The biggest guessing game in Oregon politics right now isn't about when Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden are finally going to get gay-married. Or whether David Wu is really a lizard-man from Andromeda. It's about whether K-Man-by consensus one of Oregon's most puzzling chief execs ever-will try for a second term.
Rumors of imminent short-timer-hood are legion. Even the Nose, whose Salem connections don't go much further than a couple of pawnbrokers, has heard the rumblings.
Sure, in public, Kulongoski's staff is telling anyone who will listen that their man is on course for '06. But some doubt it. For one thing, in private those same staffers are expressing anxiety about Kulongoski's future-and wondering if they should update their CVs.
The rumors about the governor's ambivalence toward another round are fueled by his self-imposed isolation. This guy is less visible-other than at soldiers' funerals-than Waldo. He rarely visits legislators or invites them to his office. State Sen. Kurt Schrader, co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee and the Senate's budget expert, told a WW reporter last month that Kulongoski had never been in his office, nor had he invited Schrader to the governor's office. "I find it a little bit odd," says Schrader, who recalls that guv John Kitzhaber had him over seven or eight times.
Some Salem tea-leaf readers detect detachment in the fact that the guv's wife has been known to pull out her knitting at important public events. Others note that Kulongoski enjoys about as much pull at the Legislature as the raw-food movement has at El Gaucho. For instance, his too-little-too-late effort to weigh in on education funding was pronounced DOA last week. On every major issue facing this state, the governor has been a bit player at best and AWOL at worst.
Even so, Ted is a likable fella. With Oregon's economy grinding back into gear, he would be a slight favorite to win if he does run. So possible gubernatorial hopefuls have to consider two wildly divergent scenarios: one with a well-funded, smiley incumbent, and one without.
Some hope Kulongoski stays in. Ron Saxton, the moderate Republican lawyer and former Portland School Board member, believes his chances are much better if he has Teddy K. to kick around. Ditto for Vicki Walker, the muckraking Democratic senator from Eugene. She so dislikes the governor that she'll have to reshape the whole strategy of her all-but-declared run if he drops out. As for the only Democrat who's officially running, ex-Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, Kulongoski's exit would deflate his microscopic rebel campaign.
Meanwhile, happy right-wing warrior Kevin Mannix has to be pulling for Kulongoski to discover a deep spiritual calling to the mountains of Nepal-or wherever. If the moderate Democrat is out, conservatives will open the cash spigot for Mannix, the 2002 Republican nominee and outgoing head of the state Republican Party. The Kulon-mystery also inspires some tentative anglings on the parts of state Sen. Betsy Johnson and congressman Peter DeFazio, both Democrats who won't take on Kulongoski, but might jump in if he bails.
Any way you slice it, the Nose figures we could hardly do worse. With the Mariners in last place, the Beavers mediocre, the Timbers falling apart and the Tour de France in France, the jockeying around our hermetically sealed governor might be the only contest worth watching for a while.