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Kulongoski's record hampers bid for 2nd term.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

Ted Kulongoski was unquestionably labor's top choice for governor when he ran four years ago.

But after his decision to curb public employees' pension benefits, Kulongoski can't count on the same unionized workers whose volunteer muscle and campaign cash helped propel him to victory in 2002.

It's the first time in 32 years of campaigning that Kulongoski has been rejected by public-sector labor, whose four biggest unions are either staying neutral in the May 16 Democratic primary or endorsing rival Jim Hill.

Kulongoski said the parting of ways has been upsetting.

"I am much more disappointed than I am mad," he says. "Through my entire professional life, these have been my friends, and I still consider them my friends."

Without those friends at his side, Kulongoski is running a much different campaign than he did in 2002. Instead of operating out of a southeast Portland labor hall, Kulongoski is running for re-election from the governor's office.

"There was the campaign, and being governor, and they were like this when I started," he said, holding his hands an arm's length apart. "And they kind of come together like this," he said with a clap.

As the primary has drawn closer, Kulongoski has stepped up the frequency of his public speaking engagements and pronouncements, resulting in heightened appearances in the morning papers and the evening news.

In the first week of April, for instance, he was in the news touting his administration's efforts to boost tourism and to woo Royal Caribbean to build a call center in Springfield; announcing a new task force to deal with homelessness; and naming members to another task force that's supposed to recommend anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians.

He called the Legislature into special session to give more money to schools and ensure continued services to the elderly and medically needy.

And he shared the stage with his two primary challengers at a Democratic candidates debate. There, he put into words the message he'd spent the week symbolically putting out to voters; he told Hill and Lane County Commissioner Peter Sorenson that what distinguishes them from himself is "the difference between talking and doing."

Indeed, incumbency has given Kulongoski an opportunity to accumulate accomplishments and use the governor's bullhorn to promote them. From the start of his first term, he has touted economic development as his priority. In recent months, his office has touted a string of business openings and expansions that have helped pull Oregon out of its recession of four years ago.

But Kulongoski's four-year public record is also hampering his bid for a second term. He now has a history on environmental issues, school funding, health care and public-employee benefits that has failed to please many of his core Democratic Party constituencies. Although Oregon's economy is now humming along, environmental groups, education advocates and others figure Kulongoski has neglected their special interests.

Public-sector labor is the group most dissatisfied with the governor. In his 2002 campaign, Kulongoski defended the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System as a model. At the time, it was under fire as being overly generous to retirees. The long-standing criticism was starting to grab the public's attention as the stock market meltdown was driving up a projected deficit in the system's ability to pay future retirement benefits.

By the time Kulongoski took office the following year, the projected shortfall had reached $17 billion. Public employers - state agencies, cities, counties and school districts - were being told that for every $I spent on payroll, they'd have to put another 30 cents into worker pensions.

Against that backdrop, Kulongoski signed into law the Legislature's pension reforms.

Public employees were angry at the time, and many remain upset at Kulongoski, saying he broke his word even though they helped get him elected.

"When you are promised a pension benefit when you are hired, that's not something that can be taken away 10, 15, 20 years down the road," said Joe DiNicola, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 503, which is campaigning for Hill.

Kulongoski said his decision was one of the toughest he has made as governor. He said the alternative could have been the bankruptcy of local governments that couldn't afford to put so much of their dollars into pension costs. And he said he still worked hard to protect public employees, making sure they retained a defined benefits pension system that ensures they get a certain level of retirement income.

He said he also has continued to build on his career-long record of looking out for organized labor. He signed an executive order giving child-care workers the right to bargain with the state over wages and work conditions. In addition, during his governorship, employees at Oregon's Judicial Department and Department of Fish & Wildlife joined unions.

"None of that matters," said Kulongoski, whose involvement with the labor movement dates back to his union work as a trucker and steel worker in the 1960s, as a labor lawyer and pro-union public official since the 1970s. "It's, 'What are you doing for me now?' and history means nothing."

In 2002, Kulongoski raked in $800,200 from the SEIU and three other public-sector labor unions. In the current Democratic primary, so far Kulongoski reported no contributions from public-sector unions.

That's not to say that all of organized labor has turned against the governor. Unions representing construction trades workers remain among his biggest supporters. And in his latest campaign-finance report, Kulongoski reported getting more than $60,000 from private-sector employee unions representing food workers, electricians, plumbers, iron workers, engineers and others. That was more than double the $29,200 in contributions to Hill from four union-backed political action committees.

Cliff Puckett, an organizer with the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, said the public-sector unions' beef with Kulongoski over his support for pension-benefit reductions hasn't drawn solidarity with private-sector unions such as his own, which endorsed the governor for re-election. After all, Puckett pointed out, the union's carpenters, drywallers, and related craft workers view the issue of public-employee pension benefits not just as fellow unionists, but as taxpayers and workers whose retirement plans weren't nearly as generous.

"Their pensions are out-earning our investments," he said. "Something had to change."

CAPTION(S):

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has stepped up his public speaking events in an effort to tout his administration's achievements.
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Title Annotation:Politics
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 16, 2006
Words:1059
Previous Article:BRIEFLY.
Next Article:A familiar field.
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