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Is Governor John Kitzhaber Permanently Damaged?

Monday, February 02, 2015


Governor John Kitzhaber at a Jan. 30 press conference. Photo by Joana Evoniuk

As the 2015 legislative session opens in Salem Monday, political experts say Governor John Kitzhaber has been weakened by the latest developments in the Cylvia Hayes scandal, to the extent that it might may impede his political agenda in the coming weeks. 

Last week news broke that the Governor’s fiancé had failed to disclose consulting contracts with Washington DC-based nonprofit the Clean Economy Development Center worth roughly $118,000.  Fresh allegations against Hayes have questioned if she failed to report the money to the IRS in 2011 and 2012, whether Kitzhaber was aware of the income, and if these newly revealed contracts were a conflict of interest with her role as "First Lady" of Oregon.

The allegations have already cast a shadow over upcoming environmental regulations moving through the legislature. The continued escalation of these issues raise the question: has the Governor been permanently damaged by the scandal?

“Absolutely,” said Jim Moore, a political analyst and professor at Pacific University. “He [the Governor] has said it, 'this is a distraction.'”

Blood in the Water

On Friday, the Governor, looking pallid and meek, struggled to explain if he had properly accounted for his fiancé’s income on state disclosure documents required under Oregon ethics laws.  He routinely deferred questions to Hayes, staying “you’ll have to ask her.” However, he noted that Hayes was on an unannounced trip to Sweden and was unavailable for comment.

Republicans wasted no time in taking advantage of the Governor’s struggles.  House Republican Leader Mike McLane and Senator Ted Ferrioli, released a joint statement Friday calling into question a new low carbon fuels bill (SB 324) scheduled for a public hearing in the capitol on Monday.

“Ms. Hayes received payments to influence the Governor on, among other things, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard program overseen by the Department of Environmental Quality,” stated House Republican Leader Mike McLane. “Due to the investigations on the conflict of interest and the many unanswered questions that remain, SB 324 can no longer be evaluated on merit alone."

The carbon fuel standards bill would be a significant advance in the Democrats' global warming agenda. But GOP legislators are calling the bill into question because of Hayes’ ties to environmental groups.

“It just doesn’t look right,” said Deputy House Republican Leader Carl Wilson. “It's Salem, not Chicago. We really need to care about how the legislative process is seen.”

Republicans want the bill tabled until the Oregon Ethics Commission can determine if Hayes and the Governor broke state ethics rules.

But with a fresh set of majorities in both chambers of the legislature, political consultant Len Bergstein with Northwest Strategies said it’s unlikely the clean fuels issue will pivot on Kitzhaber’s personal woes.

“There are a short list of bills that came a vote short of passing in the last session,” Bergstein said. “Low carbon will be determined by the mathematics of the session, not the atmospherics.”

But Bergstein and others say there is probably a shift in power going on inside the State Capitol as a result of the Hayes scandal. 

Power Shift

“I do think he is significantly damaged,” Bergstein said. “It's not a knock out. But if his allies are expecting him to move mountains in this first week [of the legislature], he probably won’t be able to do that.”

Experts say that the scandal is making the Governor radioactive.  As the scandal drags on, the Governor might make fewer public appearances, have fewer photo opportunities and testify before committees less.

What’s more, the locus of power, the place where deals are made, may shift from the Governor’s office to the Senate and House leadership chambers.

“The Democrats have 18 votes in the Senate,” said Bergstein. “People can go to the Senate President and he will be able to move the building.”

Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College, also sees a power vacuum developing, one that could cause Democrats to withdraw their support from Kitzhaber’s initiatives.

“How do you wield power- it’s not through force, it’s through influence,” Gronke said. “He [Kitzhaber] will be distracted. Other political actors will not see being his alley as powerful. People will look for a new leader.”

Democratic House Speaker Tina Kotek and Representative Val Hoyle are on a short list of political players who may seek statewide office in 2016.  To that, rising stars on the left have the opportunity to make a name for themselves with bills that the Governor might not normally have supported, according to Moore.

“Kitzhaber is so wounded right now there is a window to get things through the legislature that he might not be able to block,” Moore said. "By March we should see some interesting dynamics."

Still In the Game

However, Moore and others are far from writing the Governor off. 

“I think he has more trouble with his own party than with us,” Wilson said. “But he is still in charge of the executive branch. I don’t have a problem working with him.”

To that end, anyone looking to pass legislation still needs Kitzhaber's signature on their bills. 

What’s more, barring new allegations, if the Oregon Ethics Commission makes a ruling soon, and Hayes does not face serious IRS charges, Kitzhaber’s four-year term will provide a lot of time for the public to forgive and forget. 

“In politics,” Bergstein said. “No defeat is final.”


Related Slideshow: What Governor Kitzhaber Said at His Jan. Cylvia Hayes Press Conference

Governor John Kitzhaber held a press conference on Jan. 30, 2015, where he fielded questions surrounding his fiancé and Oregon’s “First Lady” Cylvia Hayes. 

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Kitzhaber told media Friday, Jan. 30 he would not consider resigning. 

“Of course not,” he said. “I was elected by the people of this state to do a job, and I intend to do it.”

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The Governor said he did not see any problem in hiring Ball Janik, a firm that lobbies for Oregon in Washington, D.C., to defend him and Cylvia Hayes against allegations that include lobbying. 

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Kitzhaber said he has not been contacted by the FBI.

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The Governor said he did not instruct his attorney Leanni Reaves to loosen ethics guidelines for Cylvia Hayes. 

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“Our intention has always been to try to navigate this undefined area of First Lady,” Kitzhaber said during the press conference. 

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The Governor does not believe that an independent investigation is necessary, when asked if a body other than the ethics commission appointed by him should investigate. 

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When asked why the Governor did not keep Cylvia Hayes physically out of her office, he answered, “We tried to draw that line.” 

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“I am in love,” the Governor said. "I do not believe I have been blinded by love, I am 'eyes wide open.'”

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“I have no idea whether she [Cylvia] is legally a member of my household.”

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Cylvia Hayes is in Sweden visiting friends, the Governor said. 

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The Governor at one point compared himself to controversial Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. 

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The Governor said he is not trying to reach a deal with the ethics commission. 

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The Governor does not believe that an independent investigation is necessary, when asked if a body other than the ethics commission appointed by him should investigate. 

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“The government ethics commission has a process and a sanction process. We will embrace that,” Kitzhaber said. “Well the Government ethics commission has a process and has a series of sanctions that it can take and we will obviously and have been complying and cooperating fully with the commission and we will embrace whatever decisions and sanctions they feel is appropriate."

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“Cylvia and I have a number of areas of common interest, climate change being one, low carbon fuels being one,” Kitzhaber said. "The fact that we have a convergence of intents does not seem to me to apply that if those issues apply in my administration that influence has been exerted."

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Cylvia Hayes will play no role in the Governor’s office for the next four years, according to Kitzhaber.


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