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Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber Resigns as His 4th Term Begins

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, ending a storied 37-year career in politics, relinquished his office Friday after a week of escalating pressure.

By Michelle Brence

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, ending a storied 37-year career in politics, relinquished his office Friday after a week of escalating pressure.

In a defiant statement issued just after noon, the governor bowed to a public corruption controversy involving allegations that he and fiancée Cylvia Hayes abused his office. He will step down Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Democrat Kate Brown, now the secretary of state, will take his place, becoming the state's 37th governor.

"I understand that I have become a liability to the very institutions and policies to which I have dedicated my career and, indeed, my entire adult life," Kitzhaber wrote, after accusing the media of depriving him of due process. "I have always tried to do the right thing, and now the right thing to do is to step aside."

The resignation will not stop a state criminal investigation by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, nor a review by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. In addition, federal investigators on Friday served a sweeping subpoena for Kitzhaber's and Hayes' state records and those of other state officials and agencies.

The governor's decision came just three months after he was re-elected and one month after he was sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term. It ended a week of cascading events that began with Rosenblum announcing that she had launched a criminal investigation.

News of Kitzhaber's pending resignation leaked late Friday morning, with The Oregonian/OregonLive the first or among the first to report the news. That unleashed what would become a torrent of tweets and news reports by journalists who had been on alert much of the week. Reporters flooded the lobby of Kitzhaber's office suite at the Capitol and crowded outside Brown's office. Lawmakers began issuing somber statements about Oregon's "sad day."

The governor's office released an emotion-filled audio file of Kitzhaber reading his statement, but neither the governor nor Hayes appeared publicly. Brown, 54, emerged from her office to give a 26-second address.

"I know you all have a lot of questions. And I will begin to answer those questions as soon as possible," she said in part. "As you can imagine, between now and Wednesday, we have a lot of work to be done. And that's what I'm going to go back and do."

Kitzhaber, 67, becomes the first Oregon governor to resign in disgrace. The scandal that consumed his career started in October but accelerated with lightning speed over the past couple of weeks.

A Jan. 30 news conference proved especially disastrous, with the governor summoning reporters to a Portland meeting room only to deflect most of the questions. Less than a week later, The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board generated national headlines by becoming the first to call for Kitzhaber to resign, prompted by a report by Oregonian/OregonLive reporters that Kitzhaber aides had arranged jobs for Hayes.

On Wednesday, with reports that Brown had been called back to Oregon from a conference in Washington, D.C., reporters began swarming the Capitol and Kitzhaber's home in Portland anticipating his resignation.

Steve Duin and Jeff Mapes talk Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber's resignation The Oregonian /'s columnist Steve Duin and senior political reporter Jeff Mapes talk about what led to Governor John Kitzhaber's resignation Friday, the statement he made announcing it, and what the future may hold for him.

Kitzhaber had decided to give up his office but then changed his mind after talking to Hayes and one of his attorneys. He told reporters Wednesday that he wasn't even considering resigning.

But Thursday brought only a growing chorus, including from fellow Democrats, calling for him to step down. Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek met the governor for breakfast and told him it was time to go. Brown followed with a stunningly unvarnished statement contradicting the governor's version of events and calling the situation "bizarre" and "unprecedented." Then Treasurer Ted Wheeler chimed in.

"Clearly, Wednesday unnerved people and they looked around at what that unnerving had done and decided Kitzhaber had no political capital left," said Jim Moore, a Pacific University political science professor. "At best, he was holding on to the office as a political bargaining chip with a prosecutor."

Friday morning, as news spread that Kitzhaber's resignation was imminent, Courtney stood behind a sheet cake at the Capitol and addressed a group from the Oregon Wheat Growers League celebrating Oregon's 156th birthday.

"This is the only time I'll be smiling today," Courtney said -- without smiling. "At least today in the Capitol we can smile and feel good that we're a state with an incredible heart."

Kitzhaber ends a career he started as an emergency room physician in Roseburg. He was elected to the Oregon House in 1978, then to the Oregon Senate two years later, serving as Senate president from 1985 to 1993. He was elected governor in 1994, 1998, 2010 and again in 2014.

Despite the growing scandal over whether Hayes used her public office as first lady and as an unpaid policy adviser to benefit her private consulting business -- and whether Kitzhaber enabled her alleged influence-peddling -- Kitzhaber beat Republican Dennis Richardson on Nov. 4 by a comfortable margin.

But questions multiplied as Kitzhaber fought the release of public records. The scandal hit a boiling point late last month after Hayes confirmed $118,000 in undisclosed payments, and The Oregonian/OregonLive reported that much of the income was missing from Hayes' personal tax returns -- though it could be on her business tax filings.

Brown, generally considered more liberal than Kitzhaber, gave no sign Friday that she has formulated an agenda for her time as governor. Under Oregon law, she'll have to run for election in 2016 to serve out the remaining two years of Kitzhaber's term.

But Republicans may not give her much of a honeymoon. Friday morning, before official word of Kitzhaber's resignation, Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, struck an adversarial tone.

He would decline an invitation to Brown's pending swearing-in, he said. Instead, he said, he would go home "to grieve for the departure in disgrace of one governor and to hope for the healing that can only come if the next governor turns away from policies that put symbolic gestures ahead of the real needs of our citizens."

Reporters Rob Davis, Ian Kullgren and Jeff Mapes contributed to this report.

(c)2015 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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