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Kitzhaber failed to protect his office's integrity

Photo Credit: PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber failed to slow the growing scandal at a press conference before the start of the 2015 Oreon Legislature.With his welcome decision to resign on Friday, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s personal house of cards came tumbling down.

His abdication was assisted by a hard push from leaders of his own party, and even an 11th-hour betrayal from the two people most directly in line behind him — Secretary of State Kate Brown and state Treasurer Ted Wheeler.

The governor’s obstinacy is legendary, so even as he felt intense pressure from his former allies and saw just how few supports remained beneath him, Kitzhaber clung to the notion that he could yet fulfill a four-year term to which he was elected just three months ago. But his exit became inevitable as the evidence mounted that he was inattentive at best — and complicit at worst — in his fiancee’s shady financial dealings. Kitzhaber utterly failed to protect the integrity of his office, and for that reason, he deserved to be forced from his position.

With his trademark boots and blue jeans, Kitzhaber was supposed to be the everyman governor — the iconic Oregonian. Instead, after all these years, he turned out to be the essence of the arrogant politician — enamored of his own story and blind to the ethical breaches that now are so obvious to everyone else.

Power breeds a sense of privilege. Despite her modest upbringing, Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, was quite comfortable traveling among the privileged classes. She bartered her relationship with the governor in return for cold, hard cash.

These transactions were dressed up as “consulting” jobs and “fellowships,” but the raw truth is they provided comfort money. In return for making life easier for the governor and first lady, various groups got invited into the inner circle, and the governor was happy to return the favor by hiring some of the people who had hired Hayes.

Cronyism is unfortunately common at the highest places where government, business and the nonprofit worlds intersect. But legal and ethical boundaries are violated when people — in this case Hayes — are paid to do almost nothing, and when a public office’s standard procedures are bent, mangled and broken to accommodate unprincipled actions.

As we all know by now, those things occurred in the Kitzhaber administration. The attempts at damage control spiraled into a full-blown cover-up. The media’s public records requests were stonewalled, emails were withheld and investigations were delayed.

Pressure on the governor intensified following Willamette Week’s initial reporting in the fall about Hayes’ contracts and conflicts of interest. Then, the dam broke over Kitzhaber when the Pamplin Media/EO Media groups’ capital bureau reported two weeks ago that Hayes had received $118,000 in income from a nonprofit group seeking to influence state policy.

So, like Neil Goldschmidt, Bob Packwood, David Wu and so many others before him, Kitzhaber leaves Oregon’s stage with his reputation tattered, not by the public policies he pursued, but by the poor personal decisions he made. The positive accomplishments of his career will be remembered, but they’ll always be accompanied with an asterisk referring to his downfall.

The governor brought this on himself by staying too long and indulging too deeply in the advantages of power. He may yet have to pay an even larger price, as legal investigations will and should continue beyond his tenure as governor.

For now, however, the state’s attention turns to the next governor, Kate Brown, who was elected to perform a much different job as secretary of state. As a former Senate majority leader, Brown understands the legislative process, which will serve her well as she attempts to move Salem beyond the vast distraction that John Kitzhaber created.

For the most part, Brown would be wise to differentiate herself from her predecessor as she takes over the governor’s office for the next two years. In one respect, though, we hope she follows a similar path. In his third term as governor, Kitzhaber displayed a political moderation not evident in his earlier stints as the state’s chief executive.

But with the Democrats now controlling both legislative chambers with large majorities, and a classic Portland liberal moving into Mahonia Hall, the risk of overreaching is high. Brown must remember she is the governor of all of Oregon and give close consideration to the reasons some people disagree with her.

Single-party rule in Salem can foster an arrogance of its own kind, but Brown must understand, particularly after watching the Kitzhaber administration self-destruct, that humility, not hubris, is the key to true leadership.

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