Former Gov. John Kitzhaber announced Sept. 2 that he would again seek the office he held from 1995 to 2003. On the same day, a SurveyUSA poll showed he was the overwhelming favorite to become Oregon's governor in 2010.
Although Kitzhaber leads other candidates, including former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, some basic questions remain:
Will anybody else jump into the Democratic primary? Although it appears unlikely U.S. Rep Peter DeFazio (D-Springfield) will enter the race, Clackamas County chairwoman Lynn Peterson is strongly considering a run.
Peterson is little known, even in the metro area. But the former transportation engineer possesses three qualities Kitzhaber lacks. At 40, she is a generation younger. She is a woman. And she is new. All of which has persuaded people such as Portland developer Mark Edlen, Metro Council President David Bragdon, State Rep. Brent Barton (D-Clackamas) and Oregon Iron Works Vice President Chandra Brown to join her exploratory committee. Political strategist Liz Kaufman has also agreed to help her. When Kitzhaber announced his candidacy, he claimed to be a reformer. But Democratic pollster Lisa Grove, who is advising Peterson, doubts the electorate will buy that coming from a man who held elected office from 1978 to 2003. "For Kitzhaber to suggest he's a change agent might be a stretch," Grove says. "He's trying to put on a sweater that's two sizes too big."
Finally, if Bradbury stays in the Democratic primary, as he has promised, he could shave off enough votes from Kitzhaber to increase Peterson's chances.
Who's paying for the race? A reluctant fundraiser, Kitzhaber also faces the ambivalence of some traditional Democratic funders. His failure to fundraise for ballot measures or Democratic candidates for the past decade will require explanation. Union endorsements—and the cash and organizational support that go with them—are increasingly the result of the democratic process and not simply bestowed upon front-runners. As examples, upstart U.S. Senate candidate Steve Novick won the Oregon Education Association endorsement in 2008 over the election's eventual winner, Sen. Jeff Merkley, and the Service Employees International Union endorsed former state treasurer Jim Hill, rather than incumbent Ted Kulongoski, in the 2006 governor's race.
Another key group, the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, has a rocky relationship with Kitzhaber, a former emergency-room physician, because doctors and lawyers disagree on malpractice litigation. The most intriguing speculation circulating in Salem last week, however, is that the Grand Ronde Tribe has earmarked $400,000 for the primary and another $400,000 for the general election, provided Kitzhaber continue his historical opposition to off-reservation gambling. Grand Ronde lobbyist Justin Martin says the tribal confederation met with Kitzhaber a couple of months ago and enjoys a "strong" relationship with him. Martin says, however, the Grand Ronde has made no financial commitment to Kitzhaber.
Who is running the show? Kitzhaber's announcement last week was puzzling. First, he told statewide elected officials on Monday that he would announce on Tuesday. Then, without explanation, he delayed his entrance into the race until Wednesday. His initial statement emphasized seemingly dated references to post-partisanship. "The greatest obstacles we face today are partisanship and stakeholder politics," he said.
But Democrats control both Legislative chambers and all statewide partisan offices. Kitzhaber's dismissive reference to "stakeholders" might also come off as a swipe at the groups whose support he will need. The mixed message may be a result of the variety of actors currently involved in his campaign.
Portland political strategist Mark Wiener played a role but so did Patricia McCaig, the chief of staff to former Gov. Barbara Roberts, the woman Kitzhaber unceremoniously pushed from office in 1995, as well as his former transition director Tom Imeson and chief of staff Steve Marks. Wiener says the announcement slipped because "there were a couple of elements John wanted to polish." As for the variety of influences, Wiener says that's by design. "He has been very focused on incorporating different voices," Wiener says. "This is going to be a real strength in his campaign."
In the 2006 gubernatorial election, the Grand Ronde tribe spent $800,000 supporting candidates Ron Saxton and Jim Hill, who opposed the Warm Springs casino proposed for Cascade Locks.