October 26, 2001 11:00 pm

Gov. John Kitzhaber has done things his own way since he ran for the Oregon Legislature. The mantra, My way or the highway, certainly fits Kitzhaber and the way he approaches his relationship with the Oregon Democratic Party. That might even be a stretch to say Kitzhaber has a relationship with the state party.

On Wednesday, Kitzhaber publicly endorsed his longtime friend Ted Kulongoski for governor. Kitzhaber is term limited from running for a third stint as governor. The governor announced his preference, even though former State Treasurer Jim Hill and former Multnomah County commissioner Bev Stein are also contenders for the Democratic nomination which will be decided in the May primary.

Kitzhaber and Kulongoski hope the pre-primary endorsement will help Kulongoski pick up much needed political steam heading into next years race.

The trouble is that Kitzhaber has done little over his two terms as governor to build support among the Democratic Party loyalists. He brushed them aside in the past when they called on him to help swing the balance of power in the House and Senate.

Instead he has focused on ramming through his agenda or using his veto power to say no to anything he didnt like. During this past legislative session, Kitzhaber seemed to shift his agenda and worked almost hand in hand with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Compromise was the name of the game and when the dust settled, both Republican leaders and Kitzhaber were exclaiming victory. To their disappointment, the economy in Oregon was heading south before the gavel cooled and now the lovefest may be gone if they have to come together in a special session to figure out how to make cuts to deal with a revenue shortfall of almost $700 million.

Kulongoski may find Kitzhabers endorsement isnt worth much when it comes to marshaling the forces against the other two Democratic challengers. In the case of Hill and Stein, they would be better served without Kitzhabers support.

Running a race in Oregon takes more than passing your cloak to someone you hope can win a primary. Hill and Stein are formidable opponents who have been gathering funds and raising awareness for much longer than Kulongoski.

But what might be even more tragic than giving his endorsement to someone before the primary has been conducted will be how it will work should either Hill or Stein beat Kulongoski. Anything that Kitzhaber would say in favor of one of them would be taken as a little too late.

Democratic State Party Chairman Jim Edmunson might have said it best when he was quoted, This was poorly timed and poorly thought out, and unfortunately that has become characteristic of Kitzhabers political process. What more can anyone say?