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Oregon Governor Blazing New Trail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This past spring, outside this tiny, beautiful and storm-battered town, a row of upscale townhouses perched on a cliff above the Pacific began moving toward the shore. Under pressure from repeated heavy winter storms, the land beneath the houses was coming apart.

One might predict what would come next: Alarmed residents hire engineers and devise schemes to reinforce the cliff and save their homes. News crews arrive. Federal grants follow. Neighbors, maybe the whole town, pitch in. Maybe it works, maybe not; the constant is, you try.

Except in Oregon. Local officials here determined that state law prohibited anyone from doing anything to shore up the bluff. It would simply push the problem down the shore to someone else, they said.

The homeowners, who included retired U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, appealed to Gov. John Kitzhaber. In a meeting at times as stormy as the weather that provoked it, they pleaded for intervention.

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It would have been the easy thing to do: Governor seeking reelection rides to the rescue, makes friends, gets votes.

Kitzhaber said no.

He said his heart went out to the homeowners, but the broader public interest would be harmed by helping them. He was sorry, he said, but he had to draw lines somewhere. He drew one right there in the sand. All they could do was watch and hope their homes didn’t slide into the sea.

It is the sort of stern bedside manner Oregonians have become accustomed to from Kitzhaber, a 51-year-old former emergency room physician. In an era when many politicians have grown so cautious they seem unable to sneeze without taking a poll on the popularity of head colds, Kitzhaber listens mainly to his own counsel. He takes strong positions on contentious issues and sticks to them.

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It is an approach to governing that is gaining attention around the nation not just for its novelty, but for its political success. Anybody with enough fortitude, foolhardiness or arrogance can draw lines in the sand. Leadership consists in large part in getting other people to believe you drew them in the right place.

As more and more power devolves from Washington to the states, Kitzhaber--a Democrat who is seeking reelection--is emerging as a model of a modern, pragmatic governor.

An environmentalist by instinct, he nevertheless was repeatedly reelected to the state Legislature from a conservative, timber-dependent district. A physician by training, he nevertheless devised the nation’s first successful form of health-care rationing and sold it to a skeptical public. He has a politician’s ambition, but as one rival noted, “gives the distinct impression that he could walk away at any time and be perfectly happy.”

That leaves Republican opponents exasperated. They complain that Kitzhaber is a typical, tax-loving liberal who has frustrated popular desires by vetoing a record number of bills in the last two sessions of the Oregon Legislature.

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GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Sizemore said Kitzhaber is “popular with voters only as long as they don’t know what he stands for.”

The governor is bemused by achieving what he calls “a reverse Clinton: People trust me and they like me, even though sometimes they just don’t like what I’m doing. . . . I have this theory that there’s a huge latitude for disagreement as long as you are upfront about it.”

This approach will be tested mightily as he wades into the state’s long-running battle between environmentalists and timber and agriculture interests, a struggle Kitzhaber says threatens to contaminate areas of policy debate as far afield as school finance and transportation.

He says he is prepared to spend all of his accumulated political capital, if need be, to implement his Oregon Salmon Plan.

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The plan calls for rebuilding--largely through volunteer efforts--threatened salmon habitat throughout the state. Not coincidentally, it is also supposed to keep the federal government from listing salmon runs as endangered and from dictating ways to save them.

Kitzhaber partially succeeded in this last winter, when the Environmental Protection Agency accepted his plan for most of the streams that run from Oregon’s Coast Range into the Pacific Ocean. But a federal court questioned this decision and the EPA has listed as endangered salmon runs on the Columbia and Willamette rivers, which run smack through the state’s most densely populated region.

“The Endangered Species Act is coming to downtown Portland,” Kitzhaber said. This will “require that hundreds of thousands of people are going to have to change.” Not little teeny steps, either, he said, but big, tectonic shifts, “a fundamental change in ethic.”

Rather than engage in another court fight over the Endangered Species Act, or scapegoat the federal government, Kitzhaber is pushing for a broad, citizen-based effort to meet the EPA rules. In a larger sense, he is attacking not just the problem of preserving fish populations, but the great divide in Oregon between urban and rural.

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The divide, which exists throughout much of the West, is both cultural and economic. While the urban areas of the Willamette Valley flourish, rural Oregon is locked in a stultifying economic malaise. If Kitzhaber succeeds in overcoming this divide, the payoff could be huge.

“It’s a great educational opportunity coming up here, and I intend to make the best of it,” he said. “To me, this isn’t about saving salmon so much as it is about creating . . . a community-building opportunity.”

Although Kitzhaber can be stubborn, he can also be conciliatory, with an approach criticized at times as government-by-task-force. But it is also praised, as David Bayles, conservation director of the environmental advocacy group Pacific Rivers Council, put it, for not leaving “a trail of wounds.”

As a first step in the salmon plan, Kitzhaber courted the state’s timber and agriculture industries, inviting them to help devise pragmatic solutions to protecting the salmon habitat while not destroying economic growth. Ray Wilkeson, a timber industry lobbyist, praised the governor for “setting a standard for other states.”

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Some of Kitzhaber’s traditional environmental allies are suspicious. One said the governor had become “a pale shade of green.” Several groups sued to make the EPA list coastal salmon runs as endangered. Thus far, they are winning in court. Kitzhaber says the activists need to be more realistic.

“We need to look not at what’s perfect,” he said, “but at what is possible.”

The model for addressing the issue is Kitzhaber’s tough-minded approach to dealing with what had been a deplorable state health care program. While president of the state Senate, he wrote and almost single-handedly made into law the Oregon Health Plan, which set out to rationalize, and hence explicitly ration, public health care.

Kitzhaber had spent a decade as an emergency room physician. He jokes that at the time, he didn’t know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, but he was struck by the chaotic nature of government response to the health care crisis.

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His plan to bring order required the state to draw up a prioritized list of all medical procedures, estimate how many of each would be performed and what that would cost. The costs are then compared to the money available, and a line is drawn on the list. The state pays for everything above the line, nothing below.

The list is governed by a sort of utilitarian calculus--for what procedures will society get the highest return? What, in other words, will benefit the most people the most? The Oregon list gives high priority to preventive practices, such as prenatal care. It de-emphasizes exotic and expensive procedures, such as organ transplants.

Today, the list of medical procedures is 745 items long. The state has enough money for 528 of them. If you are afflicted with No. 529, too bad. Leprosy and cleft palates, yes; flat feet and Bell’s palsy, no.

Early on, the inviolability of the list became the focus of opposition. Kitzhaber was reviled. He wanted the state to play god, it was said. Before the program was fully underway, a 7-year-old leukemic boy died when the state refused to pay for a bone marrow transplant, a low-priority procedure. Relatives of the boy attacked Kitzhaber as “Dr. Death.”

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But he persevered. Because there is a finite amount of money, the state always rations health care, he said. The plan at least allows the rationing to be done with forethought, and it has succeeded in extending care to hundreds of thousands of Oregonians. Since the program took effect in 1994, the proportion of Oregonians with no health coverage has fallen from 17% to 11%, and the percentage of children without insurance has fallen from 21% to 8%. Its limitations now are accepted as a reasonable trade-off for the wider availability of care.

Kitzhaber says voters appreciate someone who will take tough stands, even if they don’t agree.

He tells of voting on a gay rights bill early in his legislative career, a bill he favored but knew would be unpopular in his district. As a matter of political survival, he had intended to vote against it. But then, angered by the debate, he barked out a “yes” vote.

“Of course, it lost, but I felt so liberated,” he recalled. “I remember saying to myself: ‘You know, John, if the worst thing that ever happens to you is not getting reelected to the state Senate, you’ve led a pretty charmed life.’ ”

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In an era when the line between celebrity and politics often blurs, Kitzhaber seems to hide from even modest renown. He keeps his personal life private--and he insists on having one, taking most weekends off to spend with his wife and son.

Kitzhaber’s style is casual. He wears pointy-toed cowboy boots, jeans and a belt buckle the approximate size and shape of a football. He owns suits, of course, but he’s a wiry man, and his suit-coat collars tend to ride up his neck, making him look like a kid playing dress-up.

He’s not that young, but his enthusiasm suggests boyishness. He’s an addicted fly fisherman, and his face has the weathered, crinkly look of a man who has spent long hours fighting the reflected glare of sunlight on water. His blue eyes and shaggy mustache reinforce a rugged, Marlboro Man image suited to the Oregon style.

Like proud people in many places, Oregonians secretly hoard self-serving myths. One holds that westward migrants eventually reached a point where the Oregon Trail divided north and south. The southern branch, which headed off to California, was marked by a gold nugget. The northern branch was marked by a sign that said simply, “Oregon.” Those chasing the instant gratification of wealth, it is said here, went south. Those who could read went north.

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Tim Hibbetts, an Oregon pollster, said Kitzhaber fits right into this notion of difference.

“Stylistically, he works,” Hibbetts said. “You got the cowboy boots, you got the belt buckle, you got the jeans. This is not a pretentious guy. He just looks like a governor. A governor of Oregon, anyway.”


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