PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A year ago, John Kitzhaber looked invincible.
Having just cut public pensions to sew up perhaps the biggest victory of his three decade political career, the Democratic governor was setting his sights on what looked to be an easy glide to re-election.
But Kitzhaber’s pedestal was already beginning to fracture last October under the weight of the failed Cover Oregon health insurance website. Rather than the triumphant victor, Kitzhaber now finds himself running for re-election as the battered incumbent, on the defensive about Cover Oregon, education and even his fiancee.
He’s still the front-runner over Republican state Rep. Dennis Richardson, but the campaign has been a slog.
When he began his third term in 2011, Kitzhaber became Oregon’s longest serving governor, returning to public office after eight years sitting on the sidelines. And he came with baggage.
Before leaving office, Kitzhaber had famously quipped that Oregon was becoming “ungovernable.” He held the record for the largest number of vetoes, earning the nickname “Dr. No.” And the bitter partisanship that led to both those facts threatened to rear its head again.
By cutting deals with both parties, he managed to coax an ambitious agenda through the Legislature over the next three years, focusing on structural overhauls of the bureaucracies that oversee health care and education.
He’s frustrated public-employee unions - typically a reliable Democratic constituency, and one that spent handsomely to get him elected - and built a friendly relationship with centrist business groups.
In his third term, he’s wielded the veto pen just five times. He said he matured and learned better how to use the power of the governor’s office to achieve his goals.
He persuaded lawmakers to change the system of delivering health care under Medicaid, the state’s health insurance plan for the poor. Rather than having doctors work independently from each other and paying them for each procedure they perform, the state forced them to work together and tied payments in part to the health of their patients. He also convinced President Barack Obama’s administration to give Oregon nearly $2 billion in startup costs, promising an equal amount of savings later.
The state saw early success in reducing the number of emergency room visits and increasing primary care utilization, although patients are reporting long wait times in some areas.
With a fourth term, Kitzhaber says he’d like to expand the care model to teachers and public employees.
On education, Kitzhaber pressed to expand his own power. He eliminated the elected position of superintendent of public instruction and created a new oversight board - which he appoints and chairs - to manage education policy and funding from preschool through college.
But there were stumbles. The first education czar that he appointed, Rudy Crew, came with high hopes and a big salary, but left after less than a year. The board was supposed to press school districts to improve on a variety of metrics from 3rd grade reading scores to graduation rates, but it’s showed little capacity to force districts to change their behavior.
In an interview, Kitzhaber said education doesn’t improve overnight, and it will take time for changes to reverberate, particularly because he’s focused on improving factors that affect students early in elementary school.
“The framework’s there, now we’ve got to build it and scale it,” Kitzhaber said.
His hardest-fought legislative victory came last year. He persuaded Democrats to vote against public-employee unions and Republicans and raise taxes in order to cut benefits for retired government workers. The move diminished a massive unfunded liability in the state’s pension fund and saved billions for state and local governments, but it means retirees will see their incomes struggle to keep pace with inflation.
That success was quickly overshadowed by the failure of Cover Oregon, the state’s health insurance exchange. The state received $300 million from the federal government, much of which was to be used to build a website that would allow people to shop for health insurance and enroll online. It never worked.
Republicans pounced, blaming Kitzhaber for failing to keep tabs on the progress.
More recently, Kitzhaber has spent more than a week battling reports about his fiancee’s past. Cylvia Hayes acknowledged that she accepted money to enter a fraudulent marriage with an immigrant seeking to remain in the United States, and later was involved in a plan to grow marijuana. More politically perilous for Kitzhaber, however, were reports that she’s used her position as first lady to advance her private consulting business.
Kitzhaber’s rival, Richardson, says the Cover Oregon failure, the lack of education progress under Crew and the allegations against Hayes all point to a need for someone new. He says Kitzhaber has a tendency to push through lofty ideas but remains aloof from the details of implementing them.
“The governor wants a fourth term, but he hasn’t earned it,” Richardson said in a recent debate.
Follow AP reporter Jonathan J. Cooper at https://twitter.com/jjcooper .
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