Kitzhaber’s Agony

Like a lot of people who only casually follow political events in Oregon, I’ve been a bit shocked by the sudden implosion of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s career. Yes, we all read about the revelation that his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, had in the past contracted for a “green card marriage” of which she had not informed Kitzhaber. This came out in the home stretch of the 2014 campaign, and it did not prevent the governor’s reelection to an unprecedented fourth term by a comfortable margin.

Now, as WaPo’s Aaron Blake puts it, “[t]he governor is pretty clearly holding onto his career by a thread.” Indeed, according to multiple reports he’d decided yesterday to resign, until he was apparently talked out of it by his lawyer and maybe by Hayes.

The crisis was touched off on February 4 when the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, editorially called for Kitzhaber’s resignation after its reporters published accounts of apparent conflicts-of-interest and possible tax evasion by Hayes, who was also described as regularly abusing her quasi-official status as First Lady. It wasn’t lost on anybody that the Oregonian had endorsed the governor’s reelection just months earlier.

If you want a good brief summary of the allegations against Hayes, Niraj Chokshi and Reid Wilson wrote one up for WaPo. Suffice it to say it’s not exactly Teapot Dome, and involves things like maintaining a private consulting contract on public policy issues and using official contracts to hustle business that probably wouldn’t raise eyebrows in, say, Chris Christie’s New Jersey.

But we all know states vary significantly in their political cultures and especially in their tolerance or intolerance for “appearance of impropriety” offenses and petty ethics violations–like Hayes’ alleged use of state employees to handle personal chores, which is an extraordinarily common practice for governors and First Spouses. Kitzhaber is the epitome of a political veteran, and should have known his own state well enough to set down clear rules for his fiancee’s conduct and paid attention to whether she was following them.

If Kitzhaber does wind up resigning, he would be succeeded by Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown, who cut short a meeting in DC yesterday to hurry back to Oregon, apparently at the governor’s request (you can imagine how that affected the rumor mill). Brown is, among other things, the nation’s first openly-identifying bisexual statewide elected official. So if she does get a premature promotion, expect the whole Oregon saga to get a lot more attention.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.