Ending months of speculation, former Gov. John Kitzhaber today entered the 2010 governor's race. In an interview around 10 am this morning, Kitzhaber told WW
that contrary to speculation, he's not forming an exploratory committee or taking any other preliminary steps.
"I'm fully in the race," Kitzhaber says.
Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, entered the Legislature from Roseburg in 1978, served as Senate president from 1985 to 1993 and governor from 1995 to 2003 (The Oregon Constitution prohibits governors from serving more than eight years in any 12 period but does not limit the total number of years or terms a governor may serve).
After leaving the governor's mansion, Kitzhaber entertained opportunity to run for U.S. Senate, took a "cursory" look at running for governor in 2006 and more recently, says he talked the Obama administration about a Department of Health and Human Services job but has never wanted to leave Oregon. "My family and my heart are here," he says.
In his second gubernatorial term, Kitzhaber found himself deeply at odds with a Republican-dominated Legislature. He says that one of his aims as a candidate is to ask Oregonians to move beyond partisan differences to tackle common challenges such as rising health care and energy costs.
"We are going to have to change the way we approach these problems," he says. "I want to have a pointed conversation about the choices we're going to have make."
Kitzhaber says he's spent a lot of time in the past eight years thinking about how he might be a better governor. If elected next year, he says, he plans to spent far less time inside the Capitol and much more time around the state meeting with citizens and interest groups.
"When I was elected before, I had served 15 years in the Legislature and approached the [governor's] job as a super-legislator," he says. "As governor, you have to engage Oregonians and I don't think I did that very well."
He also says he's come to better understand the relationship between economic development and government services, including education.
Kitzhaber says his campaign, which starts today, will focus on getting Oregonians to help him tackle tough issues in a bi-partisan way.
"You'll see that we are not afraid to talk about issues that are not politically popular," he says. "We'll talk about the tax structure and some of our more cherished institutions—such as our higher education system—that were created in a different era under different circumstances. I can't imagine that having those conversations will endear me to some constituencies."
Kitzhaber says he's returning in part because he believes Oregon still has the capacity to thrive, even in times of diminished budgets and economic blight. "What we've been doing doesn't work any more but I'm entering this race with a sense of real optimism."
The last Oregon governor who tried to return to office, Tom McCall, lost in the Republican primary in 1978. Kitzhaber says he's studied McCall's career.
One of the benefits of having already served, he says, is that he feels he has both the experience of having been in office and less caution than a first-time candidate.
"I'm not afraid to lose," Kitzhaber says.