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Local editorial

Kitzhaber: Part III Is our former governor ready to run a state he called ungovernable?

His final speech as governor sounded like a lasting, relieved ' and somewhat bitter ' farewell.

On Jan. 7, 2003, John Kitzhaber told a Eugene gathering that partisanship had caused the failure of government.

Politics in general and politicians in particular, are viewed with disdain, he said. Money and special interests have moved in to fill the vacuum left by a disengaged and disenchanted electorate. The result is a state fragmented by ideology and partisanship ... .

My, but how time heals wounds. Now the former governor is suggesting he may want to be the future governor as well.

It's a prospect that excites D's and R's alike ' Democrats because they fondly remember a take-charge guy, Republicans because they see the potential for a divisive Democratic primary race.

But it's a prospect that should also give all of us pause, as we remember Kitzhaber's final years in office, a time in which political rancor hit new highs ' a nastiness unsurpassed even in the last, difficult legislative session.

— Kitzhaber, a two-term Democratic governor, and Republican Speaker of the House Karen Minnis could barely utter each other's names in public without a visible shudder. Kitzhaber, a physician, became known as Dr. No for his dozens of vetoes of bills passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature.

We're not sure why the former governor thinks things would be any easier in the legislative sessions of 2007 and 2009. In fact, noting his history with Republican leaders who are still likely to be in office, it seems he would come to office with an even bigger hurdle to clear.

Is he realistic about what lies ahead? Given the massive financial issues still facing the state, Kitzhaber's statements that his priority would be to improve access to health care seem almost naive.

Of course, there's no guarantee he would be the Democratic nominee, let alone win the general election in November. Incumbent Gov. Ted Kulongoski has come in for plenty of criticism from the liberal wing of his party, but can lay claim to leading the state out of an economic hole, with unemployment at its lowest levels in five years and the state's economy steadily picking up steam. And, while they're not likely to join his re-election campaign, most Republican legislators would agree that he helped set a more cordial tone in Salem, even if that cordial tone didn't lead to sweeping bipartisanship in the Capitol.

But Kulongoski also has some serious baggage, mostly centering on questions about his leadership, or lack of leadership. He frustrated both sides of the aisle with his hands-off approach to some of the main issues of the 2005 session and mystified just about everyone with his mid-summer proposal for funding education ' a proposal he produced just as the Legislature was trying to put the final Band-Aids on the considerable financial holes in the state budget.

There's no question that Kitzhaber would bring a more vigorous leadership style to the office. But is he really prepared to govern a state he described as ungovernable less than three years ago? Can the electorate be persuaded that he has mellowed and would forge a working relationship with some of the same legislators he could barely tolerate when last he headed the state?

If John Kitzhaber is to be the once and future governor of Oregon, he must first find the answers to those questions, both for himself and for the people of Oregon.