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Oregon elections officials say Nick Kristof does not qualify to run for governor

Nick Kristof speaks with the media, answering questions about his campaign for Oregon governor, Oct. 27, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church of Portland.
Nick Kristof speaks with the media, answering questions about his campaign for Oregon governor, Oct. 27, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church of Portland.

Oregon election officials say former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof has not been a resident of the state long enough to run for governor.

In an announcement Thursday, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan announced that her office was rejecting Kristof’s bid to run for office, because he does not meet the state’s three-year residency requirement. That decision is likely just the start of a legal fight that will be decided by the courts.

“The rules are the rules and they apply equally to all candidates for office in Oregon. I stand by the determination of the experts in the Oregon Elections Division that Mr. Kristof does not currently meet the Constitutional requirements to run or serve as Oregon Governor,” Fagan said in a statement. “As Oregon’s chief elections official, it is my responsibility to make sure all candidates on the statewide ballot are qualified to serve if elected.”

Fagan did not offer detailed reasoning behind the finding, but in a letter sent to Kristofon Thursday, Oregon elections director Deborah Scroggin laid out the state’s rationale.

Among her reasons for deciding Kristof did not meet residency requirements, Scroggin cited his decision to vote as a New York resident in 2020 and his possession of a New York driver’s license in 2020. Both factors, she wrote, indicated Kristof “viewed New York as the place where you intended to permanently return when you were away.”

“In order to satisfy the three-year residency requirement, you must have been a resident in Oregon for the entire three-year period beginning in November 2019,” Scroggin wrote. “But the objective facts, including your decision to vote in New York, convincingly suggest that you resided in New York at least from November 2019 to December 2020.”

Kristof held a press conference Thursday afternoon in which he blasted the Fagan’s office for issuing a decision “grounded in politics, not precedent.”

“The law is clearly on our side,” Kristof said, speaking to a few reporters who showed up at the conference in Northwest Portland on short notice. “Our campaign will challenge this decision in court and we will win.”

Kristof spoke for about eight minutes, criticizing Oregon’s “political establishment” for what he deemed their attempts to keep him out of the race.

“I do believe there is an entrenched political class in Oregon that has found it threatening that I have raised more money than my Democratic rivals,” he said, “that I have support from people in 35 of the 36 counties around the state.”

Last year, Kristof quit his job at The Times, where he won two Pulitzer Prizes, to seek the Democratic nomination for governor.

A day after he formally filed, state elections officials sent him noticethat they need more information to determine whether he actually qualifies to run. The state Constitution says that the governor must “have been three years next preceding his election, a resident within this State.”

But there’s no clear legal precedent for what being a resident of Oregon actually means in that context.

Kristof, by way of his lawyers, has said what matters most is intent. In their formal response to the state’s questions, his attorneys documented his upbringing in Oregon, his history of spending summers at his family’s Yamhill farm and his recent efforts to rejuvenate that farm. Kristof has said he moved to Oregon full-time in 2019, though he voted in New York state in November 2020. And, he says, even when he split time between Oregon and New York, he considered himself an Oregonian.

In their decision Thursday, state election regulators rejected that argument, saying that the way Kristof was attempting to define residency was out of step with how many state statutes determine the matter.

“You suggest that we should apply a different standard, but we decline to change the way we evaluate residency,” Scroggin wrote.

The Secretary’s of State’s office has said it conferred with the Oregon Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, in determining Kristof’s eligibility. Both Fagan and Rosenblum have deep political ties to a state Democratic establishment that has largely looked askance at Kristof’s potential candidacy.

Fagan’s office said it was prepared for a court challenge.

“If Mr. Kristof chooses to appeal, the Oregon Elections Division is committed to doing everything possible to allow Oregon courts to decide promptly,” Scroggin said in a statement.

Scroggin’s office has been focused on resolving the matter of Kristof’s residency prior to the March deadline for printing ballots for the May primary election. Anticipating a court fight, elections officials last month urged Kristof to file as a candidate well ahead of the March 8 cut off.

Despite being a political novice, Kristof has already raised an impressive amount of money, and has positioned himself as a centrist who has spent decades studying governance from an outsider’s perspective. If he ultimately succeeds in entering the race, he appears poised to pose a major challenge to Oregon’s other Democratic front-runners for governor, House Speaker Tina Kotek and State Treasurer Tobias Read.

In statements Thursday, Read and Kotek both opted not to celebrate the decision against Kristof. Spokespeople for both campaigns noted that the residency ruling rests with the secretary of state and that the candidates are busy focusing on their own priorities. Another Democratic candidate, Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla, offered Kristof another option: Start smaller.

“This the outcome many of us expected. While Nick loves Oregon, just like all of us who feel called to serve, we have an obligation as elected leaders to follow the law,” Kulla said. “I hope he will consider running for Yamhill County Commissioner, House district 24 or another position where he can be effective for his community.”

This is a developing story. Watch for updates.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Anna Griffin, Dirk VanderHart