Kitzhaber's art of compromise getting national attention

Kitzhaber's art of compromise getting national attention

PORTLAND, Ore. – The power of persuasion recently helped Gov. John Kitzhaber get five controversial bills passed in a three-day special session, and his skills as a consensus builder has been getting noticed nationally.

The Oregon Legislature's accomplishment of compromise last month on public pension reform and changes to the tax code stood in stark contrast to the gridlock in the nation's capital.

"We don't have a lot of time, and so what I'm suggesting to the congressional leaders is let’s not do any posturing, let's not try to save face," said President Barack Obama the night before the nation was expected to reach its debt ceiling.

Most voters would say it was not a proud moment in American history.

Kitzhaber would agree.

"I think in Washington, D.C. it's like a traveling Broadway show," he told KATU's Steve Dunn during an exclusive interview earlier this week. "It doesn't matter what town it's in, the only thing that matters is what goes on inside the tent. I think they’ve lost touch as an institution with what's going on in America.

"I think they're totally divorced from the struggles of the average Americans, and it's really about the political game – it's about acquisition and retention of partisan power," he said.

Kitzhaber, who is a Democrat, is serving a historic third term as governor after taking an 8-year break from two previous terms as the state's top elected political leader. During those first two terms, he got bogged down in partisan battles, but now he's garnering national attention for his ability to get Oregon lawmakers to put aside party preferences during its special session.

The Washington Post's Reid Wilson recently wrote about Kitzhaber: "Observers who recall Kitzhaber's bumpy first two terms in office barely recognize the collegial, calmer, happier person they see now."

And this week, Washington, D.C.-based Governing magazine, which covers state and local government issues, named Kitzhaber, along with eight others, a public official of the year for 2013, focusing on his work in health-care reform, but also recognizing his efforts in consensus building.

"Kitzhaber really embodies the whole idea of bringing people together to support policies that improve everyone's lives," said the magazines' executive editor, Zach Patton. "We wanted to highlight the way the governor has focused on building consensus, working with lawmakers both inside his party and across the aisle to enact legislation that helps all Oregonians."

Patton noted that the magazine recognized co-speakers Bruce Hanna and Arnie Roblan for the same award in 2012, adding "It's not often that we return to the same state year after year, but the spirit of bipartisanship and true cooperation really seems to have taken hold in Oregon."

Under Kitzhaber's leadership during this year's special session, Republican and Democratic legislators agreed to what's being called the "grand bargain" – five bills that reform the state's public pension system, add services for seniors, raise the state's cigarette tax, give small businesses new tax breaks and an increase in taxes on corporations – all to funnel new revenue to Oregon schools.

How did Kitzhaber manage so much agreement in so little time?

"At the end of the day, it took isolating these issues – so the debate was just focused on the question of how do you provide adequate resources for our schools? How do you provide support for struggling small family businesses, and isolating it like that made the issues and the larger challenge of where we wanted to end up 10 years from now much, much clearer to the Legislature," he said.

Kitzhaber said it helped that he learned a thing or two from his previous terms, including how to use the bully pulpit.

"The convening authority of this office is pretty significant," he said. "I don't think I used it as well as I could have the last time I was governor."

Also this term, he invited legislative leaders to his home in Salem, Mahonia Hall, a number of times, so they'd be able to talk in a more relaxed atmosphere and "let their hair down and be honest with one another."

And this time around, there were no Plan Bs.

Dunn asked the governor what the secret ingredient was for making the grand bargain come together.

"I guess the willingness to go down in flames while attempting to fly makes it easy to take political risks – that would be sort of my philosophy," Kitzhaber said.

During the interview, Kitzhaber gave full credit to those legislative leaders for seeing that what they were doing was for the state and not just for party stakeholders.

KATU.com politics editor, Steve Benham, contributed to this report.