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Kitz or Richardson? None of the above

Many Oregon voters, we suspect, are uninspired by their options in the gubernatorial race.

We know we are.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, is running for an unprecedented fourth term at a time when his professional reputation and personal popularity are at a low point. His Republican rival, state Rep. Dennis Richardson, is basing his campaign on Kitzhaber’s recent mistakes, but has failed to articulate a clear agenda or compelling rationale for his own election.

After meeting with each of the candidates during the primary and general elections and observing them in several debates, our editorial board is unwilling to give a stamp of approval to either one. Voters, however, must make a choice, and for those whose decisions are not based solely upon partisan passions, here is an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the two major-party candidates.

Gov. John Kitzhaber

The question voters should be asking Kitzhaber is simply this: Why?

After serving as governor for a total of 12 years, interrupted by eight years from fellow Democrat Ted Kulongoski, why did Kitzhaber feel compelled to run for a fourth term?

Among many others on a deep Democratic bench, state Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Kate Brown, appear to be plenty ambitious and smart enough to run a credible campaign for governor. Without an incumbent in the race, a broadly appealing Republican, such as businessman Allen Alley or state Sen. Bruce Starr, likely would have competed with Richardson and former state Sen. Jason Atkinson for the Republican nomination.

When the Portland Tribune endorsed Kitzhaber for governor four years ago, we stated he should commit to be a one-term governor. He chose otherwise, and that decision in part led to the less-than-ideal matchup we are faced with today and our decision to withhold an endorsement in the race.

On the plus side, Kitzhaber still has the attributes that have made him, at times, an effective leader. His trademark denim jeans and fly rod are not mere props: The former emergency room physician from Roseburg has an understanding of rural Oregon that many in his party lack.

He deserves great credit for his leadership in reforming the Public Employees Retirement System. Perhaps only a Democratic governor with Kitzhaber’s negotiating skills could have secured the votes necessary from his own party to pass PERS reform in the Legislature. That singular accomplishment will save school districts and other public entities billions of dollars over a period of decades.

Kitzhaber had appeared to be on a roll with his health care reforms as well, after he struck a deal with the federal government for $1.9 billion in additional funding in return for containing future Medicaid costs. But the governor’s health care reputation is in tatters, as his carelessness with Cover Oregon’s website resulted in the squandering of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Looking forward, Kitzhaber has talked about tackling tax reform in his next term, but concedes that nothing major can be done to stabilize the state’s two-legged tax stool. Instead, he envisions incremental changes to bring more security to Oregon’s public finances. The governor also wants to continue his work in the areas of health care and education — where potentially transformational changes are already under way.

If Kitzhaber is re-elected we hope that, regardless of the issues he takes on, he pays much more attention to the details.

State Rep. Dennis Richardson

Richardson, who lives in Central Point, is a reasonably well-qualified candidate, having served in key leadership positions in the Oregon Legislature and earning respect from both sides of the aisle.

In this campaign, Richardson’s strategy has been to portray Kitzhaber as a failed administrator who doesn’t pay attention to the nuts and bolts of governing. His criticisms ring true when it comes to Cover Oregon and the ill-fated hiring of Chief Education Officer Rudy Crew. But Richardson is less convincing when he talks about the Columbia River Crossing, where it was the Washington state Senate, not the Oregon governor, that blew up the deal.

Still, we agree with Richardson that Kitzhaber should have been more proficient at his job. After all, he had two previous terms in which to learn.

Criticizing an incumbent is an effective — and easy — campaign strategy, but Oregonians yearn for more than that. They want a positive alternative, not just an active critic. And Richardson has been unable to provide any meaningful plans for moving Oregon forward.

He talks about learning from the experiences of other states, but offers few specifics about what he might do as governor.

What’s more, as a legislator, Richardson supported many of Kitzhaber’s initiatives — particularly health reform — until the point where things began to come unraveled.

There’s no doubt, however, that a Gov. Richardson would bring a different and more conservative philosophy to Mahonia Hall.

Kitzhaber and his allies have attacked the retired Republican lawyer for being out of step with most Oregonians on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. However, we believe Richardson when he says he would put no emphasis on such issues if he were elected governor. In truth, these matters are settled in the courts, the Legislature and the broader arena of shifting public opinion. A governor has little control over the outcomes.

But we are troubled by Richardson’s vocal opposition to Oregon’s adoption of the Common Core in its schools. The Common Core was initiated by the nation’s governors and education commissioners — not by the federal government. Republican governors were instrumental in its development, as were teachers, school administrators and many other well-qualified people. Richardson’s objections to the Common Core appear more a case of political posturing than a thorough understanding of what the Common Core is — and what it isn’t.

Both Kitzhaber and Richardson are well-intentioned people. Their motives are not in question. They both care deeply about this state, and both are sincere in their desire to represent all Oregonians, not just a narrow, partisan spectrum.

Four minor party candidates also appear on the statewide ballot for governor, but none of them have any realistic chance of being elected. Oregonians must decide between the two major party candidates — as flawed as they may be — and hope that the winner exceeds our expectations and guides Oregon to better outcomes in education, health care and economic wellbeing.

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