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Governor candidates sharpen differences

Kitzhaber, Richardson jab during first debate at newspaper gathering


by: COURTESY OF ONPA/SCOTT WASHBURN - State Rep. Dennis Richardson made a point during Fridays debate with Gov. John Kitzhaber before newspaper publishers and editors in Salem. It was the first joint appearance of the two gubernatorial candidates in the 2014 election.Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and Republican rival Dennis Richardson have laid out clear differences for the fall campaign.

Richardson seeks to paint Kitzhaber as someone voters should not have elected a record third time, let alone win a fourth term on Nov. 4.

During their first joint appearance last week in Salem, Richardson played up the failures of the Cover Oregon website and the Columbia River Crossing, labeling Kitzhaber as an absentee governor during the past four years.

“Our governor no longer has the passion to serve and is hurting our state,” said Richardson, a lawyer and five-term state representative from Southern Oregon.

Richardson also jabbed Kitzhaber on the governor's vacation time, his time in Portland — where Kitzhaber has a home — and even his 2013 trip to Bhutan for a conference to study alternative progress measures, including "gross national happiness."

Kitzhaber says Oregon continues to be a national leader in expanding health care, reorganizing education and restraining prison and pubic pension costs. He says he, not the more conservative Richardson, is best positioned to lead.

“That’s what this job is really about, the ability to find and hold the operational political center, set a vision for Oregon and bring Oregonians together in a common cause to achieve a common purpose,” said Kitzhaber, a physician and a legislator for 14 years before two previous terms as governor from 1995 to 2003.

Richardson and Kitzhaber responded to common questions from a panel of journalists at the summer meeting of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, which traditionally sponsors such a forum.

They agree on a few points, including a ballot measure to institute a top-two primary like that used in California and Washington, despite opposition from their parties, and a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assaults on college campuses. Richardson says the primary change should be "seriously considered."

They also agree that Oregon lawmakers would have to step in if voters approve a pending ballot measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Officials are still verifying signatures for it.

Although Kitzhaber says he opposes such a measure, “I believe that legalization of marijuana is inevitable in this state and it’s important that we get ahead of that.”

Richardson declined to state his position — “it’s going to be determined by the voters” — but says Oregon should take note of what unfolds in Washington and Colorado, where voters legalized it in 2012.

They have not yet announced whether there will be other joint appearances in the fall campaign. During 2010, Kitzhaber and Republican Chris Dudley had just one such appearance.

On the attack

Richardson begins the campaign at a huge disadvantage in fundraising — Kitzhaber has almost $1 million on hand, compared with less than $100,000 for Richardson — and it’s been 32 years since Republican Vic Atiyeh won re-election as governor of Oregon.

Independent polls indicate that while Kitzhaber's job approval ratings lag, he leads Richardson in head-to-head matchups.

Richardson has continued to press Kitzhaber on the failures of the website for Cover Oregon, the state’s health insurance exchange, and the Columbia River Crossing.

During the forum, Richardson says he sounded early warnings about the difficulties the website was experiencing.

Although he voted in 2013 for a $400 million state commitment for a new bridge linking Portland with Vancouver, Wash., he says, “we would be building a bridge now if it weren’t for light rail.”

Washington senators, partly based on opposition to light rail, declined to approve $400 million for their state’s share of the $3 billion-plus project. An Oregon-only alternative that Kitzhaber promoted died in the 2014 session.

Kitzhaber has accepted responsibility for the Cover Oregon debacle, “but the fact is that we were all getting the same information” about it, including other legislators.

Yet Oregon still enrolled 300,000 previously uncovered people in private health plans, “so I do not accept the premise that all the dollars were wasted.”

As for the bridge, he says, “I make no apologies” for going forward with its design and approvals by various agencies.

“Let’s not gloss over the fact that the (current) bridge is still a safety and economic problem,” he says.

Kitzhaber says that more money is needed to maintain Oregon’s transportation network, but that the answer isn’t simply increasing the state gasoline tax, which is earmarked for roads.

“We need to ask broader questions about our transportation infrastructure; it’s not just roads,” he says.

Richardson did not discuss transportation funding proposals likely to be considered by lawmakers in their 2015 session, although he says the state should undertake a long-discussed effort for a new east-west highway leading from Coos Bay.

Schools future

Richardson and Kitzhaber also disagree about the future of Oregon public education, even though Richardson voted for and Kitzhaber signed a 2011 law setting state goals of all students graduating from high school by 2025 and 80 percent of them moving on to college or other training.

Education in all forms takes up more than half the spending from the state’s tax-supported general fund and lottery proceeds.

Richardson says he would put a moratorium on the set of academic standards known as the Common Core, although he misstated them as being a federal mandate; the standards were developed by the states.

“All we are doing is changing our teachers into class monitors,” he says.

As for funding public schools, “we should have funding follow the students, not having a child’s future determined by the zip code their parents happen to live in.”

But Kitzhaber said the wide-scale reorganization of public education during his current term aligns state funding with how schools, community colleges and universities plan to advance the academic performance of students.

He also said that it emphasizes early childhood education — including socioeconomic factors — and reading skills.

“An awful lot of kids in a generation of poverty and communities of color arrive at school with a huge achievement gap and often never catch up,” he says, resulting in low high-school graduation rates.

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