Gov. John Kitzhaber’s dizzying fall from grace this week had all the trappings, one Democratic Oregon legislator remarked, of a “Greek tragedy.”
He announced his resignation on Friday, capping a dramatic week that put Oregon’s political scene on the national stage. He faced growing calls to resign from the state’s top Democratic officials amid a scandal surrounding his fiancee’s work advising him and his staff on environmental policy, while also being paid by a group advocating on the issue.
Adding a touch of comedy to the drama, Kitzhaber reportedly decided to resign on Tuesday, calling his secretary of State home from Washington — before changing his mind. By Thursday, state troopers gathered ominously outside his door.
The confusion over Kitzhaber’s fate, Oregon political observers say, hints at the fatal flaw that appears to have trapped him in the scandal to begin with: A damning hubris that’s clouded his judgment in matters both personal and political.
“He is a very independent individual who’s never been swayed by public opinion or what the party establishment tells him to do,” said Jake Weigler, an Oregon Democratic strategist.
Weigler drew a comparison between Kitzhaber’s current predicament and the hugely expensive failure of the state’s healthcare exchange website under the Affordable Care Act, which was initially lauded as an example for the nation.
“It was audacious and big and bold — and it fell on its face,” he noted.
“It’s the same as he’s run this administration. They’ve been fairly assertive in pushing a clean energy agenda, and very aggressive in setting the conversation across the state, perhaps without as much caution as they needed,” Weigler added.
It’s not hard to see why the governor may have been overtaken by hubris. In November, he won an unprecedented fourth term in office. He came out of a remarkably successful legislative session in 2013, having secured a pension reform deal by working with Republican legislators.
He long ignored early hints that his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, could ultimately be his downfall.
Hayes, 20 years his junior, has been linked to the governor since he campaigned for her in 2002, and after a long courtship they became engaged in August.
But she’s long served as an adviser to Kitzhaber, initially drawing scrutiny — and creating headaches for him — for her private consulting work during his 2010 campaign.
The latest developments fall in the same vein: Reports have indicated Hayes advised Kitzhaber and state employees on energy policy while getting paid by a group advocating for specific policies. She also did not disclose some of her income from the state, and the governor reportedly tried to erase his personal emails from public records, raising further questions about the situation.
And this time, the developments were enough to land him in the middle of a criminal investigation by the state Attorney General, and reportedly an FBI investigation as well.
But Kitzhaber had long defended Hayes’ work for both the state and private consulting firms, arguing his fiancee should be able to maintain a career she had built independently of their relationship.
As Oregon Democratic Rep. Kurt Schneider told CNN: “Love is blind.”
Kitzhaber won reelection last year despite this latest scandal breaking last October, just before voters went to the polls. Weigler said the situation reached a tipping point when it threatened to undermine the Oregon legislature’s agenda.
“The calculus here, with other elected officials, has been more about the good of the party, the good of the progressive agenda in the state and whether the governor can continue to serve in the office,” he said.
Few lawmakers were willing to work with Kitzhaber going forward, and Democrats don’t want to “tarnish an agenda” that had wide support in the legislature, Weigler said, by keeping it pinned to a scandal-marred governor.
Indeed, state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, the Democrat who called the saga a “Greek tragedy” in an interview with the Oregonian, worried that it would sink the governor’s legacy.
“This is flat-out Greek tragedy,” she said. “Kitzhaber has done so many good things for the state.”
Democrats were largely united in calling for his resignation because they believe the state will be in good hands if he steps down. His successor, Secretary of State Kate Brown, is seen as more of a Democratic loyalist than Kitzhaber. And she’ll even offer her own historic footnote to the office, as the nation’s first openly bisexual governor.
“While she’ll make history as the nation’s first sitting LGBT governor, the more important truth is that she’s supremely capable of leading the state to better days ahead,” said Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign.