Jack Ohman

Oregon governor’s tragedy means a friend may ascend

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber kisses his girlfriend, Cylvia Hayes, after being sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term last month. Kitzhaber is facing increasing calls for him to resign after revelations that he helped Hayes secure state contracts.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber kisses his girlfriend, Cylvia Hayes, after being sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term last month. Kitzhaber is facing increasing calls for him to resign after revelations that he helped Hayes secure state contracts. The Associated Press

America’s national pastime isn’t baseball. It’s bashing elected officials, and it’s very easy to do when they appear to be bashing themselves. We forget they’re people like us.

In Oregon, Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, a physician, is enmeshed in a tawdry tale of influence-peddling involving his girlfriend, Cylvia Hayes. He has taken to referring to her as Oregon’s first lady.

She is 20 years Kitzhaber’s junior and pulls down six-figure retainers as a green-energy consultant. Immediately before the 2014 election, she revealed that she had been secretly married, unbeknownst to the governor, and had also been involved in a marijuana-growing operation in her 20s.

This puts Shrimp Boy to shame in terms of sheer headline firepower.

On Jan. 30, Gov. Kitzhaber gave a rare news conference but stomped off abruptly after not convincingly answering questions. The mess got worse when Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission and the FBI launched inquiries. State newspapers called for his resignation.

It gets worse, and sadder.

On Tuesday, there were rumors that Kitzhaber was about to resign, and that Secretary of State Kate Brown, next in line of succession, was flying back from Washington, D.C., to take over. She did, and met with Kitzhaber at his request to discuss the transition. She was dumbfounded when Kitzhaber asked her why, precisely, she had returned to Oregon.

The citizens of Oregon were stunned, too, when they discovered that their governor had gone from a Nixonian figure to a possibly delusional one.

I lived in Oregon, where I drew political cartoons for a living, and know Kitzhaber and Brown. I went to junior high school with “Katie” Brown in Minnesota, where we grew up.

She was a student government/cheerleader type, petite, immensely popular and wore a “Nixon Now” button in 1972.

When we were in high school, I led an effort to change our student body constitution to force her out of office. She appointed me to the school board, the mark of a masterful politician, and managed to forgive me later. There are no permanent enemies in politics.

She moved to Oregon after college and went to law school in Portland. A Democrat now, Brown is warm, verbal and dogged. Right before her run for an Oregon legislative seat, she called me and lamented that The Oregonian, where I worked, didn’t endorse her.

I said, well, you should print the endorsement from the other paper, Willamette Week, and drop it door-to-door. She did, and won by seven votes.

Kitzhaber dated one of The Oregonian’s editorial writers when I worked there, and attended my 25th birthday party. I have spoken to him many times, mostly about fly fishing. I saw him last year at a memorial service at which we gave eulogies. I jokingly noted that Jerry Brown, 76, referred to Kitzhaber, 67, as “the Boy Governor.”

Kitzhaber is a former emergency-room physician. He is a brilliant loner, and, frankly, can be cold and distant, respected more than liked. He was a masterful policy analyst and creator, and not so good at convincing legislators to go along. At the end of his second term, he called Oregon ungovernable. He came back for a third term and was just re-elected to a fourth last November.

Never did I ever think that Kitzhaber was anything other than a high-handed ER doc. The news that he seems to have entered a surreal state is tragic. And we are about to add another Gov. Brown, my junior high school friend.

This Shakespearean moment shows that automatons don’t hold office. Human beings do.

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