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Government and Politics
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

2015: A Year Of Upheaval In Oregon Politics

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Alan Sylvestre
/
OPB
Kate Brown takes the oath of office to become Oregon governor on February 18, 2015.

2015 was an unusual year in Oregon politics, to say the least. For the first time in the state's 156 year history, a governor -- John Kitzhaber -- stepped down under pressure. Oregon's new governor -- Kate Brown -- spent much of the year trying to distance herself from her predecessor.

But the upcoming election cycle means Kitzhaber's name isn't likely to disappear anytime soon.

Twelve days into the new year, John Kitzhaber gave what would be his fourth -- and final -- inaugural address as Oregon governor. As he addressed a joint session of the Oregon legislature, the Democrat noted that he'd been involved in Oregon politics for more than half his life.

"After 36 years I am certainly no longer young and I am certainly no longer naïve,” Kitzhaber said. “But I am still idealistic. I still believe that all of us want to rise beyond our own worst day and give something back to our families and our community."

Arguably, Kitzhaber's own worst day came just one month later. That's when he sat down to record this message:

"I am announcing today that I will resign as governor of the state of Oregon."

The sudden resignation came amid a criminal influence peddling probe by both state and federal investigators. The governor and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, were being investigated for allegedly using the governor's office to help win Hayes private consulting contracts.

Kitzhaber said repeatedly that he had done nothing wrong. His resignation came just weeks into the 2015 legislative session. It was a definite curveball, even for long-time legislative leaders such as Senate President Peter Courtney.

"I never practiced this play. I never was on this team. I don't have any primer,” Courtney said. “I don't have any way of how you do this, because I never thought I'd be here, because it's never happened this way before."

But the Legislature didn't skip a beat. Democrats used their new, larger majorities to pass many of their political priorities even as the governor's office was in turmoil. And when Kate Brown took the oath of office a few days later, she wanted everyone to know that things were going to be different.

"Oregon has been in the national news for all the wrong reasons,” she said. “That changes, starting today."

Brown had been serving as Oregon's Secretary of State. Oregon doesn't have a Lieutenant Governor so Brown was first in line of succession.

Brown shares many of the same political leanings as Kitzhaber. Both are Salem political veterans. But many times over the course of the year, Brown made sure that voters and lawmakers knew that she was no Kitzhaber clone.

Speaking about her administration’s transparency efforts in front of a legislative panel in November she said, "When I assumed office after the former governor resigned, I inherited an enormous backlog of pending public record requests. It was clear that transparency was not a priority in the prior administration."

Brown has to run in 2016 if she wants to keep the job for another two years. She hasn’t filed for office, but she told a reporter at a parade in Pendleton that she would run, and she’s been actively fundraising.

So far, Republicans appear hesitant to try to become the first GOP governor of Oregon since 1987. Salem cancer doctor Bud Pierce, who's never held elected office, is having a go at it. He's even started running TV ads.

Pierce wants voters to associate Kate Brown with John Kitzhaber. But how much the former governor's name surfaces in the 2016 gubernatorial race could depend on the result of those ethics investigations. Kitzhaber hasn't been charged with anything so far.

An indictment in the middle of the governor's race could make 2016 another very interesting year in Oregon politics.