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Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek will seek ethics guidance on first lady’s increased role in administration

FILE: Surrounded by security, Aimee Kotek Wilson, left, and her wife, Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, prepare to enter the inaugural proceedings at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2023.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
FILE: Surrounded by security, Aimee Kotek Wilson, left, and her wife, Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, prepare to enter the inaugural proceedings at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2023.

Gov. Tina Kotek will seek guidance this week on how to create a larger role for her wife in her administration while complying with state ethics laws.

In her first press conference since the departure of three top aides was announced two weeks ago, Kotek on Wednesday refused to comment on widespread speculation that the shakeup was tied to an increasing role First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson has pressed for in Kotek’s office.

But the governor acknowledged that she didn’t have clear answers about how such a formal role would line up with government ethics rules. In recent days, Kotek has hired a new staffer who is supporting her wife’s role in the administration, and helping advise on whether to formally create an Office of the First Spouse within the administration. She’s also directed state police to provide security for Kotek Wilson any time the first lady appears on behalf of the governor’s office.

Now, Kotek said, she will ask the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for guidance on how far the first lady’s role can extend.

“We weren’t sure what questions we needed to ask,” Kotek said Wednesday in a sit-down with reporters, adding she expected questions would be submitted on Friday. “We are now expediting that because of the public interest.”

On March 22, Kotek’s office announced the departure of Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper. Upon questioning by OPB and other outlets, the office acknowledged two other top aides were also leaving the governor’s staff: Deputy Chief of Staff Lindsey O’Brien and Special Adviser Abby Tibbs.

The governor’s office has repeatedly declined to comment on the reasons behind those departures, saying personnel decisions are not public. None of the three women has responded to requests for comment. But sources with knowledge of the governor’s office have repeatedly pointed to disagreements over Kotek Wilson’s expanding role as a key motivator.

Kotek would not answer questions about the staff shakeup Wednesday, and at one point referred to speculation about what led to them as “assumptions.” She instead seemed to suggest it was normal for three-fourths of her executive team to leave at this juncture of her first term.

“We are continuing to work hard every day on the priorities that I’ve set, and we have a transition in our office where we need to have some new leaders step up or bring in some new people,” Kotek said. “That is not unusual.”

It’snot uncommon across the country for first spouses to take a somewhat active role in gubernatorial administrations. In California – a far larger state with a far larger budget — First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom oversees a staff of six people. Meanwhile in Washington, First Lady Trudi Inslee has a part-time staffer who helps with her schedule.

How far Kotek Wilson’s role could expand remains to be seen. Oregon’s first lady already has her own small office among members of the governor’s staff, along with two employees who assist her. Kotek said she could not answer how far Kotek Wilson’s role in the office would ultimately extend. “I think we are trying to figure out what that even means,” she said. “What does it mean to be involved in policy?”

The first lady has spoken publicly about her struggles with addiction and has been involved in behavioral health meetings within Kotek’s office. The governor said she didn’t know what policy role her spouse might play in her office but that she had both “lived and professional experience on an issue important to Oregonians.”

“We need to understand how that can be added into the mix to actually solve problems,” the governor said.

When Kotek was asked how she would ensure her staff felt comfortable disagreeing with her spouse, she promised that she would set up “policies and procedures that are crystal clear for staff” and if there are concerns there is a “pathway for them to get addressed.”

But she said, no matter the role the first spouse will play, the governor is the one making the decisions.

“The buck stops with me,” Kotek said. “Policy decisions and choices are mine and mine alone.”
Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart, Lauren Dake