Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber's 2015 State of the State Speech (Text and Video)

January 12, 2015

I remember standing in this chamber in 1979 – 36 years ago – being sworn in as a freshman in the Oregon House of Representatives just before the late Victor Atiyeh was sworn in as our 32nd governor.  And I remember the first time I sat on this dais 30 years ago as a newly elected Senate President presiding over the convening of the 1985 legislative session – and looking out across this magnificent chamber and at all the names engraved on its walls – the men and women who built the foundation of our state.

MORE: Text, highlights and video of every governor's annual address.

As it turned out, I have spent most of my adult life in this building and I love it very much.  So as I have just been sworn in for the very last time I thought I would reflect on what I have learned these 36 years that is worth sharing, why I did it and what I would like to accomplish over the last four years – which will complete the arc of my political career.

I thought I would start by sharing a little personal history – although it seems that there is not much left that has not already been in papers.  My political career is due largely to two things.  First, is that 67 years ago I was born of parents who were members of what Tom Brokaw has called the "greatest generation."  And second is that 46 years ago Robert Kennedy ran for president of the United States.

My father was born in 1915 in Iowa, my mother in 1917 in Joseph, Oregon.  They met at Washington State University in 1939 and were married the next year on November 2, 1940.

When the U.S. entered WWII my father was drafted and, leaving his bride of less than two years, boarded the U.S.S Robert Sherman in New York harbor for the dangerous trip across the North Atlantic.  Just before the ship sailed a Red Cross volunteer came on board to tell my father that his first child had been born, my sister Ann, who he would not see for almost 2 years.

My father entered France through Normandy and marched all the way across Europe to Berlin.  From the time he was drafted and during the seventeen months he was with Patton’s Army in Europe, my parents wrote to one another almost every day. It is a poignant tribute to their 65-year romance that both of them kept all of the letters.  And in 2002 my father edited these letters into several volumes, which he simply called "The War Letters" and he gave a bound copy to me and to each of my sisters.

This remarkable document, covering the period between August 1943 and November 1945, chronicles the lives of two people – ordinary citizens and new parents – and the incredible sacrifices that their generation made to win the war and to rebuild the world in its aftermath.  Before my father died in 2006 I used to call him up every June 6th – the anniversary of D-Day – and thank him for saving the world … because that is exactly what his generation did.

But not only did they win the war; they created our system of higher education and built the transmission grid.  They gave us the civil rights movement, enacted landmark environmental legislation and put in place the great social programs of the 20th century – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And in their spare time they cured polio and eradicated smallpox.  And they went to the moon.

So 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: things like bringing electricity to rural America; like the GI bill, like building the interstate highway system.  And I still believe it – I still believe in our government.

But I have learned that these kinds of remarkable accomplishments are only possible if they are driven by a sense of common purpose.  The common purpose of the Greatest Generation was clear and unambiguous: to defeat Nazi Germany and the Axis powers and then to rebuild America; and to do all they could to make sure their children would be better off than they were.

Today things are a bit more ambiguous.  The problems we face are more complex and often interrelated; the solutions less clear; there is little low hanging fruit and no quick fixes in a nation addicted to fast food and instant gratification.  But the need for a sense of common purpose is as great today as it was 70 years ago on VE Day – May 8, 1945 – when Germany surrendered to the Allied Powers.

A sense of common purpose is the one essential ingredient necessary to build community – to bring people together to do things collectively that would be difficult if not impossible to do individually.  It is a sense of common purpose that gives us the adhesiveness that holds us together and allows us to act in concert as a community.

Which brings me to Robert Kennedy and the influence he had on my political career and the lessons that perhaps can be learned from it.  I was a 21-year-old college student when Robert Kennedy ran for president.  And it was a campaign unlike any I have witnessed before or after: a campaign that truly focused on equity and opportunity.

It was a campaign about unrepresented farm workers in California; about poverty and hunger and children starving to death in the Mississippi Delta and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  And it was a campaign that asked profound and often disturbing questions: about a GDP that measured wealth but not well-being; about why such contradictions could exist in the wealthiest nation in the world; questions about who we were and how we wanted treat one another as Americans and as fellow human beings.

The campaign lasted only 82 days from when he announced until he was assassinated on June 6th.  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.  And from the moment he died in Los Angeles I knew I wanted to commit my life to public service.

And to me, the core message of Bobby Kennedy’s last campaign was this: if a sense of common purpose is the one essential ingredient necessary to build community, and if community is what brings people together to do things collectively that would be difficult if not impossible to do individually ... then the strength of a community is inversely proportional to the level of disparity – the level of inequality – that exists within it; that we allow to exist within it.

He was calling out the disparities and inequalities within our society and asking why we allowed them to exist.  And that made a lot of people uncomfortable in 1968.  That was 46 years ago ... and asking that same questions today still makes people uncomfortable.

But these questions need to be asked – and answered – because disparity is the enemy of community; it separates us; it divides us; it reflects inequality; a lack of fairness; and it means someone is being left behind; that someone is being excluded from the community.

And for those who are excluded there is no common purpose.  And if there is no common purpose there is no community.  And if there is no community there is no way we can successfully meet the challenges we face as a state and as a society.

Last week I spoke at our annual Oregon Business Summit the theme of which was: "In it Together" – a commitment to ensure that all of us have the opportunity to achieve a greater share of prosperity.  And I am proud to live in a state where the state business community would make such a commitment; and would set goals for collective action in education, infrastructure and rural economic development to deliver on that commitment.

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 contradiction between a growing economy and the increasingly desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of our fellow Oregonians.  

Indeed, I must admit to feeling a bit disingenuous when I say "economic recovery" because I am certain that this term does not have much meaning for hundreds of thousands of people in our state.

We currently measure economic recovery by two things: the number of jobs we are creating and the rate at which our state GDP – the creation of wealth – is growing.  By those metrics we are doing very well in Oregon.  We have gained back all the jobs we lost during the Great Recession and – as measured by growth of the state GDP – Oregon had the fifth fastest growing state economy in the U.S. in 2011 and the fourth fastest in 2012.

But how does that translate to the well-being of our fellow Oregonians – to their ability to meet their basic needs, to feed their children and support their families?  The answer is: not very well.  It is not that good jobs are not being created; they are – but not fast enough to replace the ones lost during the Great Recession.  This is not something new.  It has been going on for a long time.

Between 1945 (the end of WWII) and 1973 worker productivity in the U.S. increased 96% and wages increased 94%.  But between 1973 and 2011 while worker productivity increased 80% wages only increased by 10%.  In short, our workers are more productive today than ever – but they are not sharing equitably in the wealth that they are helping to create – and that trend is accelerating.

That should be troubling to us all because one of the most basic premises on which our nation was founded is the belief that hard work will be rewarded with a better life.  Yet for a growing number of Oregonians this is simply no longer the case. In the midst of this economic "recovery" a growing number of people are now trapped in low-wage and/or part-time jobs on which they cannot possible support a family – and with no hope of getting ahead.  Why?

Why are one in five Oregon children still living in poverty?  Why do over 30 percent of Oregon children face food insecurity on a daily basis?  Why is poverty among Latinos 27% and poverty among African Americans, Native Americans, Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders and people with disabilities over 30%?  And most importantly why is that acceptable to us?

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.

Now, the answers to these questions are complicated – I know that – and no one person, least of all me, has all the answers.  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.

As writer Thomas Pynchon observed in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow:  "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."  And if the only questions we ask are how fast is the state GDP growing and how many jobs we are creating then we don’t have to worry about their quality: where the jobs are, what they pay, whether they are connected to upward career paths, who is getting them or the environmental cost of creating them.

If we are willing to come together and ask these questions – and hold to the common purpose that our intent is to lift up our entire community, not just part of it – then I know we will find the answers.

Forty years ago I completed my internship in Denver and moved to Roseburg – a freshly minted 27-year-old ER doctor: young and naïve and idealistic.  Four years later in 1978 – ten years after Bobby Kennedy was killed – I was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives ready to try to help save the world as my parents did. And I learned a lot of things over those next 36 years.

First, I learned that saving the world is a lot harder than it sounds.  I have learned that it does not happen with a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder.  And it does not flow from inspirational speeches – although inspiration is important.

Robert Kennedy was inspirational but I have no idea whether or not he would have been a good or effective president.  But I have learned that to achieve what he dreamed would have involved a lot of hard, often unglamorous work in the trenches – making compromises, dealing with egos and conflicting agendas, building coalitions and alliances. Being patient and tenacious even in the face of setbacks.  Hanging in there.  Not giving up.

I have learned that the role of government is not to fix things but to create the space in which people can fix things themselves.

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 through our regional solutions committees; our coordinated care organizations; our early learning hubs, our watershed councils; and, yes, through the Oregon Business Plan.

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.  I still believe that all of us want to rise above our own worst day and give something back to our families and to our community.  And I still believe in the power of individuals – acting from courage and conviction – to change the world in which they live for the better.

Let us commit ourselves to that; and to a common purpose to ensure that each and every one of us in this great state has an equal opportunity to meet their basic needs; to strive to reach their full potential; to have hard work rewarded with a better life; and to leave their children better off than they were both economically and environmentally.

It is not going to happen overnight or over the next four years – or even over the next ten.  Because although we have made much progress a long road still stretches out before us – and some of us will not see the end of that road.  But as the father of a 17-year-old son, I know it is the contributions we make to that future along the way that will ultimately matter the most.

Let me close with the words of Oregon poet Kim Stafford who eloquently defines the challenge, the opportunity – and, indeed, the responsibility – that lies before in what he calls "Lloyd’s Story."

Lloyd Reynolds, the international citizen of Portland, spent his last days in pain, silent, unable to speak or to write, lying in his hospital bed.  On his last day at home, as his wife scurried to pack his suitcase for the hospital, Lloyd made his way outside to the garden and there she found him on his knees, with a spoon, awkwardly planting flower bulbs.  "Lloyd," she said, "you will never see these flowers bloom."

He smiled at her.  "They are not for me," he said, "they are for you.  The salmon coming home? They are for you.  The calls of the wild geese?  They are for you.  The last old trees?  They are for you and your children, to the seventh generation and beyond.  They are all blooming into being for you."

Good words to hold onto at we open this 78th Session of the Oregon Legislature.

Thank you.