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Politics & Government

Two State Senators Battle For Oregon’s Second-Highest Job

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Republican State Senator Kim Thatcher (L) and Democratic State Senator Shemia Fagan

The secretary of state oversees elections, is next in line to be governor and could play a major role in redistricting

Two state senators who have at times represented the edge of their political party — one leaning further left than some of her colleagues, the other an unwavering conservative — are vying for a powerful statewide position that is considered best run from the middle, in a nonpartisan fashion.

The role of Oregon secretary of state is always an important one; the person in this office is charged with overseeing auditing, elections, archives and the business registry. They have a seat on the state’s land board. They also assume the role of governor — such as then-Secretary of State Kate Brown did — if the elected governor leaves office or dies while serving.

This year, the person could be additionally tasked with the responsibility of figuring out how to redraw legislative boundaries if the Oregon Legislature fails to agree on a redistricting plan.

The position is currently held by Bev Clarno, a Republican who is not running for the spot. Clarno was appointed after Dennis Richardson died of brain cancer while in office in 2019. Richardson was the first Republican to hold the position in decades, and Clarno remains the only Oregon Republican in statewide office.

Sens. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, both have attracted big money to the race. Fagan’s largest backer has been public unions, but she’s also drawn from groups that historically back Democratic candidates, such as Emily’s List. Thatcher has benefitted from the support of timber groups and the Oregon Firearms Federation.

Both candidates have pledged their support for campaign finance limits. Fagan’s support for campaign contribution limits comes with an exception, however: she believes small political action committees, where several contributors pool small amounts of money into one pot, should be treated differently than individual donors. That would mean groups such as her largest backers, the unions, would have different campaign finance rules. Fagan believes getting support from a union is not the same as a large check from one individual, an idea often expressed by Democrats.

“I see it as having earned the support of hundreds of thousands of working people across the state,” Fagan told OPB.

Fagan, 39, is an employment attorney who barely beat out two other Democrats in a competitive race for the secretary of state nomination. She served two terms in the state House before defeating a Democrat incumbent to take a seat in the Oregon Senate in 2018. While campaigning, Fagan often shares her personal story, which includes growing up poor in rural Oregon. She was raised primarily by her single father while her mother battled addiction issues.

Fagan said her passions have long aligned with the duties of the secretary of state’s office. To illustrate, she pointed to her efforts in passing the state’s automatic voter registration system and her more recent, unsuccessful, effort to lower Oregon’s voting age to 16.

Fagan said she believes one of the biggest threats to democracy is the ability for lawmakers to walk out and leave a legislative session, as Republicans have done three times in recent sessions. She said she would champion a measure to ensure if legislators from either political party fled the Capitol during a session, they wouldn’t be paid.

Thatcher, 55, is one of the Republicans who left the Senate with her colleagues to stop a bill to cap allowed greenhouse gas emissions and charge polluters from passing. Thatcher, along with her colleagues, said they wanted to see the measure sent to Oregon voters rather than dealt with legislatively.

Thatcher served in the state House starting in 2005. She was elected to the Oregon Senate in 2014. The state senator has touted her work to help create a small business advocate position and her tenure on the legislative audits committee. Thatcher voted against adding pre-paid postage on ballots, citing funding concerns. She also voted against the motor-voter law. Thatcher said she was concerned automatically adding people to the voter rolls could jeopardize their privacy — voter registration lists are public — if they didn’t realize they could opt-out of the program.

Thatcher supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, but disagrees with the president’s assertion that vote-by-mail is a fraud, at least in Oregon, she said. (She has declined to say who she supports this election cycle; she said she’s running for a position she believes should be nonpartisan in approach.)

She had questions about vote by mail, she said, but trusts what she heard from Richardson when he was secretary of state: It’s safe.

“And so I would say that because we have been doing this for so long in this state that we could really serve as an example, and perhaps a mentor for other states that want to bring this in.”

Thatcher owns two construction companies that work on highway and road construction projects. One of her companies was investigated by the state for fraud. Thatcher said it was a contract dispute that was settled, and she continues to have a good working relationship with the Oregon Department of Transportation.

There are areas of overlap between the two candidates. Both believe OreStar, the state database where campaign contributions and expenditures are posted, needs to be overhauled to be more transparent and user friendly. Both believe ballots postmarked by Election Day should be valid. Both believe the state needs stricter campaign finance laws, but each says the public should weigh in before they articulate any specific limit proposals. Voters will have a chance to weigh in next month on whether to amend the constitution to pave the way to limit campaign contributions and campaign spending.

To increase voter turnout, Fagan would like to see ballot tracking, which exists in some counties, expanded throughout the state so people are notified when their ballots are received and again when they are counted. Thatcher said more polling places should be placed in places such as city hall to help people vote who have been displaced by wildfires.

Here is a look at other key issues the next secretary of state faces, in the candidates' own words. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

If elected, what audits would you suggest the secretary of state prioritizes right away?

Fagan: My dad was a single parent raising three kids by himself in Wasco County. ... I know what it’s like for families to be hanging on by a thread. And here we have the Oregon Employment Department unable to actually get those unemployment insurance benefits to folks who have, probably, most of them have paid into that insurance fund their entire working lives. Many folks have never actually used those benefits. And the first time they need them, they suddenly can’t get them. And while I am grateful that we have an eviction moratorium and a foreclosure moratorium, so folks can’t be kicked out of their homes, there’s no grocery moratorium, right?

So No. 1, what went wrong? How do we fix it? How do we make sure it never happens again? And then No. 2, I think we need a very large audit … into how did all of our systems, including the Oregon Employment Department, including our housing, how did all of those fare under such a massive emergency, knowing that sadly, this likely is not our last pandemic? … And in Oregon, we know that we have a really high percentage chance of the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake occurring sometime in the next 50 years. So we have some serious issues. And then on top of that, watching these wildfires, an unprecedented wildfire season in Oregon, there’s stories of folks down in Southern Oregon that never even received an emergency warning. We have got to do a really deep dive audit.

Thatcher: Since the employment one’s underway, I would just keep plugging away on that one. I think it’s important for us to look at the Department of Forestry and perhaps all the agencies having to do with the wildfire response so that we make sure all the systems are working. … We had to be waiting for a lot of outside resources when we had a lot of people here that could have been outfitted or we could have utilized. We may need to look into our contracting processes.

Looking into how we can better manage our forests and our firefighting capabilities so that we can prevent what happened from happening again. And there was certainly a situation with the warning systems.

(Thatcher also suggested an audit of recently passed legislation that funneled $1 billion into schools, known as the Student Success Act.)

With COVID, there’s a lot of … parents having to sit at their kitchen with our kids, trying to push them through the education system. … Where’s that education funding going? Is it really helping students succeed? Is there something better we can be doing? Is there some other accommodations that should have been taken into consideration for students with disabilities and people, kids, who just really need that in-person education? … We couldn’t have figured out a way to provide that education in a safe manner? … That’s an essential service.

If the job of redrawing Oregon’s legislative and congressional boundaries became your responsibility, how would you handle it? Do you think partisan policymakers should be involved in this job, or should an independent commission take on the role? And if so, who would you suggest make up the independent commission?

Fagan: I do support an independent nonpartisan commission that has at its center achieving our diversity and equity goals. We should have a commission that looks like Oregon. ... For example, in California they have failed in part because they just say, “OK, these are the qualifications,” and then anybody can apply. And so, what they’ve seen in California … is, it’s overwhelmingly white and male and upper middle class people that can afford to do free work. So a No. 1 principle that I have is, legislators get paid a per diem to do legislative work. If the public is going to engage and do this work, they should get paid the same per diem. So I think that they should be paid a fair wage for doing this work, a stipend essentially.

I think that we need to work with community-based organizations to actually make sure that on that commission we have a diverse representation of Oregon and I mean diverse in all senses of the word: race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, but also all 36 counties, all different congressional districts. We need to make sure it is very diverse in terms of partisan party affiliation. So it’s really a commission that can reflect the actual voters of Oregon actually drawing those lines.

Thatcher: From the beginning of my campaign, I supported and publicly endorsed Initiative Petition 57, which would put in place the independent commission for redistricting. And that’s something that needs to be got on right away. I think even before taking office … the people (should be) selected. I don’t have all the details, but basically I want to honor what was in Initiative Petition 57, and you get that independence there into the commission, into the redistricting process.

Basically, they want people that are not necessarily in the Legislature or related to people who are in the Legislature or are active lobbyists or that type of thing. They [don’t] have a dog in the fight as to how they would like to see the lines drawn, but more looking independently and looking at communities of interest and keeping things compact as possible and to taking into account transportation, those types of things and natural borders, just looking at and starting that process.

If elected to secretary of state, would you have a legislative agenda? And if so, what would it entail?

Fagan: We’ve already talked about a few of them: accepting ballots postmarked by Election Day. That’s actually required that it has to be a statutory change. …

I think I would probably be involved in redistricting from the beginning. And so that would require, if I am able to put together an independent commission and it’s something that meets with the approval of Oregonians, … I would then seek to refer that structure to the Oregon Constitution, which of course you can gather signatures, or you can actually do that through the legislature and refer that out. So really, to do it in a way that is really a model, a gold standard for the nation, kind of like vote by mail is.

And then of course, I want to be very involved in the campaign finance reform conversation. If the Legislature doesn’t take it up, I do feel concerned about the potential for continued walkouts. … And I think that, at the very least, Oregonians don’t think people should get paid, [when] they’re not doing their jobs. So there should be some potential changes there ... for making sure that folks don’t get paid when they walk out on their job. But those would all need to be legislative fixes. … I see it as a pro democracy. Our government can’t work if there’s always this looming threat of walkout to shut down the entire process.

Thatcher: I think it would be appropriate in some cases to introduce legislation that could help the secretary of state’s office provide better service or ... to get more money for changing the OreStar [campaign finance reporting] system. Also, being a small business advocate, I want to find out what it is that would help businesses get back on their feet. I want to look at different regions of the state, different industries within the state, different groups, whether they’re, you know, minority businesses or other businesses … of another category, so that we can find out what they’re needing and advocate for those changes, if necessary in legislation.

Also, I would look at reactivating. … People get on the inactive voter rolls if they haven’t participated in an election for a period of time. But if they sign an initiative petition or a referendum, one of the petitions going around — that should reactivate them. They’re obviously wanting to be involved, so they should be able to be reactivated. Those are a couple of examples I would like to see. I think it would be appropriate if the campaign finance ... referral passes this November, that the secretary of state would convene a multi-person group to see how best to implement that and make some suggestions to the Legislature. So those are just ideas off the top of my head.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting