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Oregon Democratic Secretary Of State Race Could Be 2020's Most Competitive Primary

Oregon Democrats were bounced from the secretary of state’s office in 2016. The state’s dominant political party has no intention of making it a habit.

The question, now, is who they put forward for the gig.

On May 19, Democrats will choose between state Sen. Mark Hass, state Sen. Shemia Fagan, and former Congressional candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner as the party’s standard-bearer in a run to reclaim the state’s second-highest executive office.

The candidates are vying for a role that wields major power. Not only does Oregon’s secretary of state oversee elections, auditing, and business registry, it is first in line to assume the governorship if the elected governor leaves office or is incapacitated. Chances are whoever wins the seat will also oversee implementation and enforcement of campaign finance contributions in Oregon.

McLeod-Skinner, Hass and Fagan largely share a vision of how the secretary of state should operate in increasingly partisan times. They all vow to make it easier to register to vote and to ease rules on when voters must mail their ballots. Each has ideas for prioritizing election security and pushing back against disinformation. They bring similar views about the importance of state audits, which the secretary oversees.

On the Republican side, current Secretary of State Bev Clarno — appointed to the position after the death of former Secretary Dennis Richardson — is not running for election. State Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer announced her candidacy in early February, making clear at the time she’d have preferred another Republican step up.

The owner of a construction contracting firm and 15-year veteran of the statehouse, Thatcher bills herself as an experienced leader in times of crisis. She’s also the only Republican in the race with an established campaign infrastructure. Her opponent, David Stauffer, has run for governor twice — first as a Democrat, then a Republican — each time receiving less than 3% of the primary vote. As in earlier races, a big part of Stauffer’s campaign for Secretary of State is a series of inventions, including his idea for a system of commuter water slides that could ferry workers between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., via skiff.

Given that field, the Democratic primary is May’s more compelling race. Here’s a rundown of the candidates, and where they stand on key issues.

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"A Race Car Driver And A Mechanic"

An unknown until two years ago, McLeod-Skinner made waves in 2018 by running an energetic race against U.S. Rep. Greg Walden in the state’s massive, heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District.

By mounting a challenge, McLeod-Skinner was basically launching herself against a brick wall. She lost by 17 points, which, though not close, was still Walden’s most competitive race since he first won the seat in 1998.

McLeod-Skinner argues today that her candidacy distracted Walden, not allowing him to spend his sizable campaign war chest supporting congressional Republicans throughout the country and helping Democrats reclaim the House. (Federal records show Walden still had a hand in distributing tens of thousands of dollars for Republican campaigns.) And, she says, it created a road map for energizing Eastern Oregon Democrats.

An attorney and consultant, McLeod-Skinner did relief work in Kosovo and Bosnia before spending a decade working as a city planner and environmental planner in the Bay Area. She also spent eight years as an elected city councilmember in Santa Clara, California. In 2016, she was hired as the city manager of the southern Oregon city of Phoenix but was fired after four months amid circumstances that are disputed.

She is currently an elected board member of the Jefferson County Education Services District.

McLeod-Skinner, 52, says her years working within government, alongside serving an elected role, have given her a broader perspective than other candidates in the race.

“It's a race car driver versus a mechanic, and if you want a car or a vehicle to work, both those roles are important,” she said. “I've actually done both, but we're talking about two [other candidates] who have just been race car drivers and not also been a mechanic.”

On the campaign trail, McLeod-Skinner revels in wonkery. She cites obscure leadership frameworks by name, and calls audits “sexy.”

“It’s fun finding a way to make government work effectively,” she said, nodding to criticisms leveled against Richardson, who some Democrats believed launched overly political audits. “It’s not about being a bully.”

If elected, McLeod-Skinner plans to conduct audits to make sure Oregonians are being treated fairly by state agencies. She also pledges to look into organizations that are recipients of state contracts and vows to set strict performance metrics for herself, such as requiring voter participation to increase — particularly among underserved populations. Cybersecurity will be a major focus of her elections work, she says.

Perhaps more than policy or technical expertise, though, McLeod-Skinner is hoping to sell Democrats on a fresh perspective. As a resident of small-town Central Oregon, she believes she can act as a salve to the misunderstandings between rural and urban Oregonians that she says plague discourse in the state. And as the only candidate voluntarily limiting campaign contributions — and eschewing corporate donations altogether — McCleod-Skinner says she’s uniquely qualified to represent the interests of everyday Oregonians.

“There are a lot of voices around our state who are not feeling heard,” she says. “Not just rural Democrats, but especially communities of color in urban areas are really frustrated with the status quo. Those are the organizations and individuals that are supporting me and my race.”

Among those supporters is the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, which notes McLeod-Skinner’s history helping resettle refugees in Silicon Valley and supporting immigrant rights in Oregon in its reasons for endorsing her.

“Jamie’s fresh perspective pushes for a multi-narrative approach to the accessibility and preservation of Oregon’s history,” APANO political director Robin Ye said in an email. “APANO is excited to support Jamie as she helps expand election security and voter access, audit for accountability, and ensure that Oregon supports all Oregonians.”

Also among McLeod-Skinner’s supporters: former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkinson, state Rep. Alisa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, and state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland.

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"A Record Of Big Things"

Hass has spent nearly two decades serving as a legislator — he was elected three times as a state representative for a Washington County district before moving to the Senate in 2007 — but his experience in the Capitol predates even that. He spent more than 15 years as a reporter for KATU, covering statehouse issues in the process.

That wealth of experience is a key to the sales pitch Hass, 63, has made since September. In appearances and campaign ads, Hass touts lessons he learned while serving as a lawmaker through past recessions.

“If anything, these times put an exclamation point behind the fact that we need someone who is experienced and steady in state government,” Hass told OPB recently “I’ve been through some crises in Oregon.”

As chair of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, Hass has an influence on state tax policy and command of revenue issues. Lately, he has touted his own influence in coaxing lawmakers to build up historic reserves in recent years, money that will be needed as state taxes tank in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Of all of the revenue issues that I'm most proud of … adopting and implementing and funding these reserve funds are probably the most significant,” he said.

That’s something of a pivot for Hass. Early on in the campaign — before the realities of a massive recession were playing out throughout Oregon — he more prominently touted his role as an architect of a new tax on business sales. Prior to the economic collapse, that tax, known as the Student Success Act, had been expected to deliver roughly $1 billion a year to the state’s underfunded K-12 schools. Its impact is now unclear.

Hass, who says he ran for office to improve things for students, also lists among his accomplishments the Oregon Promise, a grant program that offers free community college to Oregon high school graduates, and his central role pushing full-day kindergarten in Oregon public schools.

“I’m the person in this race who has a record of big things,” Hass often says in his campaign pitch.

Hass’s priorities include creating an office of cybersecurity within the Secretary of State’s office, pressing for statewide ranked-choice voting, conducting audits through a climate change lens, auditing his own Student Success Act, and pushing for same-day voter registration.

(Most candidates in the Democratic race agree on those issues, but Hass has often been the first to introduce items as policy planks.)

Well-regarded in the statehouse, Hass has been passed over in the primary by many of the groups that often help power Oregon Democrats to statewide victory. One reason: Hass voted yes in 2019 on a bill that trimmed pension benefits for public employees — a move that infuriated public-sector unions, but ensured a smoother path for the Student Success Act.

Businesses have stepped in with help. Hass has seen support in the race from Nike, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and Oregon Business & Industry. He’s also got the backing of the state’s 23,000 Teamsters.

“He has a long history in Oregon politics. He knows everyone,” said Mark McPherson, of the Joint Council of Teamsters No. 37. “We felt he had the best opportunity in these really polarized political times we’re living in to reach across the aisle and try to work with everyone and get consensus.”

Hass also has support from two former secretaries of state, Bill Bradbury and Phil Kiesling, along with an array of state and local elected officials.

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"Progressing And Advancing The Ball"

The Democratic race was upended on Feb. 11, when Jennifer Williamson dropped out of the race.

A charismatic former House majority leader, Williamson was considered a leading candidate for the nomination. She quit, she said, because of a forthcoming story from Willamette Week that questioned her use of campaign funds — expenses that Williamson and the newspaper alike concluded were legal.

Williamson had based her race on being the most progressive choice, and her departure created a hole in the field — and unique opportunity for one of her closest allies in the Capitol. A little more than two weeks after Williamson departed, state Sen. Shemia Fagan entered the race.

Fagan, 38, is an employment attorney and former two-term state representative from Clackamas. She took two years off from the Legislature before launching a successful insurgent campaign against incumbent Democratic Sen. Rod Monroe in 2018.

While her quick-draw candidacy might be seen as opportunistic, Fagan can credibly claim a long-term interest in issues that relate to the office. That includes work to build an automatic voter registration system in the state and to finally force a Senate vote on joining an interstate compact that could render the Electoral College moot.

In 2019, Fagan also unsuccessfully pressed for a vote to lower Oregon’s voting age to 16 — a policy she still touts. As a lawmaker, she has been more active than most about trying to demystify the legislative process for constituents, producing videos and podcasts explaining how the Capitol works.

“I have obviously for a long time thought I would love to run for secretary of state,” she said.

She contends her legislative accomplishments — including helping to shepherd statewide rent control through the Senate Housing Committee she chairs — are as impressive as Hass’s. Fagan also points to her upbringing in Dufur and The Dalles as evidence she can bring a rural viewpoint similar to McLeod-Skinner’s.

“I think I bring the best of what you’re all highlighting, but I bring it all in one candidate,” Fagan says she told one of her rivals upon entering the race (she refused to say which).

Policy-wise, Fagan’s stances don’t differ much from her opponents. She supports ranked-choice voting, same-day voter registration, increasing election turnout, bolstering election security and increasing voter engagement.

Like Williamson before her, Fagan is running on a history of progressive votes that she says indicate the philosophy she’ll bring to the job. She often talks about taking principled stands against the Democratic establishment — both in taking on Monroe over his refusal to support rent control and in criticizing Senate Democrats’ habit of voting on legislation in private meetings, a practice that can seal a bill’s fate outside of the public eye.

More striking, Fagan says she plans to be far more active than recent secretaries of state in using her platform to push lawmakers into agreeing with her on policy matters.

“In any executive position, your job is to use the power of the bully pulpit to use the ability to go statewide with a message,” she says. “So if the problem is a senator in some area, you can literally go to their district and make the case to their voters.”

Because the secretary of state oversees elections and audits, some feel the position should be made nonpartisan, similar to Oregon’s labor commissioner. Fagan disagrees.

“When you look at other states right now, there's a ton of activist secretaries of state,” she said. “They’re just a lot of Republican activists who are trying to shut down polling places and restrict voting. We can also have a secretary of state here in Oregon who sees their role as actually progressing and advancing the ball in all of these areas.”

Fagan jumped into the Secretary of State race just in time. While some organizations had already finalized their endorsements, she was able to quickly pitch herself to labor groups, pro-choice organizations, and conservation advocates, securing a bevy of highly sought supporters in short order. Her entrance into the race, in fact, was actively encouraged by unions, some of whom weren’t thrilled by the existing slate of candidates.

She has been endorsed by unions representing a wide swath of public employees, NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, among other groups.

“We just see in Shemia someone who’s a real leader in this state — and hopefully for a long time in a very powerful way,” said OLCV executive director Doug Moore. “She’s intelligent, she’s dynamic, she knows what she doesn’t know.”

Fagan also has the endorsement of former governor and secretary of state Barbara Roberts.

<p>State Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

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State Sen. Mark Hass.

<p>Oregon state Sen.&nbsp;Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, has introduced a measure to amend the Oregon Constitution from 18 to 16.&nbsp; If the Legislature approves it and voters pass the amendment Oregon would be the first state in the nation to allow minors to vote.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

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Oregon state Sen. Shemia Fagan.

<p>Jamie McLeod Skinner.&nbsp;</p>

Emily Cureton

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Jamie McLeod Skinner. 

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.
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