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Community leaders saddened by governor's departure

Gov. John Kitzhaber’s resignation Friday stunned local community leaders who, like many throughout the state, described the event as a sad day for Oregon.

Al Densmore, a former legislator and former Medford councilor, said the governor’s resignation and the events leading up to it are unprecedented.

“It’s an ethical scandal we haven’t seen on this scale in the state,” he said. “I really can’t imagine a sitting governor during a legislative session stepping down.”

Kitzhaber, a Democrat, tendered his resignation after a week of damaging allegations surfaced about his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.

Densmore said he hopes everyone can set aside partisanship and develop a good working relationship with the new governor, Secretary of State Kate Brown, a Democrat who will be sworn in Wednesday.

“She needs to do a good job reconstructing the administration and putting together a team that Oregonians can have confidence in,” Densmore said.

Bill Thorndike, a Medford businessman who had been appointed to various commissions by Kitzhaber, said the “maelstrom” of allegations and events created a difficult situation for the governor.

“It is very, very tragic,” he said.

Thorndike said he hoped efforts started by Kitzhaber to reform education and health care would continue. The president of Medford Fabrication, Thorndike is involved in the Oregon Prosperity Project that is developing programs to reduce poverty. He said he hopes that effort continues under Brown.

Local Democratic legislators continued to show their support for Kitzhaber.

“It’s a sad day for the state,” said Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford. “It’s a sad day that a governor can be hounded out of office by a newspaper.”

Bates, who last talked to the governor two weeks ago in Medford and considers him a personal friend, said the Oregonian’s call for Kitzhaber to resign helped undermine his support.

At this point, Bates said, he’s not inclined to believe Kitzhaber did anything unethical, based on their 30-year friendship.

Bates said Kitzhaber’s erratic behavior, described in an email by Brown, likely was the result of the governor not sleeping for a week as he faced increasing calls to step down. Brown said Kitzhaber asked her to return from a conference in Washington, D.C., then asked why she had left early when she arrived.

“He’s probably mentally and physically exhausted,” Bates said. “The pressure on him is a complete nightmare.” Both Bates and Kitzhaber are doctors.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said there had been a strong desire to support the governor among legislators, but the events of the past week evolved so quickly it caught everyone off guard.

“Everyone was trying to figure this out but there was a lot of confusion,” Buckley said. “The governor had found himself in a situation he’d never been in before.”

Buckley said the governor’s decision to resign was based on his love for Hayes and his love for this state, and he said Kitzhaber said as much in his resignation announcement.

He said the governor realized that dealing with an attorney general’s investigation would consume a lot of staff time and divert energies away from running the state.

As the revelations mounted over the past few months, Buckley said, the governor continued to believe he had acted in an ethical manner.

“He never foresaw there was a conflict,” Buckley said, adding that the media played a part in the pressure for Kitzhaber to resign.

But Buckley said the tipping point came when new revelations surfaced over the past two weeks that Hayes received money for her consulting work but apparently didn’t report it on her tax returns. Hayes was out of the country and couldn't answer questions about the consulting money.

Even though Buckley said he sees Kitzhaber's resignation as a sad time for the state, he said Brown will be an effective governor who can readily assume her new duties, though there will be a transition period of about a week that could briefly slow up the legislative process.

At the same time Kitzhaber announced his resignation Friday, legislators received cookies with the state seal commemorating Oregon’s 156th birthday on Saturday.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said the timing of the governor’s resignation and the cookies added a peculiar sadness to the event.

“I’m glad it’s over one way or another,” Esquivel said, while expressing hope that the Legislature develops a good working relationship with the new governor. But he noted the ordeal is not entirely over, as Kitzhaber still faces the scrutiny of an attorney general’s office investigation.

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