During his first stint as governor, from 1995 to 2003, Kitzhaber barely got his hands dirty in helping elect Democrats to the Legislature.
His aloof stance toward aiding his own party was one reason he got stuck with Republicans controlling the House or Senate—or both—during his first two terms. He spent years watching his agenda wither while vetoing so many GOP bills he earned the nickname “Dr. No.”
With little fanfare, Kitzhaber raised $227,000 this year to help Democratic candidates, an unprecedented level of support from him. And it helped swing the House to the Democrats and keep the Senate out of Republican hands.
He gave heavily in two key Senate races: $25,000 to re-elect Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson (D-Gresham), and $20,000 to elect Rep. Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) in Senate District 5.
Kitzhaber also invested heavily in House races that propelled Democrats to a 34-26 majority in 2013. In Washington County, he gave Ben Unger $15,000 and Joe Gallegos $12,000. And in the Democrats’ narrowest victory, House District 40 in Clackamas County, he gave Brent Barton $12,500.
“Kitzhaber’s much more politically engaged now,” says former state Sen. Rick Metsger (D-Welches). “This probably goes back to his learning experience of how to be more effective with his political agenda.”
His agenda was ambitious in 2011, as Kitzhaber pushed through education and health-care reforms. For 2013, he’s got an even tougher goal: cutting public-employee pension costs.
“No amount of revenue will be adequate to meet our education goals unless we get a handle on major cost drivers that divert resources from the classroom,” Kitzhaber told the Oregon School Boards Association on Nov. 10.
Kitzhaber’s approach puts him in conflict with the Oregon Education Association, the 47,000-member teachers’ union.
He passed his 2011 education package over OEA’s objections, in part by winning GOP support in exchange for concessions on charter schools. OEA then lambasted Democrats for helping Kitzhaber—withholding campaign contributions to some—and created an opportunity for the governor to be especially useful during the 2012 campaign.
The governor says he can save $575 million in pension costs during 2013-15 by cutting retirees’ cost-of-living increases. He also wants to reduce or end the practice of the state picking up employees’ 6 percent pension contribution. That could save another $700 million. Oregon Health & Science University convinced workers to pay their contribution—but OHSU then forked over pay increases that offset much of the savings.
“The governor wants to go from a cost-plus budget to a kids-first budget,” says Kitzhaber spokesman Tim Raphael. “I don’t think we’re looking at this as big potential battle. There’s a shared interest in putting more resources in classrooms, and there are opportunities to look at reducing the cost of the retirement system without a dramatic overhaul. We haven’t gone to DEFCON 5 here.”
OEA spokeswoman Becca Uherbelau says the union believes Oregonians are more concerned about school-funding cuts and soaring class sizes. “What we are hearing from people is that there’s little to no mention of PERS,” Uherbelau says. “We hear them talking about funding now and restoring programs.”
While OEA publicly bashed Democratic lawmakers in 2011—giving some failing grades on its legislative report card—the union is hard-pressed to side with Republicans. The union may have limited leverage, unless it can help mobilize a full-scale parent uprising over school funding to take on Kitzhaber’s agenda.
Based on Kitzhaber’s clout now, it would be risky to bet against him. Consider the fate of Measures 82 and 83, which would have established a private casino—measures voted down by better than 2-to-1.
In September, polling showed that voters were friendly to the idea of a casino. But in October, opponents aired an ad featuring Kitzhaber blasting the measures.
The casino’s polling numbers plummeted after that—and its backers quickly gave up.