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Two Political Veterans Headline Oregon Governor's Race

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (left) will face off against state Rep. Dennis Richardson in November.
Campaign photos
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (left) will face off against state Rep. Dennis Richardson in November.

The race for Oregon governor is a battle between two political veterans. Incumbent Democrat John Kitzhaber is seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Republican Dennis Richardson is hoping for a promotion from his long-held seat in the Oregon House.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (left) will face off against state Rep. Dennis Richardson in November.
Credit Campaign photos
Campaign photos
Incumbent John Kitzhaber, left, is seeking re-election against challenger Dennis Richardson.

Both Kitzhaber and Richardson have spent many years in the public eye. That means it's pretty easy to find archival tape of each of them to help understand who they really are.

Let's start with Dennis Richardson and go back seven years to a 2007 debate on the floor of the Oregon House.

A rare win for the GOP

House Bill 2201 would have expanded health coverage for low-income Oregon children. Richardson rose in opposition to the measure. It wasn't that he was against keeping poor kids healthy. Instead, he didn't like how the program would have been paid for. It was an 85-cent hike in the cigarette tax.

Richardson laid out a detailed case for why he didn't think that would work. And then he started doing imitations.

"And so, the message is everyone, start smoking,” Richardson said. “After all, it's for the kids. And so you'll be lighting up: 'Why you doing it, Joe, you already lost one lung.' 'Because it's for the kids.'"

Maybe the speech helped. The bill died on the floor of the House that day. It was a rare win for the GOP that year in Salem.

Richardson is used to being in the minority party in the state capitol. One exception was 2011 when Republicans and Democrats were split evenly in the Oregon House.

‘Operational political center'

And that brings us to two days after the 2010 election when John Kitzhaber finally held a big enough lead to allow him to declare victory.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber
Credit Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber

"An election as close as this one gives us an historic opportunity to create that kind of operational political center that cuts across partisan lines and allows us to view problems through the lens of our shared values and our shared future,” Kitzhaber said.

That all might strike you as political gobbledygook. But the concept of a so-called "operational political center" is something Kitzhaber seems to really believe in. He still talks about it four years later when you ask him why he should be re-elected.

"The reason I'm running is because I believe that we have found a way to create an operational political center in Oregon that's not about Republicans or Democrats, it's about getting results,” the governor said. “And we did it together. And we have a huge opportunity going forward to move the ball even further down the field."

Kitzhaber pointed to Oregon's economic outlook. It's much brighter than when he took office four years ago. He said he deserves some credit for that as he proposed tax incentives meant to persuade some of the state’s largest companies, Nike and Intel, to expand in Oregon.

The role of Cover Oregon

He also takes credit for expanding access to health care in Oregon. Even in the face of the botched roll-out of the state's health insurance exchange website.

"The most important thing is we never took our eye off the ball,” Kitzhaber said.

If you've been following Oregon politics over the past year it will probably surprise you to hear the governor use Cover Oregon as an example of why he should be given another term. Taxpayers shelled out some $250 million for a health insurance website that never has worked right. The episode has resulted in lots of finger-pointing and counter-lawsuits between Oregon and its technology vendor.

But Kitzhaber said despite it all, Cover Oregon still managed to produce results.

"This isn't just about a website,” he said. “It's about covering Oregonians. And we've covered just under 500,000 people, reduced the rate of un-insurance to 5 percent. Think about that. If someone had said a year ago only five percent of Oregonians will not have health insurance coverage, I think people wouldn't have believed it.”

A big fundraising lead vs. Kitzhaber fatigue

Kitzhaber is a former ER doctor who was elected governor twice in the ‘90s after a lengthy stint in the Oregon Senate. He has said this will be his last election campaign -- win or lose.

State Representative Dennis Richardson
Credit Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
State Representative Dennis Richardson

Kitzhaber has staked out a healthy fundraising lead. And no Oregon Democrat has lost a race for governor since 1982. That would appear to make Dennis Richardson's quest difficult.

"The question often comes up on how I will actually win,” Richardson said. “How can a Republican from southern Oregon win in a Democratically dominated state?"

Richardson is banking on Oregon voters being tired of Kitzhaber. He said the Democrat was asleep at the wheel during the Cover Oregon meltdown.

"It's not about personalities, it's about realities,” Richardson said. “And the reality of this administration is it has been a failure. He may be a great doctor, I don't know. But he's not a good leader for the state of Oregon."

Richardson said he'd reach out to Oregon's international trade partners and would take a more hands-on approach to state governance, including taking up residence in the governor's mansion. Kitzhaber spends more of his time in Portland than in the state capital.

Richardson has taken some heat in this campaign from liberal groups that say the Republican is too far to the right on social issues for most Oregonians. For example, he's spoken out against gay marriage and abortion rights.

Richardson responds that yes, it's true he's a social conservative, “but my focus is on our education system, on our jobs, our economy and on transparency and accountability in government."

Richardson said he'd enforce Oregon's laws regardless of whether he agrees with them. But to do that, he needs to break his party's three decade streak in the loss column.

Also on the ballot are Chris Henry of the Progressive Party, Paul Grad of the Libertarian Party, Aaron Auer of the Constitution Party and Jason Levin of the Pacific Green Party.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman
Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.