Will he or won't he?
Nobody seemed to know Thursday afternoon whether Gov. John Kitzhaber was planning to serve out his historic fourth term at Oregon's helm or resign in ignominy, under the cloud of at least two investigations for ethical breaches, a request by top legislative leaders that he step down, and a recall effort.
The normally quiet state capital was churning with speculation as the drama of Kitzhaber's future in office changed from hour to hour.
The president of the Oregon Senate and the speaker of the state House of Representatives called on the governor to resign during a morning meeting in Kitzhaber's private office — a 10-minute session that ended with the embattled Democrat's next step still unclear.
“He was upset. He was defiant. He was struggling,” Peter Courtney, president of the Oregon Senate, said of Kitzhaber's response during the meeting.
Then, as Courtney was on the Senate floor conducting legislative business an hour later, his chief of staff delivered a message from the governor that included something about “a transition.” By the time Courtney called a news conference after lunch, the state senator still didn't know what might happen.
“The note said he was initiating a process to start a transition with the secretary of state,” Courtney said, referring to the official who would replace Kitzhaber if he stepped down. “That was the note — ‘Thank you for your honesty or your candor or your straightforwardness.’”
But the week’s events have shown that Kitzhaber’s future moves are anything but predictable.
Courtney said that he had met with Kitzhaber on Tuesday morning, and the governor told him then that he was going to resign. That's the same day that the governor called Secretary of State Kate Brown, who was in Washington, D.C., at a conference, and told her to cut her trip short, hop on a plane and return to Oregon on Wednesday for a private, emergency meeting.
Brown, who succeeds Kitzhaber if he leaves office, did just that. She detailed what happened next in a written statement that dropped like a bombshell Thursday morning.
“I was escorted directly into a meeting with the governor,” Brown said. “He asked me why I came back early from Washington, D.C., which I found strange. I asked him what he wanted to talk about. The governor told me he was not resigning, after which, he began a discussion about transition.
“This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation,” Brown continued. “I informed the governor that I am ready, and my staff will be ready, should he resign. Right now I am focused on doing my job for the people of Oregon.”
Brown's early return from a meeting of the National Assn. of Secretaries of State — of which she is president — started a raft of speculation about Kitzhaber's next move. It also prompted Kitzhaber to send out an official statement Wednesday afternoon that he was staying in office for the long haul.
It was his third such public declaration in less than two weeks, and it was insistent: “Let me be as clear as I was last week, that I have no intention of resigning as governor of the state of Oregon,” he said. “I was elected to do a job for the people of this great state and I intend to continue to do so.”
On Thursday, his office did not return calls for comment. But the fusillade against him continued, with state Treasurer Ted Wheeler adding his name to the list of those asking Kitzhaber to resign.
The state Ethics Commission and the Oregon attorney general are investigating whether Kitzhaber's fiancee, environmental consultant Cylvia Hayes, had falsified tax forms and been paid consulting fees to influence her future husband, among other allegations, and whether Kitzhaber was guilty of any wrongdoing.
Kitzhaber, who has been in public service for 36 years, has come under fire for his handling of the intersection of their private and public lives.
In a tense news conference on Jan. 30, Kitzhaber acknowledged “the legitimacy of some of these questions” while maintaining that he and Hayes had done nothing illegal.
“We knew there was a gray area, and we took intentional steps to try to clearly separate her volunteer activities as first lady from her paid professional work,” Kitzhaber told reporters at the time.
“Questions concerning whether or not her activities and contracts or my activities as governor have violated Oregon's ethics laws are currently before the Ethics Commission and we are cooperating fully with the commission to allow them to arrive at a conclusion.”
The boggling mess left even friends of Kitzhaber bewildered.
“I don't know what to expect in view of my conversations with him,” an emotional Courtney said Thursday. “I don't know what's coming next.... Sometimes you just gotta say, ‘I don't know.’”