'It’s kind of like a soap opera'
New developments in the scandal swirling around Gov. John Kitzhaber — including calls for his resignation from the top leaders of his own party — have Jackson County politicians sensing the end may be near for Kitzhaber's career.
“I’m watching the self-destruction of a guy who did not earn the right to be governor for the fourth time,” said Republican Dennis Richardson, former state representative from Central Point who ran for governor against Kitzhaber in 2014. “The evidence of corruption and unethical behavior is overwhelming, and the governor needs to resign.”
Rumors of Kitzhaber’s resignation circulated wildly on Thursday amid reports that staff members quit in the wake of influence-peddling scandals surrounding Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.
“It looks like he’s done,” Richardson said.
On Thursday, Willamette Week and 101.9 KINK/FM News 101 KXL reported Kitzhaber’s office attempted to destroy thousands of personal emails from state servers.
Revelations of Hayes' involvement in a sham marriage to help an Ethiopian man get a green card surfaced during Kitzhaber’s campaign. Hayes admitted she didn’t claim the $5,000 fee on her tax return.
Kitzhaber has been criticized for allowing Hayes access to the governor’s office and influencing policy that would benefit her personally.
Senate President Peter Courtney and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, both Democrats, called for Kitzhaber’s resignation after meeting with the governor Thursday morning. If he did resign, his successor would be Secretary of State Kate Brown.
Richardson said he would support Brown as governor over Kitzhaber.
“I’m encouraged that we would get someone in the governor’s office without the taint,” he said.
Local lawmakers generally said they were focused on the legislative session and that it was difficult to keep up with the continuing revelations.
“It’s kind of like a soap opera,” said Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford. “The hits just keep on coming.”
By and large, most Republicans haven’t been asking for Kitzhaber to step down, unlike members of his own party, Esquivel said.
Esquivel said Republicans were generally willing to let the investigative process play out before asking for Kitzhaber’s resignation.
“It’s really too bad because it is a sad day for Oregon,” he said. “I’m sorry this had to happen.”
Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, said that based on his long history with Kitzhaber he assumes there has been no misconduct, but said he will wait for the full investigation to play out before making a determination.
“I’ve known this governor for 30 years,” Bates said. “Until something is proven, actually proven, I will continue to be fully in support of him as both a governor and a friend.”
In the meantime, Bates said, legislators are focused on the session in front of them. Bates said he had committee meetings that last into the evening.
“We have a job to do up here in the Legislature,” Bates said. “Nothing is going to keep us from doing that. This is not going to be a distraction for us, the issue with the governor.”
But Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, said in a prepared statement, “It is unfortunate that Oregonians have to be distracted by these issues. I encourage folks to let the process take place. I am not going to speculate on the issues surrounding the governor, but rather I will be focusing on policy affecting the state of Oregon and my constituents.”
Sen. Doug Whitsett, a Klamath Falls Republican who represents northern Jackson County, said the mounting scandal has raised concern on both sides of the aisle.
“The allegations, if true, are significantly worse than what brought down Gov. McDonnell in Virginia,” he said, referring to Robert McDonnell, who ended up in prison after getting embroiled in a corruptions scandal involving gifts made to McDonnell and his wife.
Whitsett, who is inclined to withhold judgment until the investigations are concluded, said the allegations against Kitzhaber are serious and raise many questions about ethics, potential tax evasion and crony capitalism.