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Shemia Fagan Takes Seemingly Decisive Lead In Oregon's Democratic Secretary Of State Race

Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, listens to testimony at a House Committee on Human Services and Housing meeting at the Oregon Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.
Bradley W. Parks/OPB
Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, listens to testimony at a House Committee on Human Services and Housing meeting at the Oregon Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.

State Sen. Shemia Fagan appears to have won the Democratic primary for secretary of state, Oregon’s second-highest office.

The race turned into quite a rollercoaster when the state's largest newspaper initially declared her opponent, state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, the winner on Election Night. The Oregonian/OregonLive reversed course on Wednesday even though several counties reported outstanding ballots and the state's election website continued to show the race was tight.

Yet, this time it appears they made the right call.

As results continued to trickle in, Fagan's lead grew, but both candidates have still been reticent to declare victory or call it quits. 

The latest results from Thursday showed Fagan leading by 3,212 votes with 564,976 votes cast. 

Political scientist Jim Moore, with the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement, said he also would have called the race in Hass’ favor Tuesday night.

“He was ahead in Washington County, where he lives; he won it clearly,” Moore said of the initial results. “Fagan, who should have been doing well in the Portland area, was losing to him and in Democratic primaries that means pretty much you’re gonna lose statewide.”

But late election results surged in Fagan's favor.

Oregon’s secretary of state is charged with overseeing elections, auditing and business registrations. It is also the first in line to assume the governorship if the elected governor can no longer serve in the role. When Gov. John Kitzhaber stepped aside amid scandal in 2015, then-Secretary of State Kate Brown assumed the role.

Fagan, an employment lawyer, is considered one of the more progressive members of the state Senate and ran to Hass’ left in the secretary of state race.

She entered the race late, less than three months before the primary, but received significant financial support from the state’s labor unions. Fagan has been open on the campaign trail about her upbringing, including visiting her mother who was homeless in East Portland and struggling with addiction. She has shared the story as a way to illustrate her passion for housing issues.

More recently, Fagan chaired the first-ever Senate Housing Committee at a time when the state Legislature approved first-in-the-nation statewide rent control.

She also sponsored a measure to change Oregon’s legal voting age from 18 to 16.

Fagan received significant financial support and was endorsed by unions representing a wide swath of public employees, NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, among other groups.

Fagan entered after Jennifer Williamson dropped out of the race. Williamson quit before a story from the Willamette Week was scheduled to run questioning the use of her campaign funds.

Hass, a former reporter who works in advertising, spent nearly two decades serving as a lawmaker, both as a state representative for Washington County and in the state Senate starting in 2007.

Former congressional candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner also made a run for the seat.

Multnomah County elections director Tim Scott said although there were fewer people working on election night, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a need for social distancing, overall, the election proceeded as smoothly as it could have.

“We always get a lot of ballots on Election Day and it takes us a long time to get them through,” Scott said, adding the Elections Division alerted people early that could be the case. “We had less people in the building on Election Night, so the ability to process the ballots we did get was limited.”

Current Secretary of State Bev Clarno — appointed to the position after the death of former Secretary Dennis Richardson — is not running for election. Fagan will now face another state senator: Republican Kim Thatcher of Keizer. Thatcher easily won the GOP primary Tuesday.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lauren Dake is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.