Kitzhaber to announce decision on candidacy

SALEM, Ore. – Former Gov. John Kitzhaber has made up his mind about whether he will run for governor this year, and is expected to make the highly anticipated announcement Friday morning at a news conference in Portland.

Kitzhaber is keeping his decision under wraps for now, but the location of his news conference could be telling–it’s a health clinic for low-income people on Burnside Street.

The former emergency room physician has said in recent weeks that being governor again might help him "jump start" a renewed debate over transforming the nation’s health care system to make medical care more affordable and accessible for all Oregonians.

However, Kitzhaber also has been promoting a sweeping health care reform proposal for the state that could wind up on the November ballot, an effort that would not require him to run against Gov. Ted Kulongoski –a fellow Democrat–in the May primary election.

It wouldn’t be the first time Kitzhaber has taken on a sitting Democratic governor.

In 1994, Kitzhaber, then the former Senate president, announced he would challenge Gov. Barbara Roberts, whose standing in the polls had plummeted. Roberts dropped out of the race shortly after that, and Kitzhaber went on to win the first of two terms as governor.

On the day Kitzhaber announced he would challenge Roberts, he first met with the embattled governor in her state Capitol office so he could break the news to her privately.

Kitzhaber arranged no similar courtesy call with Kulongoski on the eve of Friday’s news conference, though.

"We’re waiting to hear from him just like everyone else," Kulongoski campaign spokeswoman Beth Bernard said Thursday of the expected announcement by Kitzhaber.

Bernard also said Kulongoski’s re-election campaign is moving ahead and getting ready for the May primary election regardless of what Kitzhaber does.

"We are focusing on Gov. Kulongoski’s achievements, and we are getting incredible support from people across the state," she said.

Steve Marks, Kitzhaber’s friend and former chief of staff, offered no hints about which way Kitzhaber was leaning as he prepared for Friday’s news conference, scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Old Town Clinic, which provides health services to poor people.

"There’s nothing I can say about it at this time," Marks said.

Another of Kitzhaber’s friends, Portland lawyer Chip Lazenby, said he didn’t know if Kitzhaber would run for governor. But he said the former governor has sounded serious about the need to end partisan gridlock and to get government solving real problems again.

"People have been asking him to run, and John has been listening to them," said Lazenby, who was Kitzhaber’s legal counsel from 1995 to 2001.

Also eagerly awaiting Kitzhaber’s announcement is state Sen. Vicki Walker, a Eugene lawmaker who has said she will challenge Kulongoski for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination if Kitzhaber stays out of the race.

Walker wasn’t offering any guesses about which way Kitzhaber will go.

"I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out John," the senator said. "This has been a real roller coaster for me."