It's not the first time Jack Roberts has made a knight's move on the chessboard of public life. His jump from the Lane County Board of Commissioners to the office of state labor commissioner was at once upward and sideways. Now, as Roberts walks out, or is shown out, the door of the Lane Metro Partnership, Gov. John Kitzhaber has nominated him to become director of the Oregon Lottery. The choice is a gamble, but it ought to pay off.
Kitzhaber certainly doesn't owe Roberts any favors. Roberts' eight years as labor commissioner coincided with Kitzhaber's first two terms as governor, from 1995 to 2003. Except for U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, Roberts was the last Republican elected to statewide office in Oregon (the office of labor commissioner has since been made nonpartisan), and he took some memorable swipes at Democratic leaders. Roberts characterized Kitzhaber, for instance, as having presided over "eight years of aimless drift."
Roberts' evaluation has grown more favorable during Kitzhaber's third term. If Roberts believed Kitzhaber held a grudge, he would not have applied for appointment to one of three new positions on the state Court of Appeals. The appointments were announced last week, and Roberts didn't get one — but a day later, the governor named him as his choice to head the lottery.
The current lottery director, Larry Niswender, has been on the job eight years and will retire on Nov. 30. Turnover at the top of the agency has been heavy in recent months, and Niswender's departure will make it nearly complete. Kitzhaber has been installing new directors at a variety of state agencies and departments, and his nomination of Roberts fits a pattern of seeking new leadership of the governor's choosing.
Roberts and Kitzhaber regard the lottery as a necessary evil — both voted against its creation in 1984, both would prefer to run state government without it, and both recognize that the $1 billion it generates for the state every two years could not be easily replaced. The lottery is second only to the income tax as a source of general fund revenue. The lottery director's job is to quietly keep the revenues flowing, while at the same time publicly deploring the effects of problem gambling.
Niswender didn't strike that balance. Kitzhaber ordered him to withdraw a plan for an online lottery portal that some saw as being aimed at youths. Niswender sought an opinion from the attorney general's office that forced the Oregon Lottery to curtail spending on programs designed to prevent or treat problem gambling.
Roberts brings political skills to the job, but it will be a new role for him. As labor commissioner, Roberts managed a mid-size state agency, gaining experience that ought to transfer to the lottery position — but he'll answer to the five-member Lottery Commission and the governor instead of being an independently elected official. Though the lottery was created to provide funds for economic development, and Roberts has spent the past decade as a business recruiter and developer, the lottery now supports a variety of state programs ranging from parks to education and is not involved in running any of them.
The lottery also is a political minefield. It puts the state in direct competition with casinos operated by Oregon's Native American tribes. There's constant tension between the state and retailers over how to split the lottery take. Lottery revenues have plateaued, and might begin to decline if gamblers become jaded or turn to options such as online gaming. Anything that causes the slightest tremor in public confidence in the fairness of the lottery would be a disaster.
But Roberts will adapt to his new element quickly. He has energy for projects that interest him and an active imagination that could provide creative leadership. Kitzhaber has made an unexpected choice, but a promising one.