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Gov. Tina Kotek will not insist new Oregon secretary of state be a political short-timer

Tina Kotek speaks at a podium.
Dirk VanderHart
Gov. Tina Kotek says she's in no hurry to appoint a new secretary of state, after Shemia Fagan resigned amid scandal. File photo.

Gov. Tina Kotek on Wednesday settled one major question about her pick to be Oregon’s next secretary of state.

While the governor said she’s still considering options to replace former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, Kotek will not insist that her eventual choice be a “caretaker” secretary who agrees not to run for the position next year.

“I want to make sure, whoever takes that job, that they understand that one of their primary goals is to restore confidence in the Secretary of State’s office,” Kotek said in a meeting with reporters. “That is my primary goal – not whether they want the job in the future.”

Once seen as a rising star in the Democratic party, Fagan stepped down on May 9. Her stunning downfall followed revelations she’d accepted a lucrative cannabis consulting contract that seemed to conflict with her duties as secretary, including overseeing an audit of state cannabis regulations. The contract was furnished by Aaron Mitchell and Rosa Cazares, owners of the La Mota dispensary chain and significant political donors to Fagan, Kotek and other Democrats.

It’s now up to Kotek to choose another Democrat to take on an important job that oversees elections, manages audits of state agencies, registers businesses and more.

Some observers have insisted Kotek should choose a candidate who won’t run in 2024, particularly since that person will be tasked with running a hugely important presidential election.

“There is no trust being restored when the SOS hits the ground running.....to dial for dollars,” Julie Parrish, a consultant and former Republican state representative, tweeted on Wednesday.

That sentiment is bipartisan. Former Gov. Kate Brown – who had to appoint two new secretaries while in office – picked replacements who didn’t want the job long term.

“I believe that Governor Kotek should follow the standard I set and appoint someone who will not put their personal political interests ahead of the administration of the 2024 Presidential Election,” Brown said in a statement earlier this month. “This will be the most consequential election of modern history and any appointee must be solely focused on restoring Americans’ faith in our electoral system and not on their own election to the secretary’s office.”

Others feel differently, including Democratic allies who’d rather have an incumbent running for secretary in 2024 than a new candidate who might be less familiar to voters.

Kotek said on Wednesday that all she’s concerned about is finding someone citizens trust. And she suggested she’s in no real hurry to name that person.

“I don’t move forward until I understand where I’m trying to go,” she said. “I took the last week or so just really trying to think about what kind of skills would be important for this job. It still comes back to someone who can be a public-facing leader who will restore confidence in that agency.”

Kotek said she’s asked past elected officials about what qualities she should look for in a new secretary. And she noted that the circumstances of this appointment are different from those made by Brown, who ascended to the governor’s office from the secretary of state when Gov. John Kitzhaber stepped down in 2015. While governor, Brown first had to pick a replacement for herself. Then in 2019, she replaced Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican who died while in office.

“Let’s remember, this is an unprecedented situation,” Kotek said. “This is a scandal. This is a crisis of confidence in the agency. So most of my conversations have been about: How do you handle that?”

Speculation has run rampant in Salem and beyond about who Kotek could tap for the position. Treasurer Tobias Read has said he could be interested. Other names that have emerged are former Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, former Senate President Peter Courtney, state Rep. Janelle Bynum, and current Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, among many others.

“I don’t have a list,” Kotek said on Wednesday. “Now I have an idea of what characteristics I’m looking for and we’re starting to have conversations.”

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. 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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