The Fall of John Kitzhaber

On February 18th, amid allegations that his wife was inappropriately paid by clean energy companies, Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon resigned. The entire affair was a bizarre series of events which took down Oregon’s most experienced politician.

At the inaugural address of his 4th term, Kitzhaber stated “[t]his will complete the arc of my political career.” He defeated his Republican opponent Dennis Richardson by 5.6 points, and swore in the largest Democratic state house majority in Oregon’s history. He even weathered an election scandal– during his re-election campaign he fended off reports that his wife conducted a green-card marriage in 1995.  He emerged victorious from this scandal and was handed a 4th term in office by the citizens of Oregon.

Soon after his term began, a story revealed that his wife, Cynthia Hayes, received improper payment from an energy consulting firm while simultaneously advising the Governor on energy issues. The story gained traction after The Oregonian, Oregon’s largest daily newspaper, demanded he resign. As more details emerged, his political friends left his side, and public opinion turned against him. After a perplexing period in which Kitzhaber appeared at points to be steadfast against resigning, he succumbed to the pressure and left office.

Some attribute Governor Kitzhaber’s resignation to “Kitzhaber Fatigue;” the public had grown tired of the the protracted scandal surrounding the Governor. After four months of scandal, even Kitzhaber’s legislative allies left his side.

Before leaving office in disgrace, Governor Kitzhaber was a political leader in the Pacific Northwest. He is pictured here with former Washington Governor, Christine Gregoire.  (Wikimedia Commons)
Before leaving office in disgrace, Governor Kitzhaber was a known political leader in the Pacific Northwest. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s reasonable to believe that Kitzhaber could have survived the scandal. He was Oregon’s longest serving executive in state history. Even after his wife’s green card scandal, he won re-election in a cycle that saw Republicans surge nationwide.

What’s jarring about the entire ordeal is that Kitzhaber’s fall occurred in an environment that seemed to permit corruption. The governor did not resign due to the corrupting conflict of interest, he resigned due to the loss of allies to help fight the scandal. Two weeks before The Oregonian asked him to resign, he said that his wife would no longer have a political role in his government. Kitzhaber openly admitted that his wife had a political role that was inappropriate, receiving over $100,000 in unreported income from clean energy consultants while advising the Governor on energy. He acknowledged and admitted wrongdoing, and did not consider resignation. Nor did he consider resignation when the first report of this wrongdoing surfaced in October 2014. He operated with the expectation that it would blow over given enough time. Instead, his resignation came, but only after The Oregonian belabored the scandal, keeping his name in the headlines for months.

The Oregonian made it clear in their editorial that “his credibility has evaporated to such a degree that he can no longer serve effectively as governor.” The argument that brought down the governor was not an attack on his immorality or improper conduct, but a condemnation of the governor’s loss of allies. The court of public opinion subsumed the court of law; the superficial subsumed the substantive. In his resignation, Kitzhaber stated: “it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved.” For all the allegations that were levied against the Governor, he was brought down without due process.

In cases where the public creates a judgement, they run the risk of condemning an innocent person. This is not a cautionary tale for corrupt officials to defend blatant infractions; this is a cautionary tale for the innocent official. A third party bent on maligning a reputation could levy allegations similar to those made against Governor Kitzhaber against another innocent person. And as this example shows, they could be forced out of office without proven cause. By leveraging manipulable public opinion to unseat a governor, Oregon has a set a dangerous precedent. Instead of promoting ethical behavior, the media has promoted the maintenance of good political friendship. This is apparent in the case of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, also charged with corruption this year. His friends stayed by his side, most notably his junior Senator, the popular Cory Booker. When confronted with scandal, Booker supported Menendez: “I won’t waver in my commitment to stand alongside my senior Senator to serve our great state.” Without Booker and other allies, Menendez could have been another casualty of the same beast that brought down Kitzhaber. The key difference lies in the fact that Menendez’s friends stayed with him, but for Kitzhaber’s allies, his final transgression was one bridge too far.