Two-time former Gov. John Kitzhaber pulled out a squeaker last week, defeating Republican newcomer Chris Dudley by fewer than 20,000 votes on the strength of 70 percent support in Multnomah County.
Kitzhaber will begin his third term with the knowledge that he was swept into office on a great wave of ambivalence. That's not what we'd call a strong mandate.
Further complicating Kitzhaber's task, at least in the short run, will be a split Legislature. The House will be divvied up equally between Democrats and Republicans, and the Senate is likely to see the slimmest of Democratic majorities.
The man who once called Oregon ungovernable faces a daunting governing challenge. But great challenges create great opportunities.
At the heart of Kitzhaber's campaign was the claim that circumstances demand experience, which he has in abundance. So often in the past, however, Kitzhaber failed to work constructively with difficult Legislatures. This isn't all his fault, to be sure, but some if it certainly is. Working with next year's split Legislature will give Kitzhaber an opportunity to demonstrate that he's learned from his own mistakes.
Kitzhaber will succeed only if he recognizes his mandate, such as it is: Seek the political center. Though Kitzhaber prevailed this week, many Oregonians were impressed by his opponent's commitment to strengthen the private sector, just as many were fed up with legislators who've catered to public employee unions even as they've raised taxes on businesses. Oregonians know perfectly well that creating private-sector jobs and boosting wages are necessary to generate the money that fuels the state's public sector. And to this end, Oregonians also know that tax and regulatory policies can help - or hurt. That, in part, is why the Legislature will look very different in 2011 than it did in 2009.
Meanwhile, members of both major parties agree that the cost of government is rising at an unsustainable rate, and that public employee benefits are a contributing factor. These costs must be controlled, as Kitzhaber himself acknowledges, and accomplishing that would be difficult no matter who had won Tuesday's legislative and gubernatorial races.
Will he be willing to seek necessary concessions from the very people who've just paid for his third term in the state's highest office?
If Kitzhaber wants to correct Oregon's course, he'll have no choice. He'll have to control government costs in ways that might anger his allies. To improve the state's business climate, meanwhile, he'll have to consider some changes that might anger fellow Democrats. Cutting capital gains taxes and reconsidering the more damaging aspects of Measures 66 and 67 would be a start. The Legislature, given its composition, might even ask him to do just that.
We wish him luck and urge him to seize the opportunity to govern from the center. If he does, his next election probably won't be so close.
- Wescom News Service (Bend Bulletin)