A former Oregon Supreme Court justice, insurance commissioner and legislator now wears a new hat: Oregon's governor.
Just as in his earlier positions, Ted Kulongoski does not bring flash and bravado to his new job. Indeed, during the election campaign, he was criticized for running his race low-key and avoiding debates. Now, he is being accused of lacking leadership punch as the state tries to wade out of an economic recession. Kulongoski might be the Al Gore of Oregon politics - an intelligent, highly experienced political figure whose weakness is a lack of political charisma and an inability to seize on a compelling political vision.
I met the governor during his campaign, and, as a rural newspaper editor, I tuned my ears for any hints that he follows in Gore's nearly religious adherence to radical environmentalism. I didn't hear any hints of such an indoctrination. The then-candidate mostly talked about jobs and the economy, the usual bread-and-butter issues that won him election without stirring adamant feelings from either supporters or detractors.
In a speech on March 24, Kulongoski was freer with his environmental views. He said, "There is a complementary relationship between a clean environment and a robust economy - they exist and support upon each other. Thus, it is important that we keep Oregon's existing environmental standards in place. We cannot lower our environmental bar. Accordingly, I will oppose legislation that attempts a wholesale rollback or elimination of protections for the state's natural resources such as the proposal to eliminate the state's endangered species act."
These were not encouraging words, because environmental protection and environmental regulation are not synonymous. As we've seen with our national forests, you can kill the environment with neglect - overregulating human activity to the point of self-defeating paralysis.
However, Kulongoski added, "We can no longer afford to be polarized, we must work together." Here was a theme which seemed to reveal his true feelings. Sure, the governor will stand on the side of arbitrary environmental rules to placate his supporters, but he does not appear to wear his environmentalist heart on his sleeve. He seems like more of a pragmatist than a green-eyed idealist. In this important way, he differs from Al Gore.
The new governor also takes a realistic approach to taxation. He states on his Web site: "Government has to live within its means. I'm not going to ask the Legislature, and I'm not going to ask the citizens of Oregon, to raise taxes. We will make do with what we have. We need to make tough choices about the types of services we are going to provide and at what levels. ... The linchpin of the budget lies in solving the problem of the Public Employee Retirement System. I am committed to solving this problem immediately upon taking office."
By these words, we can tell that the new governor is not a maverick or a populist. His long history of public service has not branded him as an idealogue, either. In his politics, he may fall well left of folks on the east side of the Cascades, but at least he delivers a pragmatism that Oregon sorely needs. And, who knows? Like any good court justice, maybe he will keep his mind open so he can weigh the evidence and decide whether some of those environmental regulations really help the environment. Meanwhile, let's work together to fix PERS and balance the budget.
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