Candidate may warrant some head-turning

The good news from the initial gubernatorial debate is that there’s actually a clear choice between challenger Dennis Richardson and incumbent Gov. John Kitzhaber.

As the two faced off in their first debate of the election, before news reporters and editors from around the state at last week’s Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association convention in Salem, it became clear fairly early on that this contest is shaping up as a man of action against a governor who is hoping voters like him enough and are sufficiently comfortable to not want change. (A report of the debate begins on page 1 of today’s issue and the debate can be seen on video at

Richardson, 64, a third-term state representative from Central Point, bored in on Kitzhaber over the millions of dollars wasted on Cover Oregon and the Columbia River Crossing bridge debacles. He accused the governor of being “aloof” and “out of touch,” spending more time in Portland than in Salem. He repeatedly suggested that Oregon isn’t being aggressive enough in seeking answers to its problems and that solutions might be found by looking to see how other states are handling similar issues before trying to start “with a blank piece of paper.”

Kitzhaber fought back a couple of times, stating that “leadership is not just pointing to the problem, it’s figuring out how to solve it” and suggesting that Richardson participated in the planning process that led to the failure of the CRC. He didn’t really swing hard.

It’s obviously a little early to jump to conclusions, but both candidates have a track record. Kitzhaber has served three terms in the governor’s seat and some of what Richardson says rings true. Where’s he been as Oregon has struggled to climb out of one of the worst recessions in history?

The state’s jobless rate remains almost a full percentage point higher (6.8 percent to 6.1) than the U.S. as a whole, with eastern and southwestern Oregon particularly lagging. Where’s he been?

Let’s face it: Whatever his true motives, it did not look good for the governor to traipse off to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan last year while state legislators tried to work out deals to save the state money on pensions for public employees and argued over tax increases. Where was our leader then? Seeking happiness elsewhere.

Kitzhaber just isn’t very visible, particularly in rural Oregon. We appreciate the interest his office has taken in Sweet Home, manifested in the Oregon Solutions Team effort to help the community make better use of our forestlands through the establishment of a community forest. But we wonder, if the governor was that interested in helping Sweet Home, why he didn’t show up personally to get a glimpse of the situation here. He’s an avid fisherman. Surely some aspects of this project would have held personal interest for him – enough to drive an hour.

Richardson, on the other hand, has some ideas that we think are worthy of voters’ attention. Yes, the fact that he’s been a social conservative might be a turn-off for some. But his critiques of the state’s spending and – what’s more important – suggestions for alternative action have come in a steady stream for years, not just at the start of this campaign.

Oregon has a deserved reputation for being fiercely independent, a quality Kitzhaber reflected in some of his remarks. But sometimes it’s wise to look over the fence and see how someone else is doing things, rather than constantly trying to re-invent the wheel.

Would it not be an attention-getter for potential investors and businesses looking for a home if it were clear that our state took an extremely practical approach to solving problems, instead of constantly trying to gouge citizens and businesses for more money to boost programs we can’t afford and do little to boost personal incentive?

The sense we get from Richardson is that he genuinely is all about exactly that, not only from what he said Friday, but from his track record.

Also notable, though, is Kitzhaber’s calls for collaboration and bipartisanship. He’s right. The urban and rural populations of our state have distinctly different agendas and interests, and they don’t understand each other very well. That’s where a governor needs to step in and bring legislators together to craft solutions that will work for Oregon. Politics really isn’t about fighting. It’s about finding answers and making them happen for constituents.

Quick: Who was the last Republican who ran for governor of Oregon, the one who lost to Kitzhaber last time? The tall guy?

If you’re not a Trailblazers fan and don’t remember Chris Dudley’s name, that’s because he ran a forgettable campaign. He didn’t even bother showing up when he had the opportunity to debate at the ONPA convention four years ago, which would have gotten him free, focused publicity in many if not all of the state’s larger newspapers.

Richardson, on the other hand, has been criss-crossing the state. He’s already been to Sweet Home.

He mentioned in the debate how he’d spent the last two Sundays in African-American churches in Portland, trying to learn more about one of the state’s minority populations. That’s good. That’s what we like to see, an engaged candidate who pays more than lip service to serving “all” of the state’s residents.

African-Americans make up 2 percent of Oregon’s population, so this appears to be more than just a candidate playing the numbers. We like that initiative, what appears to be a genuine desire to reach out.

Initiative and vision appear to be what sets Richardson apart from the guy currently occupying the governor’s seat.

Though Richardson is an interesting candidate, particularly to those of us who live in rural Oregon, he’s got a lot of work to do to make himself a viable contestant in the Nov. 4 election. Not only does he need to sell his views, he needs to get his name out there.

How the state’s Republicans respond to this will be telling. No Republican has been elected governor in Oregon since Vic Atiyeh (who died this past weekend) won a second term in 1982.

At last count, Kitzhaber enjoyed an 11-1 lead in fund-raising and unless people who share Richardson’s vision step up, or something unexpected occurs that propels him into the consciousness of state residents who don’t live in southern Oregon, he may not have what it takes.