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Governor tells lawmakers: 'I am certainly not naïve ... but I am still idealistic.'

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Gov. John Kitzhaber told lawmakers Monday that he continues to draw inspiration from the late Robert F. Kennedy and other elements of history to govern. Kitzhaber took his fourth oath of office Jan. 12, the opening day of the Oregon Legislature.John Kitzhaber sounded a philosophical note or two as he took office Monday as Oregon governor for the fourth time.

In remarks he prepared for a joint session of the Legislature, Kitzhaber invoked memories of his parents and Robert Kennedy in calling for expanding prosperity to thousands of Oregonians who have not shared in the state’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

His parents were part of the World War II generation, and his father was in the U.S. 3rd Army, led by Gen. George Patton, that helped conquer Nazi Germany in 1945. His political inspiration was Kennedy, a senator from New York who was assassinated during a bid for the presidency in 1968, when Kitzhaber was a college student.

Kitzhaber says the war united the nation in a common purpose, and Kennedy’s campaign raised questions about national economic and racial inequities, similar to today’s problems in Oregon.

“Now, the answers to these questions are complicated — I know that — and no one person, least of all me, has all the answers,” Kitzhaber says.

“But if we begin by asking the right questions, I know we can make progress, because an Oregon economy that moves some of us forward while leaving others behind diminishes progress for everyone.”

Drawing on lessons

Kitzhaber, a Democrat who turns 68 in March, was sworn in by former Chief Justice Paul De Muniz for a fourth term. He was governor from 1995 to 2003, and after sitting out eight years, was elected to a record third term in 2010. He was re-elected Nov. 4 by just under half the 1.5 million votes cast.

Kitzhaber was an emergency-room physician when he was elected to the House from a Douglas County district in 1978. Two years later, he was elected to the Senate, where he served for 12 years, eight of them as Senate president.

“As it turned out, I have spent most of my adult life in this building and I love it very much,” he says.

Earlier in the day, the Legislature organized for its next two years. All 60 representatives and 16 of the 30 senators took their oaths for new terms, Democrat Peter Courtney of Salem was chosen for a seventh two-year term as Senate president, and Democrat Tina Kotek of Portland for a second two-year term as House speaker. Democrats hold an 18-12 majority over Republicans in the Senate, and 35-25 in the House, their largest margins in six years. But those majorities are only for the second time in Kitzhaber's tenure as governor.

Kitzhaber said in advance that his address would draw upon the lessons he had learned in 36 years in politics.

His parents were part of what has been dubbed the “Greatest Generation,” which went on the build the prosperous U.S. society that emerged after World War II.

“I grew up in an era where people still believed in their government, and saw it as a vehicle through which they could come together and do amazing things for our whole society that individuals could not possibly do by themselves,” he says.

Kennedy, however, raised questions during his brief 82-day campaign about why that prosperity was not shared among minorities.

“I was inspired because of his passion and sincerity and his courage to speak from the heart and to say what needed to be said,” Kitzhaber says. “And from the moment he died in Los Angeles I knew I wanted to commit my life to public service.”

Still idealistic

During last week’s Oregon Business Summit, Kitzhaber embraced its goals of linking school with work, boosting the economies of rural communities, and modernizing transportation systems.

“But even if we are successful in implementing these goals — all of which I support – we will not succeed in giving all Oregonians a greater share of prosperity unless we have the courage and honesty to question one fundamental fact: the inherent contraction between a growing economy and the increasingly desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of our fellow Oregonians,” he says.

“I think we can all agree that this situation is not only unfair — but that it serves to widen the disparities that divide us and makes it more difficult for us to come together as a community.”

So what has he learned since he took his first oath as a state representative back in 1979 to help him achieve today’s goals? “I have learned that advancing the common good cannot be done from Salem but only by engaging people where they live and showing them that they have a stake in the problem and a sense of ownership in the solution. And we are doing that every day in Oregon,” he says.

“And here is something else I have learned: that people in our state and across our land want community, they yearn for a sense of belonging, for a sense of a greater common purpose. After 36 years I am no longer young and I am certainly not naïve ... but I am still idealistic.”

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