By CRAIG MURPHY Of the Keizertimes
Dennis Richardson kept attacking.
For the most part, Gov. John Kitzhaber steered clear of the attacks.
The two candidates for governor sparred during their first debate last Friday, July 18 at the Salem Convention Center, as part of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s annual summer conference. A number of media outlets, including the Keizertimes, streamed the 90-minute debate live online.
Kitzhaber, a Democrat, is seeking a fourth term while Richardson, a Republican, has been a state legislator since 2003.
“What we’ve done together over the past four years is to create a political operational center that used to be the hallmark of our state,” Kitzhaber said. “It allows us to work as a community. Together, we’ve taken on these difficult challenges and together we’ve succeeded. Leaders from both parties have put people back to work and we’ve closed the budget gap.”
Richardson, meanwhile, immediately went on the attack.
“Governor Kitzhaber must explain his third term failures,” Richardson said, referencing Cover Oregon and the Columbia River Crossing projects. “I believe being governor is a full-time job. For three years the governor has been missing in action. It’s important for the governor to show up. The governor is not tuned into governing. He’s not paying attention and his list of failures proves it.”
Richardson said the most important job he’s held was that of parent.
“When you have nine children, you get used to hearing excuses,” he said. “We need a full-time governor dedicated to getting the job done. I’m here to restore faith in state government. I know what Oregon families are going through and I can help.”
Not surprisingly, the Cover Oregon debacle was a hot topic during the debate.
“I sent letters for a year to the governor,” Richardson said. “He had set up a team. He ignored all of that. We should listen to warnings. We need to listen to what the legislature says.”
Kitzhaber, however, defended his action taken.
“I have removed and held responsible the individuals in Cover Oregon and the Health Authority who made the decisions that led to the failure to roll out a functional website, and now I am seeking damages from Oracle for the technology that they provided to us,” he said. “I just don’t accept the premise that all those dollars were wasted. That money wasn’t wasted because we enrolled 300,000 people.”
The two also differed during discussion of the failed CRC project.
“We’ve spent over 15 years on the CRC and $190 million, and not a single shovel of dirt was ever moved,” Richardson said. “That kind of planning we can’t afford. Let’s focus on the outcomes we want.”
Kitzhaber said he doesn’t make apologies for the CRC and emphasized others agreed with him.
“Nobody, including my opponent, said we shouldn’t do this anymore because there’s an outside chance that Washington state, that has been working on this for a decade, wouldn’t hold up its end of the bargain,” he said. “The problem remains. We had to call the question. We had to do all we could to deal with an infrastructure issue that has a huge impact on our economy.”
Richardson said Oregon is ranked 49th in education and said current standards are letting Oregonians down.
“All we’re doing now is changing our teachers into class monitors,” he said. “They’re having to teach to a test.”
Richardson said the governor needs to be in Washington, D.C. seeking changes to help people in need.
“We need to have a governor who will align with other western governors who are in the same situations with their states and go to (TV) and make a national issue of the fact that we have Americans in depression.”
The two candidates agreed on several topics, such as supporting an initiative to switch Oregon to a top-two primary system and opposing a marijuana legalization measure.
Both also mentioned wanting to first see what happens with recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington first.
By the time closing statements came, Richardson was back on the attack.
“Talk is cheap,” he said. “The governor no longer has the passion to serve and it’s hurting the state. He’s become more aloof and out of touch. We’ve seen it with CRC and Cover Oregon and the hiring of Rudy Crew. While Oregon’s economy lagged, he’s studying gross national happiness in Bhutan. We need to have a governor who spends time in the state.”
By contrast, Kitzhaber pointed to a special session he called last fall for legislators to work on the PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) issue. He pointed out everything on the agenda was quickly approved, while the federal government was shut down.
“The success of that session speaks to who we are and how we work together,” Kitzhaber said. “Oregon, in three days, set an example for itself and the nation.”
Kitzhaber said he first got interested in politics with Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign.
“That inspired me and motivated me to be in public service,” he said. “I’ve learned Oregon is not a good place for any of us to live unless it’s a good place for all of us. It’s not about just creating jobs, it’s about a strong and deep middle class.”