[Editor's Note: Congratulations to the Bill Bradbury campaign, whose very generous donation of $875 in our annual charity auction won them this "Glowing Mercury Feature." We thank them, and so does our charity of choice, Outside In!]
Teetering down the football field, Bill Bradbury was positive the crowd suspected he was drunk.
The occasion was a Labor Day picnic in Coos Bay, with beer served at one end of the field and a stage at the other, and Bradbury had been called upon to speak. He wasn't drunk, though; his multiple sclerosis was starting to show. He'd kept it under wraps for three years, but with all eyes on his uneven gait, he decided—on the spot, and to a crowd of thousands—to come clean about his "tippyness."
Twenty-seven years later, Bill Bradbury is running for governor of Oregon, and he's embracing both his disease and atypical candidacy. He's the only person with MS vying for statewide office in 2010, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (MS, a disease affecting the central nervous system, is somewhat unpredictable, but Bradbury's disability remains waist-down, and his doctors have approved his gubernatorial aspirations.)
He's also the only candidate who commutes on a Segway. Hovering at well over six feet tall on his two-wheeled electric scooter, Bradbury's nostrils are often visible on the campaign trail. For now, though, he's still the underdog candidate.
If it weren't for his former boss (more on that later), Bradbury would probably be the frontrunner. He was first elected to public office in 1980 as a state legislator from the southern Oregon coast. Four years later he won a seat as a state senator, where he served until 1995. John Kitzhaber, governor of Oregon from 1995 to 2003, appointed Bradbury secretary of state in 1999 (the second-highest-ranking constitutional office in Oregon). Following the appointment, Bradbury won back-to-back terms at the post, serving until 2008.
Awkwardly, Kitzhaber is now Bradbury's main rival. Kitzhaber declared his intent to run for governor a few weeks before Bradbury and remains a few percentage points ahead in the polls.
For me at least, his gregarious nature and animated speech make Bradbury a more approachable candidate than Kitzhaber, who sports cowboy boots, a Charles Bronson mustache, and the nickname "Doctor No." Bradbury is at home in front of an audience, where he's played a number of roles throughout his career. Before entering politics, he worked as a TV reporter and media producer, and in high school he was active in the drama club. For Bradbury, heaven is other people.
Yet Bradbury's pursuit of the governorship is based on more than an urge to meet every single person in the state. In short, he wouldn't be running if he didn't think he could outperform the competition.
"Look at his record in eight years," Bradbury says of Kitzhaber. "He didn't accomplish much." When asked if Kitzhaber, who's been mostly out of politics since 2003, had abandoned the state, Bradbury says, "Well, I think he did. He basically got to a point two years before his governorship ended that he said the state was ungovernable," alluding to a remark Kitzhaber made in 2002 in the midst of a state budget crisis. "He kind of checked out. And now he's decided that maybe he'll check back in."
Bradbury's rhetoric is bolstered by a recent report in the Oregonian that Kitzhaber didn't vote in five out of the 13 elections since 2004. On the other hand, Bradbury is the lone gubernatorial hopeful with perfect attendance. (On Bradbury's Facebook page, campaign manager Jeremy Wright points out that this was easy, given Oregon's vote-by-mail system—encated by Bradbury in 2000.)
EDUCATION FOR LIFE
Bradbury especially hopes to outshine Kitzhaber in increasing Oregon's funding for education. In fact, he cites this as the "raison d'être" for his candidacy.
"John and I are good friends," he says, "but his contribution to education funding was a ballot measure that says the legislature should fund education at the 'Quality Education Model' level—and if they don't? They should say why [they can't] in a budget note. So ever since that ballot measure passed, there's been a note explaining why they can't."
The biggest difficulty in raising money for schools in Oregon is that it often means raising taxes (and the Republican legislative majority that Kitzhaber presided over was not sympathetic to those means). Property taxes are a major source of school financing, but three controversial ballot measures passed between 1990 and 1997 (Measures 5, 47, and 50) lowered and capped the rates. While current Governor Ted Kulongoski served most of his term in a pre-housing-crash bubble, in which increasing home values offset flattened property tax rates, the effects of these measures are coming to a head.
Bradbury believes that in our current economic climate, fully funding schools "is unavoidably going to take new revenue sources—whether that's taxes or not. If I said it wasn't, I would be a complete crazy man." The likelihood of Measures 66 and 67 (increases in personal income taxes for the rich and corporate taxes) to eke out wins in the special election on January 26 show that Bradbury's thinking may actually be with the majority. (For the record, both Bradbury and Kitzhaber supported these measures.)
Education is a personal issue for Bradbury. One of his two sisters and his wife's sister are both teachers, and his brother-in-law is a deputy secretary of education in Washington, DC. But, Bradbury's passion for education may have even more to do with the role that teachers played in his own life.
At age 10, Bradbury's parents died in a car crash. He and his sisters were immediately taken in by an aunt and uncle, but he remained inconsolable. "I think it's honest to say I didn't smile through all of fourth grade," he recalls. His teacher Ms. Swan was the first person who, after many attempts, got him to laugh again. He credits her with showing him that life could go on.
BRADBURY, THE ENVIRONMENT, AND AL GORE
Prior to his emergence in politics, Bradbury owned a seafood restaurant in Bandon, Oregon—a city on the state's southern coast. This is the region he would later serve as a state representative. Living here deepened his appreciation for the Oregon landscape, whose protection would become a hallmark of his career. However, at the time, fighting skyrocketing unemployment among the area's blue-collar workforce, he suggested mining its natural resources. His first campaign slogan was the optimistic pledge: "Natural resources are our biggest asset on the South Coast. By utilizing these renewable resources, we can gain energy independence and also create jobs for our people."
Today, the symbiosis of environmental and economic policy is a well-established feature of sustainable development. "That is just so exciting to me!" says Bradbury, who lists the convergence as another fundamental reason for his candidacy.
In the past, the majority of Bradbury's direct environmental work has occurred while he was out of elected office. During his governmental hiatus from 1995-1999, he founded For the Sake of the Salmon and led its fight for preserving and restoring wild salmon runs and habitats in the Pacific Northwest. (He won't even eat farmed salmon.)
In the last three years, Bradbury has taken his environmental advocacy across the country, delivering over 200 presentations of Al Gore's lessons on climate change (which both deepens and drains from the significance of Gore's endorsement of Bradbury). Traveling around the country as a foot soldier in Gore's green brigade, Bradbury speaks at venues large and small. His efforts reveal a conviction that personal engagement is an effective strategy for changing minds and refining policy ideas. This also comes out in his governing style.
"I really get in there," he says. "And I work with all kinds of people and we develop a solution. It's really a hands-on kind of approach."
If all else fails, Bradbury wants people to know him. If he learned one lesson from losing—badly losing—the 2002 US Senate race, it was that his campaign should be less about avoiding missteps and more about showing who he is. As the winner of this glowing feature in the 2009 Mercury charity auction, he's inched one sizable, generous donation closer to that goal.