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California and the West

Oregon Governor Blazing New Trail

Politics: Former emergency room physician John Kitzhaber has dispensed with poll-taking in favor of a management style based on tough-minded pragmatism.

July 05, 1998|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OCEANSIDE, Ore. — This past spring, outside this tiny, beautiful and storm-battered town, a row of upscale townhouses perched on a cliff above the Pacific began moving toward the shore. Under pressure from repeated heavy winter storms, the land beneath the houses was coming apart.

One might predict what would come next: Alarmed residents hire engineers and devise schemes to reinforce the cliff and save their homes. News crews arrive. Federal grants follow. Neighbors, maybe the whole town, pitch in. Maybe it works, maybe not; the constant is, you try.

Except in Oregon. Local officials here determined that state law prohibited anyone from doing anything to shore up the bluff. It would simply push the problem down the shore to someone else, they said.

The homeowners, who included retired U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, appealed to Gov. John Kitzhaber. In a meeting at times as stormy as the weather that provoked it, they pleaded for intervention.

It would have been the easy thing to do: Governor seeking reelection rides to the rescue, makes friends, gets votes.

Kitzhaber said no.

He said his heart went out to the homeowners, but the broader public interest would be harmed by helping them. He was sorry, he said, but he had to draw lines somewhere. He drew one right there in the sand. All they could do was watch and hope their homes didn't slide into the sea.

It is the sort of stern bedside manner Oregonians have become accustomed to from Kitzhaber, a 51-year-old former emergency room physician. In an era when many politicians have grown so cautious they seem unable to sneeze without taking a poll on the popularity of head colds, Kitzhaber listens mainly to his own counsel. He takes strong positions on contentious issues and sticks to them.

It is an approach to governing that is gaining attention around the nation not just for its novelty, but for its political success. Anybody with enough fortitude, foolhardiness or arrogance can draw lines in the sand. Leadership consists in large part in getting other people to believe you drew them in the right place.

As more and more power devolves from Washington to the states, Kitzhaber--a Democrat who is seeking reelection--is emerging as a model of a modern, pragmatic governor.

An environmentalist by instinct, he nevertheless was repeatedly reelected to the state Legislature from a conservative, timber-dependent district. A physician by training, he nevertheless devised the nation's first successful form of health-care rationing and sold it to a skeptical public. He has a politician's ambition, but as one rival noted, "gives the distinct impression that he could walk away at any time and be perfectly happy."

That leaves Republican opponents exasperated. They complain that Kitzhaber is a typical, tax-loving liberal who has frustrated popular desires by vetoing a record number of bills in the last two sessions of the Oregon Legislature.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Sizemore said Kitzhaber is "popular with voters only as long as they don't know what he stands for."

The governor is bemused by achieving what he calls "a reverse Clinton: People trust me and they like me, even though sometimes they just don't like what I'm doing. . . . I have this theory that there's a huge latitude for disagreement as long as you are upfront about it."

This approach will be tested mightily as he wades into the state's long-running battle between environmentalists and timber and agriculture interests, a struggle Kitzhaber says threatens to contaminate areas of policy debate as far afield as school finance and transportation.

He says he is prepared to spend all of his accumulated political capital, if need be, to implement his Oregon Salmon Plan.

The plan calls for rebuilding--largely through volunteer efforts--threatened salmon habitat throughout the state. Not coincidentally, it is also supposed to keep the federal government from listing salmon runs as endangered and from dictating ways to save them.

Kitzhaber partially succeeded in this last winter, when the Environmental Protection Agency accepted his plan for most of the streams that run from Oregon's Coast Range into the Pacific Ocean. But a federal court questioned this decision and the EPA has listed as endangered salmon runs on the Columbia and Willamette rivers, which run smack through the state's most densely populated region.

"The Endangered Species Act is coming to downtown Portland," Kitzhaber said. This will "require that hundreds of thousands of people are going to have to change." Not little teeny steps, either, he said, but big, tectonic shifts, "a fundamental change in ethic."

Rather than engage in another court fight over the Endangered Species Act, or scapegoat the federal government, Kitzhaber is pushing for a broad, citizen-based effort to meet the EPA rules. In a larger sense, he is attacking not just the problem of preserving fish populations, but the great divide in Oregon between urban and rural.

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