Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's bio calls him an avid fly fisherman who "will throw a fly into any puddle or stream of water in Oregon." I thought: "A challenge!"
So I met the Democratic governor, who is in his second and final term, early in the morning on the South Santiam River. It was a perfect spot to talk about two of his passions: fishing and green jobs.
He's made bringing those green jobs to Oregon a hallmark of his time as governor. Kulongoski has teamed up with other Western governors to form the Western Climate Initiative, which is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The state's goal is to draw 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2025.
This Is What It's All About
We clamber into a McKenzie driftboat in chest waders and drift off, hoping for steelhead trout, the governor's favorite to fish for.
"It's a good fighting fish," he says. "If we get fortunate enough to get one on, you'll see why everybody likes it — because it is the ultimate in catching a wild fish, if you can."
We float past Chinook salmon spawning in the gravel close to shore, their tails flapping out of the water. Ospreys wheel overhead. For Kulongoski, time on the river teaches patience — among other things.
"Sometimes, you have to get out like this to really understand why you do what you do," he says. "This is what Oregon's all about. This is who we are as people — on the natural resource side of our lives. ... I must admit, I may not be as religious but I'm very spiritual — and I believe if there is a God, this is where he lives. He's on the river, he's in the mountains — this is what it's all about."
Kulongoski says he fishes every chance he gets. Since the steelhead aren't biting, there is lots of time to talk about green jobs and the economy.
A Long-Term Goal
Oregon has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to attract renewable energy projects. The governor is bullish on the long-term potential of solar, wind, biomass.
"These are long-term decisions and that's the challenge for us," he says. "Because I've never had — to be very frank — a citizen come up to me and say, 'Governor, what are you going to do for me in 10 years?' They always want to know, 'What are you doing for me now?' And I think that's the challenge around climate change, and around converting to renewable energy and new technology. There's always a cost factor-in. Long term, I know it will pay a dividend for us because it will provide cheaper, more efficient fuel. We'll have a better environment, we'll have more jobs, but it is tough to tell people, 'Make that investment.' "
It's a tough message for the governor to deliver as Oregon's unemployment rate hovers near 12 percent.
"That's what people tell me all of the time," he says. "All they want is, 'What are you doing to get me a job?' ... I don't see this as measuring it by how many jobs I have today. I look at it [in terms of] what the potential jobs are as you make the conversion to renewable energy. And I think there are going to be many, many more."
Fishing For Focus
On the river, the day is warming. It's been a couple of hours, with no bites. Not even a nibble.
"When I first got elected, I would come out here and I would start thinking about all of the things that I have to worry about, and I realized I was losing most of the enjoyment out of the river, and now I just think about that fish is going to hit that line, I know it."
Maybe it's Kulongoski's confidence. Maybe the fish don't want to make him look bad with reporters in the boat. But suddenly, the governor's rod arcs toward the water. The governor starts to reel in his line, his eyes fixed on the river. He's braced for a steelhead giving him a fight. But when the fish surfaces, splashing — greenish, speckled with brown — it's not the steelhead of the governor's dreams. It's a surprise: a 14-inch-long male Chinook salmon from a hatchery.
The governor practices catch and release, so our river guide, Jay Nicholas, unhooks the salmon. It flickers away downriver.
Kulongoski is pretty low-profile: Some longtime Oregonians had to think really hard to even come up with his name when I mentioned I'd gone out fishing with the governor.
He is known in the fishing community — and we'll end with this story that he told me about one time that he went fishing for steelhead on the McKenzie River. There were a lot of bank fishermen there — and they were watching as he set out in a boat.
"We weren't in the water five minutes," said Kulogoski, "and I hooked one and he got off. And these people were looking at me, watching me, and they knew who I was — and I hooked another one and it got off. And this guy yells, 'Governor, if you can't keep 'em on, get off the river!!' Everybody started laughing, and I was laughing with them — because we've all had that experience! And so I'm just like they are."