Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D)
Elected: 2002, term expires Jan. 2011, 2nd term.
Born: Nov. 5, 1940, Missouri .
Education: U. of MO, B.A. 1967, J.D. 1970.
Family: Married (Mary); 3 children.
Military career: Marine Corps, 1959-63.
Elected office: OR House of Reps., 1974-78; OR Senate, 1978-82; OR Atty. Gen., 1992-96; OR Sup. Ct., 1996-2001.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1971-87; OR insurance commissioner, 1987-92.
Ted Kulongoski was elected governor of Oregon in 2002. He was born in rural Missouri, and, after his father died, was raised by nuns in a Catholic boys’ home from ages 4 to 14. After high school, Kulongoski (koo-lun-GAW-ski) joined the Marine Corps, and later saved enough money working in a steel mill and as a truck driver to attend the University of Missouri; he graduated from college and law school there at ages 26 and 29. He moved to Eugene, Ore., and practiced labor law, representing mostly unions. He also worked as a state legislative staffer, helping to write a law giving public employee unions collective bargaining rights. Kulongoski was elected to the Oregon House in 1974 and the Oregon Senate in 1978. In the Legislature, he was regarded as a champion of labor unions. In 1980, he ran against Republican Sen. Bob Packwood and held him to 52% in a Republican year. In 1982, he ran against GOP Gov. Victor Atiyeh and lost by a humiliating 61%-36%. Kulongoski moved to Portland and practiced law. In 1987, his political career was revived by Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, who appointed him insurance commissioner. He went on to help broker changes in workmen’s compensation laws, which earned him resentment from his old friends in the unions. In 1992, after a tough Democratic primary, he was elected attorney general, and then in 1996, he won election to the Oregon Supreme Court. In 2001, he resigned to campaign for governor.
|Ted Kulongoski (D)||699,786||(51%)|
|Ron Saxton (R)||589,748||(43%)|
|Mary Starrett (CNP)||50,229||(4%)|
|Ted Kulongoski (D)||170,944||(54%)|
|Jim Hill (D)||92,439||(29%)|
|Pete Sorenson (D)||51,346||(16%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (49%)
Of the six major candidates, three Democrats and three Republicans, Kulongoski was the best-known, having been elected to jobs in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of state government. He argued that he had the experience to solve Oregon’s major problems—unemployment, a budget shortfall, and shoring up the state employees’ pension fund. Outgoing Gov. John Kitzhaber and the preceding two Democratic governors, Barbara Roberts and Goldschmidt, quickly endorsed him. Against former state Treasurer Jim Hill and former Multnomah County Commission Chairman Bev Stein, Kulongoski depicted himself as the more moderate choice. With late contributions from public employees unions, he outspent the others and won the May 2002 primary with 49% of the vote, to 26% for Hill and 22% for Stein.
The winner of the Republican primary was Kevin Mannix, a Democratic state representative from 1988 to 1996 and a Democratic candidate for attorney general in 1996. He switched parties in 1997 and was elected to the state Senate as a Republican the following year. Mannix was a prolific drafter of legislation—135 of his bills became law in 10 years. He also sponsored several ballot initiatives, and his three tough-on-crime measures won in 1996. He ran as a “populist Republican,” pledging to oppose new taxes and abortion rights.
Kulongoski called Mannix “divisive” and criticized him for invoking the abortion issue in the primary, but the campaign focused more on fiscal issues. The overriding concern at the time was a budget shortfall estimated at $720 million out of a $16 billion budget. Oregon has no sales tax and relies heavily on the income tax. In addition, Measure 5, passed in 1990, limits property-tax increases, so the state provides 80% of school funding. In 2002, the Legislature made significant cuts in planned spending and authorized a special referendum to raise the top income-tax rate from 9% to 9.8%. Kulongoski supported the proposal, reluctantly he said; Mannix opposed it, and said he could make enough cuts to make it unnecessary. (The measure ultimately failed.) Kulongoski called on localities to pay a greater share for education, promising to develop a consensus for a permanent, stable funding base, with even a sales tax in the mix—long verboten in Oregon politics. He called for all children to be covered by the Oregon Health Plan even if it meant removing some adults from the program. Mannix campaigned with gusto, handled debates well, and accurately banked on the tax issue to unite Republicans, which brought him large contributions in the final weeks of campaigning.
By all measures—party label, experience, and familiarity to voters—Kulongoski seemed to be an easy winner. But on election night, Mannix was ahead in the count, and Kulongoski pulled off a victory only narrowly, 49%-46%. He carried just eight of 36 counties—Multnomah, the counties containing the state’s two big universities, three on the Pacific coast, and two on the Columbia River on either side of Portland.
Kulongoski had a stormy first term, marked by a recession that hit Oregon harder than most states. After voters rejected the tax-increase referendum, he was forced to cut spending drastically, and some public schools had to shorten their school year. Then in August 2003, he persuaded the divided Legislature—Republicans had a majority in the House; the Senate was 15-15—to vote for a tax increase. Anti-tax-increase groups quickly got out petitions to put the issue to the voters in February 2004. Kulongoski quietly supported the tax hike, but it was rejected 59%-41%. Kulongoski let $545 million in scheduled spending cuts go into effect, with the Oregon public health plan particularly hard hit. On a brighter note, Kulongoski succeeded in getting the Legislature to pass a 10-year bill to borrow $2.5 billion to repair bridges. By December 2004, the state found that half the bridges were in good shape and the money could be used on road projects.
Also in his first term, Kulongoski’s longtime political friendship with Neil Goldschmidt turned into a grave liability for him. Elected mayor of Portland in 1972 at age 32, then going on to serve as Jimmy Carter’s Transportation secretary, Goldschmidt was once Oregon’s political wunderkind. He had supported Kulongoski in all of his campaigns for public office, and had rescued Kulongoski’s career with the appointment as insurance commissioner after the failed gubernatorial bid. In turn, when he became governor, Kulongoski appointed Goldschmidt to head the state Board of Higher Education and PGE, the Portland utility. Then, on April 26, 2004, Goldschmidt abruptly resigned, and the reason surfaced a few days later. On May 6, after the Willamette Week put the story on its website, Goldschmidt admitted to the Portland Oregonian that he had had an affair with a 14-year-old girl in 1975 and 1976, when he was Portland mayor. The offense was a felony, though the statute of limitations had passed. Kulongoski said he “had no knowledge” of the charge, but a Goldschmidt aide insisted he had told Kulongoski about it in the 1990s. Kulongoski said Goldschmidt had “betrayed” him.
Going into his 2006 reelection campaign, Kulongoski looked to be one of the nation’s most vulnerable governors. His job-approval ratings were below 50%. Within his own party, there was considerable dissatisfaction with his performance, particularly among labor groups, which resented his efforts to reduce pension benefits of public employees and to freeze state salaries. Republicans slammed him for supporting two statewide income-tax increases that were defeated by Oregon voters. Kulongoski had made some progress on creating jobs, and he had earned goodwill by attending the funeral of almost every Oregon soldier who died in the Iraq war. But candidates on the left and the right were lining up against him.
Kulongoski got a break in January 2006 when his Democratic predecessor, John Kitzhaber, announced he would not challenge him in the May primary. The state economy was also in better shape than when Kulongoski took office. But he still had serious opposition on the left from former state Treasurer Jim Hill, who finished second in the 2002 primary for governor, and Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, both of whom criticized him not doing enough on education and health care. Hill went so far as to call Kulongoski a “bad Democrat.” Kulongoski won the low turnout affair with 54%, carrying all but two small counties and winning by 2-1 in Portland’s Multnomah County and in suburban Portland’s Washington and Clackamas counties. Hill finished second with 29%, followed by Sorenson with 16%.
The nominee from the bruising Republican primary was Ron Saxton, who had lost to Mannix in the 2002 primary but returned to defeat him in 2006. A former Portland School Board member, Saxton had run as a moderate in 2002, but this time he made a play for conservative votes, advocating tough immigration policies and courting abortion-rights opponents on issues such as a late-term abortion ban and parental notification. He did not have a clear shot at Kulongoski in the general election. State Sen. Ben Westlund, a Republican who re-registered as an independent, announced in February that he was running too.
Kulongoski talked about stabilizing school funding, providing more health insurance coverage for children, and increasing the state’s use of renewable energy. He generated controversy by suggesting that the state suspend its practice of sending rebate checks to taxpayers when there were excess state revenues and instead spend the money on schools and health care; he later backed away from that idea but did not rule out various tax increases. Saxton said “our views of government could not be more different” and insisted that the state had enough money for essential services. He called for tax cuts and more efficiency in state government. On the environment, there were also clear differences. Kulongoski touted his clean-car initiative, similar to California’s aggressive move to reduce car emissions; Saxton wanted to overturn it.
In August, Westlund dropped out of the race, saying he could not win and did not want to be a spoiler candidate—a sign that Kulongoski had made considerable progress toward uniting Democrats behind his candidacy. In October, he endorsed Kulongoski and campaigned with him across the state. Kulongoski ended up winning 51%-43%. He carried just 12 of 36 counties and lost everything east of the Cascades, but won 68%-25% in Portland’s Multnomah County, enough to power him to victory. Kulongoski won by 110,000 votes statewide; his 112,000-vote margin in Multnomah County made all the difference. It was an unimpressive victory in what was a Democratic year nationally, but it hardly mattered. Republicans remained shut out of the governor’s office, having last won it in 1982. Democrats captured the state House, giving them control of the governorship and the Legislature for the first time in 16 years.
In 2007, Kulongoski approved a nearly 18% increase in K-12 education spending, funding for 100 more state troopers, and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. The session was widely described as the state’s “greenest” in decades, with an expansion of Oregon’s bottle bill to require deposits on bottled water containers and a plan to require utilities to generate a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. But the overall picture was mixed: The governor failed to deliver on his pledge to overhaul the state’s archaic tax structure, the Legislature rejected his Brand Oregon marketing plan, and voters were largely disenchanted with state government.