Been There, Done That, Got the Minivan

Was it really just a month ago? John Kitzhaber kisses his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, after being inaugurated for a very short fourth term as governor of Oregon.

I really liked this guy.

I wasn't alone in liking him. The state of Oregon was so fond of John Kitzhaber that we elected him governor four times. If he'd wanted it, he could easily have won Mark Hatfield's Senate seat when it opened up in 1996; instead, it went to Gordon Smith, the last Oregonian Republican to win a statewide election. Had he entered and won that race, Kitzhaber might well have been in the running for President. But he loved Oregon too much to leave it, as any national politician must. So he finished his constitutionally-limited first two terms as governor, took an eight-year break, and ran again (while the state constitution specifies a two-term limit, there's nothing in there that prohibits rebooting after four or more years). He easily won that third term, even more easily coasted to reelection, and had he stayed in office all four years, would have had the second longest governorship in US history.

Instead, he resigned yesterday, a month after being sworn in for the fourth time.

He resigned in disgrace. That's a hard thing to believe about our down-to-earth, blue-jeans-and-cowboy-boots-clad, straight-talking, hard-working governor. He was brilliant, gifted, dedicated; how could his life of public service be brought down by a scandal?

It was simple, really: his heart led him astray.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: Since giving up my subscription to The Oregonian in 2008, and even more since shifting my primary news source from OPB to podcasts soon after that, I have not followed local politics anywhere near as much as I should to be fully informed. The details of the Kitzhaber scandal have, thus, mostly eluded me, as I heard only occasional mentions of them, or glimpsed them in my parents' newspaper when visiting them in McMinnville. I was genuinely shocked, then, to learn yesterday that the governor had resigned over issues involving his domestic partner and first lady, Cylvia Hayes. Most of what I know about their relationship I have learned in the last hour from Wikipedia and Oregon Live.

I didn't know, for instance, that Kitzhaber was, like me, divorced twice. I still don't know if Cylvia Hayes played any part in the end of his second marriage. I do know that she is twenty years younger than he is--47 and 67, respectively--and has three previous marriages to her credit, the last of which may have been illegal. During Kitzhaber's third term, she apparently used her role as first lady to garner her a $118,000 paycheck as a consultant for a private firm. This is the conflict of interest that led to Kitzhaber's resignation.

I'm not going to make any arguments about how that sum is minor next to the millions former politicians rake in as lobbyists. The simple truth is that Kitzhaber's partner peddled influence for profit, and he knew about it. He would have been well within his ethical rights to break off their relationship--to throw her under the bus, as most politicians do when someone in their inner circle endangers their campaign or office--but instead he stood by her, in the same way he chose to stay in Oregon rather than going to Capitol Hill. It's the kind of integrity that won him so many elections. And still, resigning is the right thing for him to do, because it is the natural and proper consequence for a the colossal error in judgment that got him into this spot.

I can say this because I've made the same kind of mistake, and suffered consequences of my own. As bitter as Kitzhaber is about his consequences costing himself and, much more importantly, the state of Oregon so much, that's what happens when affairs of the heart trump common sense.

My worst fumble happened on a comparable monetary scale, though the price I paid is dwarfed by what Kitzhaber is facing. In the spring of 2005, two years after restarting my teaching career, I found myself in a horribly stressful place: I was fighting to keep my children from being moved 700 miles away from me. As part of my struggle to keep them with me, I looked into changing jobs from the Vancouver Catholic School where I was teaching to something closer to Sherwood, where I lived and my children went to school. Looking for that job actually cost me the Vancouver job. In the midst of this turmoil, I began dating a woman who was going through a messy divorce that was driving her into bankruptcy. She was told by her lawyer that she had too much equity in her car, and needed to trade it in on something else, but couldn't qualify for a new loan. She asked me for help with that loan. I assumed she meant cosigning--and yes, I know that in itself would've been a stupid move--but when I got to the dealership with her, I discovered it was much more than that. I was taking on the entire loan.

My intuition screamed at me not to sign those papers, but I didn't want to leave her, and her kids, hanging. And I'd promised to do this for her. I'm a man who keeps his promises. So I did it.

A little over a month later, I started getting calls from the loan company. She wasn't making payments.

Three months after that, she moved to Las Vegas, leaving the car behind.

That's how I found myself trying to sell a Honda Odyssey with touring package, a minivan with a book value of maybe $24,000, but on which I owed $30,000, and which I wasn't going to be able to get more than $20,000 for.

And that's how I wound up, after months of trying to get Chase Bank to stop calling me and call her instead, I called them back, had the van repossessed, and filed for bankruptcy myself.

Bankruptcy is no fun. I owned my car, a 1998 Accord, free and clear, but there was too much equity in it, so I had to come up with another $2500 to keep it, but that was more of an inconvenience than the abject humiliation I had in store for me. In this country, having a bankruptcy in your history is a far more scarlet letter than adultery, and it follows you everywhere. I had to tell every potential landlord, and many a potential employer, that when they checked my credit, they would probably find a bankruptcy on it. I know it almost instantly caused my auto insurance to go up, even though I was the same driver the day after I filed as I was the day before. When I changed cars in 2007, I had to do the loan through Santander, a company that specializes in credit recovery car loans and treats its customers like they're on probation--which, of course, we are. When Amy and I applied for our mortgage last summer, I again painstakingly explained to every bank, escrow, and title agent involved that I had been through bankruptcy in 2005, and it might still be showing up on my credit reports. I'll probably keep on doing that for the rest of my life, because whether or not it's supposed to come off your credit report after a certain amount of time, credit bureaus have a way of forgetting that rule.

All this is a digression (if an awkwardly confessional one). My point is simply this: when the heart (or some other part of the anatomy) trumps your brain, you can wind up in some very hot water. John Kitzhaber fell in love with a woman whose personal history and professional ethics were not what one normally seeks out in a first lady, and that decision led him to end a distinguished career in an awkward, humiliating way. I got involved with someone I didn't know enough about--and no, I'm not calling it "love," because I don't think it ever got to that point--and threw away a credit rating bolstered by never missing payments and usually paying off debts early.

There is one positive thing I can say about weathering a self-generated crisis: hubris loses all its appeal, and humility becomes far easier to practice. I hope this is as true for Dr. John Kitzhaber as it has been for me, but we'll have to wait on that prognosis. For now, it's enough to have heard the grief in his voice as he announced his decision to resign. As angry as he may be about the media lynching he's endured, he knows what his decisions have cost him, and that regret will, I hope, make him an even more down-to-earth human being in the years to come.

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