Gov. Kulongoski leaves with green vision partially realized

SALEM — Gov. Ted Kulongoski envisioned Oregon as a world leader in green technology and clean energy, maybe even a manufacturing center for electric vehicles or their batteries.

And while it hasn't happened exactly that way, as Kulongoski prepares to leave office Monday after eight years at the helm, overcast Oregon has become a leading hub for solar energy companies. And the governor did lead an effort among western states to reduce greenhouse gases.

It was a bold vision that was only partially accomplished — for reasons both within and beyond his control — and that's one characterization of Kulongoski's tenure.

His lofty aspirations for Oregon largely fell victim to two bad economies, and a sex-abuse scandal that took down one of his most trusted advisers.

There were successes, to be sure. A massive construction project for new roads and bridges. Health insurance for thousands of uninsured children.

"We have kept going forward," Kulongoski told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "If you look at where we were when we came in, the state has progressed on a whole variety of fronts."

But Kulongoski acknowledges some of his goals never came to fruition, especially in higher education.

He said being governor "gets very lonely at times."

Fly fishing for steelhead helped him decompress, he said, adding perhaps half-jokingly that his wife could tell how much stress he was feeling by how deep he'd wade into the water.

Kulongoski brought a sympathetic touch to the governor's office. He will be remembered as much for his eulogies at more than 100 military funerals as for any success or failure inside the state Capitol.

But Kulongoski also will be remembered as a governor who struggled to curtail joblessness and keep state budgets within bounds.

"When historians look back, the Kulonogski years are not really going to stand out," said Jim Moore, Pacific University political science professor.

Kulongoski was the latest in a line of four successive Democrats to govern Oregon. He took office Jan. 13, 2003, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the dot-com bust. Unemployment was high, spirits were low.

He asked Oregonians to trust him to build a government that would hold itself accountable and live within its means, be a partner for business, help create living wage jobs and be a champion for working families, and be a steward for the environment.

Unemployment fell from 7.8 percent when Kulongoski took office to under 5 percent when he was re-elected in 2006. The state budget was in the black. He worked with lawmakers and business leaders to create the state's first rainy-day fund.

But some of that success was fleeting.

Oregon's jobless rate climbed as high as 11.6 percent in Kulongoski's second term. It's now 10.6 percent, still above the national average. And Kulongoski leaves office with billions of dollars to be cut from the state budget.

Kulongoski was perhaps Oregon's biggest cheerleader, pitching the state to business leaders in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere.

He has also been an advocate for Oregon's abundant natural resources.

Renewable energy companies flocked to Oregon, lured by Kulongoski himself and by policies he supported — tax credits and a renewable energy standard requiring large utilities to get some of their energy from renewable sources. Companies including the solar panel giant SolarWorld built operations in the state.

Kulongoski worked with the governors of Washington and California to combat global warming. Their effort ballooned into the Western Climate Initiative, a collaboration between seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, which seeks to enact a regional cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2012.

But one of his signature achievements, the Business Energy Tax Credit, ran into persistent criticism that it was mismanaged and oversold.

Early in his tenure, Kulongoski wanted to remake Oregon's higher education system by increasing access and producing better graduates, to help drive the economy.

Kulongoski turned to former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, a trusted friend and adviser who was, Kulongoski believed, the only person with the political connections, charm and toughness to muscle through an overhaul that was certain to have powerful critics.

Six months after Kulongoski announced the effort, Goldschmidt admitted to an illegal sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s and resigned. Without Goldschmidt, Kulongoski said, the education plan was no longer possible. He was forced to settle for smaller victories — new buildings, more money and "opportunity grants" to help middle-income families afford college.

He said being unable to realize his higher education goals left him with what he called the largest regret of his governorship.

"He took a personal interest in higher education because he is a product of the G.I. bill and a real believer in the opportunity that higher education unleashes," said Dave Frohnmayer, former president of the University of Oregon.

Kulongoski also had some powerful successes. In 2009 he signed a bill to revamp Oregon's roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

He also delivered health coverage to 70,000 uninsured children. "Show me another governor who has accomplished as much as Ted Kulongoski in such tough economic conditions," said House Speaker Dave Hunt, a Democrat from Gladstone. "I'm not aware of one."

Children were a consistent motivator for Kulongoski who, along with his wife, Mary Oberst, abandoned plans to make their retirement home in Baker City, choosing instead to be in Portland and closer to their two grandchildren.

At last year's grand opening ceremony for a new state hospital, a dozen or so young patients played "God Bless America" on electronic handbells. Kulongoski's smile was broad and his cheers enthusiastic.

The governor's admirers and critics agree on one thing: Kulongoski's trademark sympathy is genuine, not contrived.

As the governor prepares to leave office at age 70, he's proposed difficult and politically precarious budget cuts and set up a showdown with the public employee unions that were instrumental in both of his elections. He started his administration in exactly the same way, signing a bill that cut back on retirement benefits for government workers.

Rather than settling into lame duck status, Kulongoski during past months has set the agenda for debates and possibly crucial legislation to come.

"History's going to judge me," he said. "I don't think either I or the media or anybody else can take a cumuluative look at what we did. The reality of it is, none of us can predict the future."

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