Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, first lady leave lofty post and vision behind

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, first lady leave lofty post and vision behind
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and girlfriend Cylvia Hayes visiting China in 2011. (Andy Wong / Associated Press)

John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes had a plan.

Oregon's governor and first lady didn't just want to lift the poorest Oregonians into the middle class; they wanted to prevent poverty from happening in the first place, Hayes said. They didn't just want to rein in greenhouse gases; they wanted people to rethink the whole idea of growth and its impact on the planet.


They pushed for a new measure of the state's success using a yardstick called the Genuine Progress Indicator, which looks at environmental and social factors instead of just economic ones.

But the first couple's grand dreams came crashing down over allegations that Hayes used her position as the governor's life partner for personal gain. State and federal investigations have been launched. Kitzhaber's Democratic allies deserted him and called for his resignation.

On Wednesday at 10 a.m. the visionary politician — who tackled universal healthcare before Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama and was once encouraged to run for president — will leave office in disgrace, brought low by the woman who shared his passion for public policy and low carbon fuels.

"Many of these governors who are positioning themselves for national office have not tackled even one of the things that John did," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), pointing in particular to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. "John did it successfully and he did it at a cost for himself politically.... This isn't just our little Oregon tragedy."

In 36 years of public service, Kitzhaber has pushed for clean fuel standards to reduce greenhouse gases. He shepherded a plan to reforest streambeds and ensure water quality to protect salmon. In 1999, the Democrat captured headlines when he vetoed the state's human resource budget because conservative legislators had removed funding for abortion and doctor-assisted suicide.

The former emergency room doctor is perhaps best-known for the Oregon Health Plan, which he crafted as president of the Oregon Senate in the early 1990s.

The plan aimed to expand healthcare coverage to the poorest Oregonians while cutting costs by rationing. Although it was not without controversy and problems, it was hailed as a bold experiment and pushed Kitzhaber onto the national stage.

"He had a passion for and a vision about healthcare that was, I think, one of the most influential voices for healthcare reform," Blumenauer said. "John and the Oregon Health Plan broke significant ground, proved the principles worked. It was a success and it pointed the way forward and helped with some of the reform initiatives that continue to this day."

Kitzhaber was elected to his first term as governor in 1995 and served in the post for eight years. During that time, he surrounded himself with a tight group of advisors who called themselves "the Beltbuckle Gang" because of the casual Western wear they sported, said political consultant Jim Ross.

Kitzhaber and Hayes met when he was at the end of his second term and his second marriage, during Hayes' unsuccessful bid for the state House.

Founder of an environmental consulting firm, 3E Strategies, Hayes was a "very smart, very strong, very independent woman who worked on sustainability and clean energy for a whole big piece of her life," said Bill Bradbury, who got to know Hayes when he was secretary of state and chaired the Oregon Sustainability Board.

The governor and his future first lady began dating in 2003. This is how Hayes described it during a speech at the 2014 Global Presencing Forum at MIT, a year before their lives imploded:

"When John and I first started dating — sorry, darling, if you're watching — he was a burnt-out, worn-out, recovering politician. And never in a million years did I believe he would run for anything, let alone governor again. And I can tell you, I never would have aspired to this truly bizarre position as first lady."

But Hayes said they saw the Great Recession as an opportunity to help persuade people to "make profound changes" to "our economic systems."


Kitzhaber ran for a third term as governor in 2010 and won. Together, she said, they embarked on "this wild ride to basically conduct an experiment. And I think, so far, so good. Although I can tell you that at any given moment, we don't know if we're the ones in the lab coats or the white rats themselves."

Eight years as a civilian separated Kitzhaber's two stints in the governor's office. By the time he took the helm again, his Beltbuckle Gang had moved on and he was deeply involved with Hayes, whose professional life immediately came in conflict with her new role as first lady.

Ross said about Kitzhaber's new staff: "You look at them, and not many of them had been with him for a long time. No one there had built that relationship with him over the years and could say, 'No, you shouldn't do that.'"

"That" in particular being "the relationship the first lady had with state government," Ross said. "It was all very mishandled from the beginning."

One telling incident involved the ouster of Kitzhaber's communications director, Nkenge Harmon Johnson.

At a senior staff meeting last July, Harmon Johnson was worried about the role Hayes was playing in the state Capitol and openly criticized the first lady, who ran a clean-energy consulting firm while advising the governor on energy issues.

Three days later, Harmon Johnson was fired on Kitzhaber's orders. Her dismissal came via email from the governor's chief of staff, who blamed, among other things, her "comments about the first lady" at that meeting.

But Harmon Johnson had reason to worry. Not long after her dismissal, revelations about Hayes began to surface: a fraudulent green-card marriage, allegations of influence peddling, and questions about her tax statements.

"During my tenure, I was adamant that the governor's office and his closest advisors not blur the lines between state interest and other matters," Harmon Johnson wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Oregonian a week before the November election. "My concern was seen as disloyalty."

Hayes herself talked about the tension over her role during a speech at Portland State University last April, about how she felt "thwarted" by the constraints of being first lady and how Kitzhaber's senior staff had tried — and apparently failed — to rein her in.

During one particularly prickly meeting, she said, "one of the guys" on staff said, "You know, when you work for the governor ..."

"And I immediately jumped in and said, 'Well, I don't work for the governor. I work for the Earth,'" Hayes continued. "Their jaws just dropped. And I could just see them going, 'Hmmm, this is going to be a little different.' But we're getting it navigated. We're getting it worked out."

Today, the couple is under investigation over allegations that Hayes used their relationship to win contracts for her consulting business and failed to report income on her taxes. Questions loom about how much Kitzhaber knew, and when.

The governor has long been known as a "lone wolf" in cowboy boots, but as the scandal spiraled out of control, he became increasingly isolated.

"At the very end, he wasn't paying much attention to any advisors other than his lawyer and Cylvia," said Len Bergstein, a public affairs consultant and legislative lobbyist for former Oregon Gov. Robert W. Straub. "It became a close-knit, reinforcing bubble of advice and opinion."

Or as James Foster, professor of political science at Oregon State University-Cascades, put it, Kitzhaber and Hayes had become "a nation of two."


Twitter: @LagangaMaria