How close is the Oregon governor’s race this year? Close enough that the outcome could hinge on union member turnout.
The race is between Democrat John Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor and two-term Oregon governor, and Republican Chris Dudley, an investment advisor and former professional basketball player with the Portland Trailblazers.
Organized labor in Oregon is pulling hard for Kitzhaber, while Dudley lacks any union endorsements, even though he was once a union negotiator with the National Basketball Players Association. That’s partly because on a range of issues, from jobs to health care reform to tax policy, Kitzhaber’s platform is much closer to what the union movement has been advocating in Salem. It’s also because Kitzhaber has sought union support, and Dudley has not.
Whereas Kitzhaber outlined his views in a half-hour-long interview with the Labor Press, the Dudley campaign failed to respond to an interview request.
Dudley’s “Jobs First” recovery plan is centered on reducing the personal income tax rate on capital gains, and increasing tax deductions for businesses that make new capital investments. By contrast, Kitzhaber’s main back-to-work proposal would use state-issued energy conservation bonds to fund large-scale construction and energy upgrades to public schools.
“For the building trades, there’s no question,” said John Mohlis, executive director of Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council (OSBCTC). “[Kitzhaber] has a specific plan to weatherize, which would put our out-of-work members back to work,” Mohlis said. Mohlis said building trades unions have had no contact with Dudley, but Kitzhaber, as a former governor, is a known quantity with whom they’ve had a good working relationship with in the past.
Kitzhaber twice during a televised debate declared the urgency of getting people in the trades back to work; unemployment in construction is as high as 30 percent.
Both candidates say they support building a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. Kitzhaber said one of the first calls he’ll make, if elected, is to Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire — to see how they can get the project off the ground quickly.
Both candidates also oppose building a new casino in the Columbia Gorge, a project the building trades have supported. Kitzhaber said he’s been candid with trades unions about why.
“I think being consistent is a value that’s important,” Kitzhaber told the Labor Press. “I negotiated the contracts with the sovereign Native American tribes when I was governor, and we had a couple of provisions: one casino per tribe, and no casinos on after-acquired land.”
On health care, Kitzhaber wants to reform delivery and rein in costs. Kitzhaber is the architect of the Oregon Health Plan, which attempts to stretch federal Medicaid dollars to cover more low-income Oregonians. Now he proposes to pool 800,000 Oregonians — Medicaid recipients and public employees and their dependents — into one delivery mechanism, which would save money by focusing on prevention and wellness and efficient management of chronic health conditions.
On fiscal policy, Dudley says he wants tax cuts for businesses and investors, but he says the state should spend more money on higher education — and put away 3 percent of its revenues for a “rainy day.” How he would manage to cut taxes, increase spending and not borrow money is not explained.
He also proposes to privatize liquor sales, and use alcohol taxes to fund schools; Kitzhaber opposes that idea.
Kitzhaber wants a capital gains tax cut too, but not an across-the-board one as Dudley is advocating. Kitzhaber proposes that proceeds from the sale of an Oregon business not be taxed if they’re used to buy another Oregon business within a few years — not unlike the way home sale proceeds aren’t taxed if they’re used to purchase another home.
As governor, Kitzhaber required a biennial tax expenditure report that tallied the dollar value of each tax break, and he told the Labor Press he’s in favor of “sunsetting” tax breaks unless they’re periodically reauthorized by the Legislature.
To cushion against future state budget shortfalls, Kitzhaber thinks the state should not issue “kicker” tax refunds until a rainy day fund is filled.
Kitzhaber’s positions match labor’s on a number of issues that have come up in recent ballot measures and legislative sessions. He said he supports the establishment of a paid family leave benefit; favors Buy America and Buy Oregon requirements for state purchases; defends the requirement to pay prevailing wage on public construction projects; and would support minimum nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals, as long as the ratios are based on the quality of patient care. He doesn’t support basing teacher pay on student test scores. And he does not foresee taking part in a regional cap-and-trade program for regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
There’s no equivalent information on Dudley’s positions.
“We don’t know where he stands on the issues,” said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain. “That’s because he’s never given us the time of day.” Unlike past Republican candidates, Dudley never asked for union support, declined to fill out questionnaires, and didn’t respond when unions like the International Association of Fire Fighters — which backs Republicans more often than most unions — invited him to discuss their issues.
“Kitzhaber, on other hand, has a pretty deep history running the state, and dealing with unions, in good times and bad,” Chamberlain said. “It hasn’t been all hearts and flowers. But John has plan to move the state forward with jobs, and that’s the crux of this election.”.