Ex-treasurer will challenge Kulongoski in governor race

SALEM, Ore. (AP) ?” Former state Treasurer Jim Hill on Tuesday announced he will challenge Gov. Ted Kulongoski in the May 16 primary, asserting that the incumbent has abandoned public employees and core supporters and has shown that he’s “not a good Democrat.”

At a news conference, Hill accused Kulongoski of reneging on promises not to reduce public employees’ pension benefits and to block any move to place a casino in the Columbia River Gorge. He also accused Kulongoski of not strongly supporting Oregon’s land-use planning program.

“The governor has really been more of a Republican than a Democrat,” Hill said, drawing applause from a group of backers who gathered for his campaign announcement.

Hill’s late entry into the race – the candidate filing deadline is only a month away – comes after recent announcements by former Gov. John Kitzhaber and state Sen. Vicki Walker that they will not challenge Kulongoski for the Democratic nomination.

Hill said the timing of his announcement was not tied to Kitzhaber and Walker’s decisions, but instead reflected what he said was a gradual realization that Kulongoski was failing to uphold Democratic principles in his first term.

“Let’s be honest about it. Ted has not been a good Democrat,” said Hill, who made history in 1992 when he was elected state treasurer, thus becoming the first black to win statewide office in Oregon.

Political analyst Bill Lunch said Hill’s entry into the race is another indication of dissatisfaction with Kulongoski among some of his traditional supporters in the labor and environmentalist movements.

Still, Lunch said he has a hard time envisioning Hill knocking off Kulongoski in the May Democratic primary.

“At this stage, it’s a little late. He doesn’t have endorsements or the funding available to him to prevail against a sitting incumbent,” said Lunch, who teaches political science at Oregon State University.

Kulongoski campaign manager Cameron Johnson said the incumbent governor thinks he has a strong record to run on in terms of helping to turn around an ailing Oregon economy and that he is ready to make his case to Oregon Democrats.

“We’re confident that Democratic voters will want four more years of the type of leadership we have seen under Gov. Kulongoski,” Johnson said.

Besides Hill, Kulongoski also is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Lane County Commissioner Peter Sorenson, who, like Hill, has accused Kulongoski of failing to show leadership on issues such as education and health care.

The Republican race has drawn three major contenders – former state Rep. Kevin Mannix, Portland lawyer Ron Saxton and state Sen. Jason Atkinson of Jacksonville.

Hill ran for governor in 2002, finishing second to Kulongoski in a three-candidate Democratic primary.

At his campaign news conference, Hill said there was a “whisper campaign” during the 2002 governor’s race with some Democrats saying privately that a black could not be elected governor in Oregon.

Hill said, though, that he found in his first run for public office – an unsuccessful 1980 bid for a state legislative seat ��- that “people were willing to give me a chance.”

“The reason I am proud to be an Oregonian is because people here will give you a fair shake,” Hill said, his voice breaking with emotion.

Hill now faces the tough task for persuading some of the big public employee unions to abandon Kulongoski and support him in the May primary.

The Oregon Education Association did endorse Hill in the 2002 governor’s race, but that was when it was an open seat and Hill, Kulongoski and Multnomah County Commission Chairwoman Bev Stein all were running as equals.

OEA President Larry Wolf declined Tuesday to offer any predictions on whether the teachers’ union will endorse the incumbent governor or Hill at its convention in March.

“Our membership is mixed on Gov. Kulongoski,” Wolf said. “Some of our members say he’s done a great job, and others question the decisions he’s made over the last few years.”