Friday, Oct. 15, 2010

Oregon Governor: Chris Dudley vs. John Kitzhaber

During his NBA career, Chris Dudley, Oregon's Republican gubernatorial candidate, was famous for tossing bricks at the foul line, even missing 13 straight free throws during one 1990 game. "The crazy thing is, there would be practices where he didn't miss," says Herb Williams, a former teammate of Dudley's with the New York Knicks, for whom Williams now serves as an assistant coach. "In a game, he'd start thinking a little, and then get that hitch in his shot." Though fans knew to cover their eyes when Dudley shot the basketball during a game, he stuck around the NBA for sixteen seasons, and earned over $35 million. What he lacked in natural talent, he more than made up for in mettle. "The notoriety he got for his poor free throw shooting overshadowed his low post defense, and his ability to rebound and set a good screen," says Jeff Van Gundy, who coached Dudley in New York. "America can use a politician who can bang people around."

Dudley, who is 6 ft.-11 in., won't be knifing Oregon legislators with one of his notorious elbows. But he's pitching himself to Oregonians as an outsider who will shake up the state. "Chris doesn't take crap from anyone," says Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, who sparred with Dudley, a Yale grad, during Knicks practices.

On a national level, the tight race between Dudley, a moderate, pro-choice Republican who has run a mostly congenial campaign, and Democrat John Kitzhaber, who served two terms as Oregon governor from 1995-2003, could offer a template for GOP strategy on the west coast, which has trended blue over the last two decades; Oregon, for example, hasn't elected a Republican governor since 1982.

On the ground in Oregon, meanwhile, the stakes couldn't be higher. "I wouldn't wish this job on anyone," says Tim Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon. "Whoever wins will have to make a real choice. Do we go the way of California or not? Do we deal with the budget issues or taper over them, and become a truly ungovernable state?"

A June report prepared for the current, term-limited governor, Democrat Ted Kulongoski, paints a depressing picture of a picturesque state. "We find that Oregon faces a decade of deficits during which we cannot expect to be bailed out by a rebounding economy or a more generous federal government," write members of Kulongoski's so-called "Reset Cabinet" — an advisory group the governor assembled to analyze the state's fiscal vulnerabilities. In November of 2007, economists were projecting surpluses for Oregon throughout the next decade, culminating in a $3.3 billion windfall for the 2017-19 biennium (Oregon sets its budgets every two years). Now, the Reset Cabinet is projecting $2 billion-plus biennial deficits for ten years.

Oregon's 10.6% unemployment rate is the seventh-worst in the country. The state's lumber and wood projects industry, for example, suffered from the national housing crisis, and was hit particularly hard by California's housing crash. The state's RV industry hit the brakes. The state also has the highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the country.

"Obviously, I'm biased, but I believe we're the most beautiful state in the country." Dudley tells TIME. "We have incredible natural resources, we're on the west coast, the Pacific Rim, we have trading opportunities. It's considered the one of the most livable places in the country. Yet here we sit."

Dudley, who has never held any public office, is selling inexperience as an asset. One of his favorite talking points is that the two prior governors have sixty years of public service between them. "Why are we going to hire the arsonist to put out the fire?" he asks. Dudley played for the Portland Trail Blazers in the mid 1990s, and finished his career with the team in 2003. Since retirement Dudley, who grew up in Californian, and whose grandfather was the ambassador to Denmark in the Nixon Administration, has settled in Oregon. He has worked in finance, and runs a foundation for diabetes research. It's a cause close to his heart. Dudley is a Type 1 diabetic who took insulin shots throughout his playing career; according to Buck Williams, a teammate in both Portland and New York, Dudley once passed out on a plane. "He never complained," says Williams, now an assistant coach for the Trail Blazers. "Chris is not going to dwell on problems. He comes up with a solution."

Yet while Dudley is by most measures an overachiever, his opponents question whether he's the right person to help Oregon solve its dire problems. "I think Chris is a very nice guy," says Kitzhaber. "But he's never created private sector jobs, he's never managed anything, he's never balanced a big budget. We don't really know who Chris Dudley is." Kitzhaber, a former emergency room physician who has worked in the health policy field since leaving office, says 128,000 jobs were created during his two terms. He attributes Oregon's predicament to the country's near depression in 2008 rather than Democratic mismanagement of state affairs. "Every state in the nation, including those run by a Republican for a long time, Texas for example, is facing exactly the same thing," says Kitzhaber, for whom President Obama will campaign on October 20. "This is a structural budget problem in America, driven in part by federal policy, and certainly it was triggered by the collapse of the financial institutions in 2008, which I think can hardly be pinned on the state of Oregon. So I understand what he's doing, the strategy of insider-outsider. Chris is a fresh face. But he has some profoundly old ideas."

Among them, Kitzhaber and other critics point out, is Dudley's proposal to cut Oregon's capital gains tax. How can you seriously consider such a measure, which could cost the state some $800 million, when Oregon faces such debilitating deficits? Dudley makes the standard supply-side argument: tax cuts will spur economic activity that more than covers the cost of the cuts. Such a reduction is even more imperative in Oregon, Dudley argues, since neighboring Washington, which has no income tax, attracts more businesses.

Some economists, however, question whether Oregon can survive such a strategy. "In the near term," says Duy, "I don't see how you make up for that loss."

Political analysts give Dudley points for warmth and charisma. The ex-governor, however, knows the state's nuts-and-bolts. "Kitzhaber has the intellectual horsepower," says Bill Lunch, chair of the political science department at Oregon State University. "He's one of the smartest guys I've ever met. Dudley is not a dummy - he's clearly a quick study. He just doesn't know the things you'd expect a gubernatorial candidate to know." Dudley's "26-point plan" to reform government offers a few specific proposals, like requiring state workers to pay for some of their health care costs. But it also succumbs to political cliché. When asked to address a problem, Dudley recommends creating an inspector general, reform committee, and task force to actually solve it.

Dudley's celebrity has aided his fundraising. He has collected $7.4 million for the campaign, while Kitzhaber raised $4.1 million. According to a Rasmussen poll conducted October 10, the race is too close to call: Kitzhaber led 48-46, within the margin of error. Over the last 20 years, moderate Republicans have fled the Oregon GOP to become Democrats or independents — over 1 in 5 Oregon voters have no party affiliation. To win, Dudley must compel them to return. "They are so used to voting for Democrats," says Lunch. "This election is a referendum on habits. How powerful are they?"

Dudley's basketball buddies never pegged him for politics. Van Gundy thought he'd run an NBA organization one day. Ewing saw him on Wall Street. Dudley traces his political ambitions to his work in the non-profit sector. "You realize how much is dictated by the government," Dudley says. "How much is done from the inside. I've tried to live my life by a saying from Jackie Robinson: 'a life is not important except for the impact is has on other lives.' How do you make that impact? Right now, for me, it's through political office."

If Dudley's public service career mirrors his playing days, no one will outwork him. But in Oregon, it's crunch time, and voters face the same question a coach does in the final seconds of a tight game. Do you give the ball to an untested rookie? Or the guy who has taken the big shots?