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Disqualified Oregon gubernatorial candidate Nick Kristof on what’s next

Nick Kristof at his family farm in Yamhill, accompanied by the family dog, Connie, Jan. 14, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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Nick Kristof at his family farm in Yamhill, accompanied by the family dog, Connie, Jan. 14, 2022.

On Thursday, the Oregon Supreme Court issued an opinion affirming Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s determination that former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof cannot legally vie for the governorship because he does not meet the state’s three-year residency requirement.

Nick Kristof’s bid to be the next governor of Oregon is over.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a decision from Secretary of State Shemia Fagan should stand. Last month, Fagan said that Kristof couldn’t be on the May primary ballot as a gubernatorial candidate because he didn’t meet the state Constitution’s residency requirement. Kristof challenged Fagan’s decision, but the court agreed with her.

At a press conference following the ruling Thursday, Kristof said he’s not leaving Oregon, and that he’s going to keep fighting for it any way he can. He was a guest on OPB’s “Think Out Loud®” Friday.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Dave Miller: I want to start with some of what you said when the Secretary of State said that you could not be on the ballot last month. You said that her decision was grounded in politics. You said, “A failing political establishment is protecting itself. The status quo is defending itself.” You also said that, because you come from outside the political establishment and don’t owe the insiders anything, they view your campaign as a threat. You were criticized for those comments. People said that you risked undermining Oregonians’ faith in our political systems at a time when there’s already an avalanche of misinformation or disinformation about elections all around the country. Do you stand by all of that language?

Nick Kristof: Yeah, I stand by it. I mean, there’s a tradeoff one has to, on the one hand, hold institutions accountable and people accountable, and I think we can do better in this state. I think everybody acknowledges that. And yet, the way to move forward is also to work with those institutions, and that’s what I’m doing. That’s what I will continue to do. I really do want to focus on how we, as a state, can best address the kind of needs that I saw when I was running, not least 22,000 homeless kids who keep me up at night.

Miller: The tone of those remarks [about the Secretary of State’s decision] were very different from what you said yesterday. Yesterday, you said, “While we are disappointed in the decision, we respect their ruling and thank the justices for their thoughtful consideration of this matter.” The court agreed with the Secretary of State, but you don’t see the Oregon Supreme Court as a part of the political establishment that’s trying to prevent you from governing?

Kristof: I have a lot of respect for the Oregon judiciary, and I wish they had ruled differently — the justices — but I have full confidence in their integrity. And so, I accept that decision and I’ll have to figure out other ways to make any difference on the issues I really care about.

Miller: And we’re going to get to that. I’m very interested in the issues you want to focus on and how you intend to do that. But just to stick on this one last point — you’re saying you still believe that the reason you’re not going to be on the ballot is political. You’re saying you have faith in the judiciary, but the fact that this was an issue ever, you’re still saying that that this is a political decision, not a legal one?

Kristof: Look, I don’t want to belabor it, you know, three other secretaries of state all said that they would have ruled differently. And so at the end of the day, it’s clear that who the Secretary of State was at that time determined the outcome. But again, that’s water under the bridge and I’m going to be just fine. My concern is a lot of other people who won’t be just fine.

Miller: One of the issues that the court brought up was the question of being registered to vote and voting in a place. They said, “The choice of where to register is a meaningful one as it provides evidence of the political community to which a person feels the greatest attachment, the community in whose elections that person wishes to have a say.” This was one of the issues that the Secretary of State brought up — the fact that you had voted in New York State as recently as 2020. Do you agree with the court’s statement there that the choice of where to register provides evidence of the political community to which a person feels the greatest attachment?

Kristof: Yeah, it was actually a point that our legal briefs made: That it’s one point of evidence, that there are lots of points of evidence. Where you vote is evidence, where you do business, where you spend time, where your family is, that there’s no one test and that there are 1,000 tests, and one has to balance those.

Miller: If you’re not voting for the people who are representing that state in other ways, whether it’s governor or other offices, I guess what I’m wondering is, how significant is it in your mind to vote in a place?

Kristof: I do think it’s significant, but I think where one spends time is significant. I think where one tries to make a difference is important, where one is engaged in philanthropy, where one raises one’s family. I mean, there are many, many elements of life. Life is complicated and there’s an awful lot of folks who do have complicated residency if they’re in the military service, if they’re college students, if they’re migrant laborers ... . But the court reached a decision. I respect its decision.

Miller: So let’s turn to the campaign itself. The last time we talked was after you’d written a book all about not just Oregon, but other places that had struggling communities all around the country, but Yamhill County figured prominently in it. And when you were campaigning, you did something that was a version of what you’ve done for most of a 40 or so year career — traveling around talking to people. I’m curious how that was different when you were doing it, not just to glean information about how Oregonians were doing, but also because you were trying to sell yourself? You had another objective as well.

Kristof: Yeah, but the common thread is that, whether I’m using the political toolbox or the journalistic toolbox, I’m trying to call attention to issues so that we can see progress on them. It’s not about me; it’s about really trying to make a difference on issues. So, in Lincoln City, I came across the case of woman who is employed at a grocery store, at a supermarket, and yet is still homeless living out of her car. (She) has been for the last year, even though she has a colostomy bag. You can imagine the impediments of hygiene in that situation. And I think about her and, if this was a year ago, I would have highlighted her case in a column to try to call attention to address the housing crisis in Oregon. And instead, I did in my talks. But the purpose is the same — to see how we can do a better job in this state of meeting people’s needs that right now are not being met.

Miller: You focused on a number of issues in your campaign and talked about some of them yesterday, including housing, homelessness, climate change, economic inequality, criminal justice, early childhood education. Is there a single issue that you feel most passionate now about putting your energy toward?

Kristof: Well, I mean, broadly, it’s kind of people left behind and especially kids. I’ve got a couple of friends who are on the precipice of homelessness and that’s because of untreated mental illness, untreated addiction, it’s an educational failure, all of these things that go together. And they have a 2-year-old son who is now in foster care. We know that foster care outcomes are wretched, and so I just fear that we are now going to be repeating that cycle, and that is happening all over Oregon. Too often, we’re willing to invest in incarcerating people, but not in the early childhood support, in the job training, in the mental health services and the addiction treatment that would be a far more efficient and humane use of our tax dollars.

Miller: How do you plan to get things done as a private citizen in Yamhill?

Kristof: Good question. I welcome ideas and I’m not sure what my next chapter is. I’ve had some people reach out with suggestions, but the common thread for my career forever has been that I’ve been kind of a storyteller in ways to propel issues onto the agenda that get them addressed. I try to be a problem solver, and I’ve used the journalism toolbox to try to address that. I’ve used the philanthropy toolbox to try to address that. We reorganized our family farm. We wrote our book. We did a PBS documentary about these issues. And then I tried the political toolbox and that did not work out. But, one way or the other, I’ll find ways that will make a difference on these issues.

Miller: You’ve said that you can’t do this alone. What are the groups or individuals that you know now you would like to partner with?

Kristof: Oh, you know, there’s so many folks all around Oregon, all around the country, who are doing just extraordinary work on these issues. One of the great innovations in Oregon that should be more celebrated is relief nurseries, which started in Eugene and works with at-risk, very young kids and provides them the kind of support and reduces the trauma that too many young kids get exposed to. And it’s a great model, but it should be in more cities around Oregon. It should be in more places around the country. But there’s no one model, there’s no one approach.

Miller: According to ORESTAR, the site where we can look at how much money candidates have raised and how much they’ve spent, you have about $1.5 million in campaign funds right now. The Secretary of State’s Office says you can refund campaign money, you can donate it to other candidates or committees, you could reorganize your campaign committee if you want to run for a different office yourself. What are your thoughts about what you’ll do with that money?

Kristof: I just don’t know. This just happened and I’ve been busy talking to people, reacting, talking to family. And so I haven’t had a chance to think about this. We’ll have to unwind the campaign and then think, what we do with this resource and I just don’t know.

Miller: What do you feel to be the biggest thing you’ve learned from this episode?

Kristof: Traveling around the state has just left me with a reminder of how many folks have been left behind and that neither the political system nor other institutions have been able to deal with their needs. And one of the stories that just continues to haunt me is of a Beaverton woman who had two kids — an elementary school girl and a middle school son — and the only place that she could find to house them that she could afford was a $650 a month garden shed in somebody’s yard with no electricity, no heating, no plumbing, just a bucket for a toilet. And the kids couldn’t bathe. They had lice. They smelled and other kids taunted them. The girl attempted suicide and the children were removed from that family, from a mother who loved them and did her best to support them but couldn’t get housing. That’s a collective failure when we can’t make housing available for somebody who was working full-time and desperately loves her kids.
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Julie Sabatier