The Way I See It

As far as political debates go (and I've seen more than my fair share) last week's smackdown between Gov. Ted Kulongoski and challenger Ron Saxton was better than most.

These are a couple of bright guys who've done their homework and have some real disagreements about the role of government and state of Oregon's affairs.

Kulongoski, the incumbent Democrat, opposes the changes voters made to Oregon's land-use laws. Saxton, his GOP challenger, supports the property rights measure.

Saxton said the pension plan for public employees is still going to bankrupt the state. Kulongoski said the reforms he helped craft are working just fine.

Kulongoski said schools need more public funds. Saxton, the former chairman of the Portland School Board, said schools are still wasting too much money (though he didn't say how).

And yet, the hourlong give-and-take before the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association left me unsatisfied. In my view, both candidates ducked the most important question.

The query came from Mark Garber, publisher of the Gresham Outlook: Give an example of a mistake you've made and what you learned from it.

Garber's effort to get the candidates to let down their guard was met with a pair of end runs that would have made Emmitt Smith proud.

Kulongoski said his biggest mistake as governor was his inability to convince some of his traditional labor allies that the state employee pension reforms were fair and necessary.

Saxton was no better. He answered the question by saying he regretted that while on the Portland School Board he wasn't always able to persuade the other members (particularly those damn Democrats) to vote with him.

In other words, both men view their biggest flaw as their occasional trouble in showing others that they are, apparently, flawless.

Over the years, I've found this question to be one of the most revealing, whether it's posed to veteran elected officials or first-time job applicants.

This spring, for example, during a candidates' forum held in Forest Grove, I asked Washington County Chairman Tom Brian about his biggest mistake he's made in public life

He paused a moment and then dove in.

When serving in the Oregon Legislature, he said, he voted to support the expansion of the Oregon Lottery.

At the time, he recalled, the proposal was pitched as a way to raise a little bit of cash ($10 million to $20 million a year) for economic development and clean up some of the illegal gambling machines that were common at the time.

At the same time, he said, he was warned that this little step would lead to a dependence on gambling money, which is what happened as the Oregon Lottery now props up everything from prisons to school supplies.

'I'm not anti-gambling,' Brian said. 'I love a good game of poker, but I look back and I don't think that vote was healthy for Oregon.'

There. Was that so hard, Ted and Ron?

Brian didn't lose any political points. He was smart enough to reach back to a mistake that was made in a previous position and one that would be tough for an opponent to use in a negative campaign ad.

In the process, Brian (who's never been accused of lacking a healthy ego) did something that politicians at every level need to do: he appeared to be human.

In an interview this week, Brian said the question had surprised him, and his answer was almost instinctive.

'That vote has been bothering me for a long time,' he said. 'I think about it a lot.'

And what about the risk of publicly conceding his fallibility?

'Over the years,' he said, 'I have found that people like people who are honest enough to admit they've made votes they wish they could take back, especially if they learned something.'

Even more important, when public officials admit that they make mistakes, it reinforces the idea that democracy, like journalism, is an inefficient, messy process that requires people to look at a staggering amount of information, take a shot at understanding it and regularly fail.

So, here's my advice for the two gubernatorial frontrunners: the next time someone asks you about a big mistake, think back to last Friday and your missed opportunity.

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