears to be personally pro-choice, and seems to largely support the Affordable Care Act. But even when they are moderate, sharp and even downright beloved, our Elephantine candidates always come up short. One of the disadvantages to this setup is that often times the Republican Party does a half-ass job nominating people to state-wide positions. Our last two gubernatorial candidates were, I thought, very strong — in fact, I voted for each. Many of the ones prior, however, were jokes.
The only reason this year’s race is getting any press at all at this point is that Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and his live-in girlfriend Cylvia Hayes appear to be pretty damn corrupt.
Recently, Portland’s alternative newspaper Willamette Week reported that Hayes — who despite a lack of nuptials is still identified by the State as the official First Lady, and who is also a paid advisor to the governor — has been using state funds and staff for her private consulting business. There is also very strong evidence that suggests that since she took the position as paid advisor, Hayes (and presumably, Kitzhaber as well) has been providing access to lobbyists, corporations and contracting firms in exchange for large fees. (How large? Even though her consulting gig has gone to from full-time to part-time since becoming a quasi-state employee, her revenues have increased 300%.) Immediately following that scandal was this one: Hayes confirmed recent reports that in 1997 she agreed to help an eighteen-year old Ethiopian she had never met bypass immigration laws by agreeing to marry him in exchange for $5,000.
None of this comes as a huge surprise to news-reading Oregonians. Hayes has frequently been caught with her hand in all kinds of unethical cookie jars since Kitzhaber ran four years ago. And for his own part, despite the lack of an Absolute Smoking Gun, it’s hard to think that Kitzhaber hasn’t been just as bad on his own. His legally required public disclosures appear to have been purposefully and dishonestly whitewashed to hide money streams. There are strong whisperings here that the quarter-of-a-billion dollar debacle that was Cover Oregon was not a surprise so much as a way to award enormous contracts in exchange for who knows what. His office continued to pay hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for a cross-Columbia River bridge that was never approved by the legislature. He publically denied this fact, even though public records showed that even as his office was issuing denials it was arguing to federal judges that the governor did not need legislative approval to make the payouts.
And all of this, by the way, comes on the heels of indications that our previous governor and other state Democratic party leaders covered for a party leader’s predatory child abuse and sexual assault, on that basis that said party leader was popular, charismatic, and aces at making it rain.
So as you might imagine, it’s hard for me not to look across the aisle and see what daily special the GOP might be serving up this term. Unfortunately, what’s being served ain’t so pretty either.
Dennis Richardson is a conservative Republican who seems to be running on a platform of him thinking jobs good-Common Core bad, and… well, that’s about it.
I listened to a live debate between Kitzhaber and Richardson last week, and what stood out was how little Richardson seemed to know about anything he was discussing when it came to his own positions. Would he support this bill or that bill, was he in favor of X or against it? Who knows, seemed to be the answer he gave over and over. That was a very hard issue, and he’d need to have people look over all of the fine print and report back to him before he could really say for sure. The only thing he seemed to be able to say with any thing approaching conviction was that less unemployment would be nice, and that we as a state could do better than Common Core. (Though respectively how and with what we might proceed in a Richardson administration was not so clear.)
At first I wondered why he was ducking the questions. But as the debate wore on, the feeling began to sink in that he wasn’t really ducking. I began to think, “Holy crap, he simply doesn’t know yet.” He seems to have gotten the party nod over an embarrassingly weak field by just saying he was pro-jobs and anti-Common Core over and over again. Which is more than a little unsettling, when you think about it. Who elects someone to the state governor’s office in the hopes that after that pesky, time-consuming campaign finally comes to an end, he might sit down and figure out what his positions are?
And that (from my perspective at least) is the choice I’m left with this November for my states top executive.
Do I vote for a man who will very competently use his power to fund useless projects that line his own pockets, or a man who will incompetently attempt to do who knows what?
I think that this November might end up being the first time I’ll vote for a third-party candidate for a major office.
For those that don’t want to simply duck the question in the threads the way I will most likely do on my ballot, I’m interested in hearing how others approach these kinds of electoral Kobayashi Maru scenarios.
 Though to be honest, it’s hard to tell. Wehby has proven to be a terrible and unprepared candidate, and her positions on any given issue are convoluted, obscure, and vague, and she can change from one position to another not only daily, but sometimes in the same interview.
 In 1998 they nominated a radio talk-show host and ballot-initiative consultant who ran on his experience as a business owner, despite the fact that all of the businesses he’d owned had quickly fallen into bankruptcy. Not long after losing the election, he would be found guilty of racketeering charges. Later still, he would be convicted of tax evasion.
He still runs for office.
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