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Final face-off

Rep. Dennis Richardson came out swinging Monday night during the final gubernatorial debate in Medford with Gov. John Kitzhaber just two weeks before the Nov. 4 election.

“The governor’s embroiled now in a scandal that makes the state of Oregon a national joke,” said Richardson, the Central Point candidate. “Governor, that’s not ok. That’s corruption.”

Richardson attacked his Democratic opponent on a variety of issues, focusing mostly on the failed rollout of Cover Oregon but hitting hard over the scandals plaguing the governor’s fiancee, Cylvia Hayes.

Kitzhaber, who jabbed back at his opponent at times, said Richardson is out of step with the values many Oregonians share, including a woman’s right to choose and a couple’s right to marry whomever they want regardless of gender.

“People have the right to marry the one they love,” said Kitzhaber, who is seeking his fourth term in office.

Kitzhaber said Richardson has a long record opposing issues that many Oregonians embrace, saying that during Richardson’s time as representative he supported 11 bills that would restrict a woman’s right to choose.

Richardson attempted to paint a picture of a lack of leadership over the past four years, but Kitzhaber responded that the state is doing vastly better now, adding 100,000 new jobs and reversing the shortfalls that plagued the Oregon economy. Kitzhaber said he hopes the federal government is working toward a solution that will help open up Oregon forests to more timber production, while being mindful of conservation and habitat preservation concerns.

The debate, which had a serious and occasionally testy tone, was punctuated with only a few lighter moments and took place in the KOBI Channel 5 studios in downtown Medford before an audience of more than 50 people.

Richardson said abortion and marriage issues will not be a part of his agenda if he was elected governor. He said these issues had been vigorously debated and were now settled.

The governor, who has been on the ropes over the continuing problems with Hayes, said the issues with his fiancee took place long before he ever met her. Hayes has admitted to marrying an Ethiopian immigrant in 1997 for a $5,000 fee so he could legally stay in the country. Also, she was involved in purchasing a property for a marijuana grow site. In addition, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission is is reviewing complaints Hayes inappropriately mingled her role as first lady and as a private consultant.

“The governor’s fiancee sees nothing wrong with taking money from companies that influence the governor,” Richardson said.

Kitzhaber said he would await the decisions of the ethics commission, but said he believed “inflated campaign rhetoric” was possibly turning the claims about ethics violations into a bigger issue.

Richardson himself gained national attention when he proposed that key school employees be trained to carry firearms to prevent tragedies such as the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012.

The candidates took different stances over the difficulty in finding suitable job applicants in rural areas who can pass the drug screening.

“Many in rural Oregon feel hopeless,” Richardson said.

He said the governor has largely ignored rural areas while concentrating his attention mostly on the communities along the Interstate 5 cooridor.

Kitzhaber said Oregon needs to strengthen its education system to offer more career counseling, computer training and other skills that employers are seeking.

At the same time, he said, children need to be involved in early childhood education, while at-risk families are provided with treatment and other resources to help them stay away from drugs.

Both Richardson and Kitzhaber opposed Ballot Measure 91, saying they prefer to wait to see how legalization of marijuana plays out in Colorado and Washington states.

They also agreed that there should be better background checking and restrictions before giving guns to those with mental health issues or felony convictions.

The two candidates, however, generally made a point of their differences.

“Vote out the governor and his cronies,” Richardson suggested.

“It’s about values and the ability to deliver,” Kitzhaber said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, left, and Rep. Dennis Richardson shake hands after a gubernatorial debate Monday evening at KOBI in downtown Medford. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore