Shades of Gray in Politics

Earlier this week, former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber accepted a proposed settlement by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for failing to disclose a conflict of interest while in office, stemming from his then-fiancé's lobbying for an environmental group while holding an official position in his administration. In his public statement, he explained the context of the complaint filed and explained why he did not believe at the time that there was a conflict of interest (including that his legal counsel did not advise him that he needed to report or disclose anything). He concluded the statement, though, in unambiguous terms: "I do not dispute the conclusion by the Ethics Commission that my failure to declare a potential conflict of interest violated the letter of law. I accept full responsibility for this violation." That, I thought, would be the end of it -- a long, winding, and unhappy chapter of Governor Kitzhaber's lifetime of public service that included a federal investigation yielding no charges.

Today, the Ethics Commission rejected the proposed settlement. The chapter continues.

I've been thinking a lot about Governor Kitzhaber's legacy. Does this one legal violation somehow negate in the public eye all the good he's done throughout his career? Former Oregon Senate president and the first four term governor in Oregon history. Author of the Oregon Health Plan. Signed the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. "Public Official of the Year" according to Governing Magazine for his bipartisan, collaborative leadership during a contentious moment in Oregon political history. And that's just the beginning of the list.  

Do we now forget all of? Is that the appropriate response to a public mistake? Should Governor Kitzhaber be relegated to the same pile as all the other scandal-engulfed politicians of history? Over this?

My view on this is informed by personal experience. In some ways, Governor Kitzhaber helped start my passion for politics. I interned on his campaign for Governor in 2010 and spent more hours than I can count in his campaign office on SE Division Street in Portland. I remember when he left a voicemail on my cellphone, thanking me for all my work, telling me that none of this was possible without the work of people like me. I remember when Mike Webb, field director of the 2010 campaign, asked me to be the Governor's body man at the Tualatin Crawfish Festival Parade, and I recruited a couple dozen friends to march with us. I remember driving home from Eugene on election night and being in the crowd at his victory party in downtown Portland, standing in the middle of a crowded ballroom as I saw the Governor walk through the people, flanked by Oregon State Police Office. In this massive crowd of people, he saw me, smiled, shook my hand, and said, "Thanks for being here, Ben." And I remember inauguration day (his third), shaking his hand in the Capitol rotunda, when the governor greeted me by name. I beamed for a week after that.

I don't know how exactly how to think about or process what has happened since Governor Kitzhaber's resignation, but I know that the Governor deserves better than to have a career of public service erased by a mistake that he admitted to, apologized for, and wants to be held accountable for. I know that he is no Rod Blagojevich or Richard Nixon, not even close. Not even in the same universe. 

There's not much room for nuance in politics -- and that's a big problem. There seems to be an inclination in our society to group all people, regardless of the context and substance of their mistake, into the same bucket. In politics, we boil it down to good vs. evil, when really, oftentimes politics is just flawed, imperfect humans doing their best. Politics would be a much more attractive calling to a lot more people if we could figure out how to be more forgiving, and how to have more appreciation for shades of gray.