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Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek apologizes, walks back plan to expand her wife’s role in administration

Aimee Kotek Wilson, left, and her wife, Oregon’s Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, arrive at the press conference. “I know that we can make things better, fix things, come together,” Kotek said at her first press conference following the election.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Aimee Kotek Wilson, left, and her wife, Oregon’s Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, arrive at the press conference. “I know that we can make things better, fix things, come together,” Kotek said at her first press conference following the election.

Oregon's governor backtracked less than a week following the release of thousands of pages of emails that illustrated strong concerns among her top staffers regarding the growing role of the first lady.

Gov. Tina Kotek is abandoning plans to expand her wife’s role in the administration and apologizing for her handling of the subject as mounting public scrutiny on First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson becomes an increasing threat to the governor’s policy agenda.

In a lengthy statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Kotek appeared to close the door on an effort public records show she has quietly pursued for months: creating a formal office for her spouse, Kotek Wilson.

A trove of emails released last week showed definitively that Kotek’s steps in that direction — over significant concerns raised by staff — were a key reason three of the governor’s top aides announced their departures last month. A staff attorneyand Kotek’s communications director have since resigned, though it’s not clear those departures are related.

“After listening to and reflecting on the concerns of Oregonians who have contacted my office, as well as the advice of staff, I want to be clear about next steps: There will not be an Office of the First Spouse,” Kotek wrote in prepared remarks before a planned news conference. “There will not be a position of Chief of Staff to the First Spouse.”

The move marks an abrupt turnaround. Kotek had shown no public misgivings about exploring a larger role for Kotek Wilson.

In a meeting with reporters in early April, the governor suggested she was only at the outset of thinking about how the first lady’s more expansive influence could work, and announced she would be putting formal questions to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

“We weren’t sure what questions we needed to ask,” Kotek said at the time. “We are now expediting that because of the public interest and so going to the Ethics Commission to try to figure that out.”

The documents released last week, however, show staffers had been flagging potential issues about the arrangement for months, posing the kinds of detailed questions that Kotek told reporters her office had just begun to consider.

They also show clearly that Kotek had already hired a chief of staff for her wife: Meliah Masiba, a former legislative director for the state’s sprawling Department of Administrative Services. The governor’s office recast the position publicly as an “advisor” once concerns surfaced in late March about Kotek Wilson’s role.

Kotek seemed to own that sloppiness in her statement Wednesday.

“I take responsibility for not being more thoughtful in my approach to exploring the role of the First Spouse,” she said, addressing Oregonians. “I am sorry for the way this conversation between my office and you has started.”

The governor’s announcement leaves some questions unanswered, however, including what role she envisions for Kotek Wilson moving forward.

Kotek indicated her wife “will continue to accompany me and attend events representing the Governor’s Office, such as Tribal visits and ceremonial events, and she will listen to Oregonians about the issues most impacting them…”

That seems to suggest Kotek Wilson will no longer be a feature in policy meetings around behavioral health, a subject her public calendars show she has been extensively involved in since Kotek took office last year. Nothing in the governor’s statement says Kotek Wilson will not be in those meetings. It’s also not clear whether Kotek Wilson will retain a small office among the governor’s staff.

Kotek also appears to be holding firm on a decision to grant the first lady bodyguard protection from the Oregon State Police when she appears in public, a move that emails show caused friction in her office.

And Kotek says her office is “assembling a First Spouse Manual to spell out policies and procedures related to that role, including protocols for addressing any staff concerns or complaints.” Such protocols appear to be similar to steps one of Kotek’s now-departed aides, Abby Tibbs, called for in an email in mid-March, shortly before she left the office. But it’s also clear from emails released Friday that members of Kotek’s staff have been working on a formal job description for Kotek Wilson since at least February.

Kotek Wilson got her start in Oregon politics working on Democratic campaigns and for public officials, including then-Secretary of State Kate Brown. She pivoted to social work. Records show she was licensed by the state as a social worker from early 2021 to the end of 2022, and she worked for Cascadia Behavioral Health at that time. Kotek Wilson has also said she lives with mental illness and is in recovery from alcohol use disorder.

Kotek has repeatedly said that life path gives her wife valuable insight on how to address Oregon’s serious struggles with substance use and mental health care.

“The First Lady and I share a profound commitment to standing up for the most vulnerable among us, fighting for a more just world, and making sure we leave this world better than we found it,” Kotek’s statement said Wednesday. “She is a social worker, someone with lived experience and someone who has throughout her career helped lift up the stories of others to make meaningful change.”

Kotek noted that her wife receives no pay for her participation in the administration, and says the couple “jointly and intentionally decided that she not return to employment or have any outside income as to avoid any perceived or actual conflict of interest.”

That decision might be rooted in recent history. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber was forced to resign in 2015 after First Lady Cylvia Hayes accepted paid consulting work from entities that had an interest in influencing the administration.

But Kotek Wilson’s lack of income has not been enough to avoid scrutiny of her position, and some interactions have raised eyebrows in the governor’s office.

At one point, emails show Kotek asked a policy adviser to call Cascadia Behavioral Health to intercede in a workplace matter on behalf of one of Kotek Wilson’s friends. Tibbs was unsparing about the move, writing in an email it was “highly inappropriate at best.”

“The Governor has been reminded several times now of the power she and the [first lady] hold in this office and externally and the appropriate use of their power,” Tibbs wrote on Feb. 9.

In Oregon, the first spouse is considered a public official. But as Kotek often notes, there are no hard-and-fast rules for what the role entails. That has instead been left largely for governors and their spouses to determine.

Kotek’s statement on Wednesday suggests that, while she has tabled some possibilities for her wife’s role, the subject is still unsettled.

“I am committed to defining the role of the First Spouse with respect to what we learn from [the Oregon Government Ethics Commission],” the statement said, “not only on behalf of this administration but future administrations as well.”

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart, Lauren Dake