Democratic Ex-Governor Beats Republican NBA Star for Oregon Top Spot

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The governor who once called Oregon ungovernable on his way out of Salem has been elected to another four years on the job. This time, the task before John Kitzhaber doesn't look much easier.

Kitzhaber defeated political newcomer and former NBA star Chris Dudley to win the election, with a protracted vote-counting process that stretched into Wednesday evening.

But just as he takes office, Democratic supermajorities in both the state House and Senate will slip to a possible tie in the House and a slight advantage in the Senate. Kitzhaber's best chance for an easy road for his largest proposals crumbles with them.

"There's a kind of cosmic joke at work here for him," said Oregon State political scientist Bill Lunch. "He's put himself in the position to preside over a bloodbath of hostility, recrimination, backbiting, claims and counterclaims, the worst of what ordinary citizens think of politicians.

"The Roman emperors could not have dreamed up a more delicious torture for their gladiators than this. It's just going to be ugly."

Kitzhaber will enter office with enough challenges: a $3.2 billion budget hole in the next biennium, a fractious relationship between public employee unions and the state that is struggling to afford them, and an electoral victory that came by the narrowest of margins over Dudley.

A divided Legislature will provide additional stumbling blocks to his agenda. Chief among them is a plan to retrofit Oregon schools that could face an immediate pushback from Republicans loath to spend money on public projects.

Kitzhaber had trailed Dudley in early voting, but made up the difference with votes from heavily democratic Multnomah County in one of the tightest gubernatorial elections in recent history. Dudley conceded the race Wednesday evening.

"That's probably the hardest part right now, is the thousands of people who poured their hearts and souls into this," said Dudley, who declined to say whether he would consider another run for elected office.

With the state budget heading off a cliff and no one certain who's driving, Kitzhaber will have to negotiate a narrow, delicate path to steer the state onto safer financial ground.

The candidates spent a combined total of at least $15 million on their campaigns this year. Kitzhaber -- who becomes the first three-term governor of Oregon -- benefited from the Democrats' chief advantage in Oregon, the large registration lead that has grown in recent years, in part because of the 2008 campaign of President Barack Obama, who returned to Oregon in the final days of the campaign to urge Kitzhaber's supporters to get out the vote.

Republicans picked up seats in the Oregon House and Senate and were within one seat of tying Democrats in the House. Democrats were expected to keep a 16-14 lead in the Senate.

The divided Legislature could make Kitzhaber's proposals a tough sell, something he dealt with while vetoing a record 69 bills in 1999 and earning the nickname "Dr. No." On his way out, he called the state "ungovernable." It takes two-thirds of lawmakers in each house to override a veto.

Kitzhaber's plan to retrofit Oregon schools could face a pushback from Republicans loath to spend money on public projects. He has pledged to work with unions to alleviate Oregon's budget crisis, but Pacific University political scientist Jim Moore said the labor groups shouldn't expect a friend in Salem even after contributing heavily to Kitzhaber's campaign.

"For unions, it will be better than what Dudley would have done," Moore said. "The unions are going to have to sit down and talk again about contracts, obligations, and the role of individual union members.

Lawmakers will struggle to move bills out of the Legislature without bipartisan support -- an arrangement that could force the parties to work together or descend into gridlock. Oregon doesn't have a method for breaking ties, so tied votes fail.

Oregon's last tie was in the 2003 Senate, when the parties worked out a power sharing agreement in which a Democrat was Senate president but a Republican leader held expanded power over legislation. A Democrat chaired the powerful Ways and Means budget committee while Republicans controlled the three subcommittees.

"There's two options," Moore said. "One, we enter political deadlock, so the Oregon being 'ungovernable' happens again. Or, more likely, they focus on what can be agreed upon between two parties on what to cut from the budget."

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, leaving office after the two straight terms allowed by Oregon law, has described Oregon's budget situation as heading for a cliff, and it doesn't show many signs of brightening.

Twice this year, as state finances deteriorated, Kulongoski called for across-the-board budget cuts that have resulted in teacher layoffs and a prison closing. He and a board of advisers have said sterner measures will be required next year.