- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber took the oath of office Monday, beginning a fourth term following a year of political setbacks.

In his inaugural address to a joint session of the newly seated House and Senate, Kitzhaber bemoaned growing inequality and said he fears the economic recovery is leaving too many Oregonians behind.

“Disparity is the enemy of community,” Kitzhaber said. “It separates us, it divides us, it reflects inequality. It reflects a lack of fairness. And it means someone is being left behind.”

Kitzhaber took the oath beside his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, who has been at the center of controversy following ethical questions about her business and revelations about her personal life.

Kitzhaber begins his term with an improving economy and declining unemployment - a substantial improvement from the situation during his last inaugural in 2011. Oregon has erased a $3.5 billion budget gap and replaced the jobs lost during the Great Recession.

But too many people are still working hard for wages that can’t support a family, Kitzhaber said. On net, he said, the newly created jobs are not as good as the ones that were lost.

Still, he spoke optimistically about the ability of government to solve problems, citing the accomplishments of his father’s generation following World War II. It brought electricity to rural communities, sent returning soldiers to school and built the Interstate Highway System, he said.

“I’m here today because I still believe in our government, and that it can be a force for good in our lives,” Kitzhaber said.

A former emergency-room doctor, Kitzhaber has spent most of his adult life in elected office. He said the next four years “will complete the arc of my political career.”

Kitzhaber is already Oregon’s longest-serving governor. He served eight years beginning in 1995, and returned in 2011 after two terms out of public office.

His fourth term starts with continuing controversies that consumed the final year of his previous stint - the collapse of Cover Oregon, the state’s health insurance exchange, and ethical questions about his fiancee’s business.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is investigating whether Hayes illegally used taxpayer resources to advance her consulting business. Hayes has done paid consulting work for organizations with an interest in influencing state policy.

During the gubernatorial campaign, Hayes also tearfully admitted that she had accepted around $5,000 to marry an immigrant who was seeking a green card in 1997. She said she hid the marriage from Kitzhaber until it was unearthed by Willamette Week newspaper.

In a nod to the controversy, which forced the intensely private governor to openly discuss his relationship, Kitzhaber opened his speech with a joke at the expense of the press: “I thought I would start by sharing a little personal information - although, thanks to our friends up there, I don’t think there’s much left out there.”

Kitzhaber will work with the biggest Democratic legislative majorities he’s encountered in his 12 years as governor. Bucking a national trend that swept Republicans into office around the country last year, Oregon voters expanded the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

Kitzhaber and state lawmakers were honored after the ceremony with a low-key reception in the Capitol lobby. As he did four years ago, the governor declined to throw a party and planned instead to watch the University of Oregon play in the college football championship.

Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, was elected to a record seventh term as Senate president. Rep. Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat who was the first openly gay woman to lead a state legislative chamber in the United States, was chosen for a second term as House speaker.

“We need to make sure that fairness is not a buzz word but actually a lived reality for every Oregonian across the state,” Kotek said.

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