Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s decision to resign her office in light of a mounting consulting scandal rocked Oregon’s political realm Tuesday. It also raised an immediate question: Who should fill Fagan’s shoes?
The question is weightier than mere Salem gossip. The secretary of state is Oregon’s top elections official, among other duties. Whomever Gov. Tina Kotek taps to fill out the rest of Fagan’s term will oversee a 2024 presidential election that could prove a major test to the nation’s political system.
Kotek is unlikely to make a decision for weeks, if past vacancies in the office are any indication. The governor hasn’t yet announced whether she’ll appoint a “placeholder” secretary who does not intend to run for election next year, or a person who wants to do the job long-term.
In the meantime, elected officials and others will think seriously about whether they could do the job. Among them, apparently, is State Treasurer Tobias Read.
“I anticipate having a conversation with the governor about next steps,” Read said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “That’s the one thing I’m interested in: Making sure that Oregonians have confidence in the office and that we are prepared to run a really effective professional election in 2024.”
Read stopped short of saying he would definitely seek the appointment, saying he wanted to learn more about how Kotek was thinking about the position. But he suggested his role as a statewide executive official would serve the state well as it hustles to fill the job.
“We don’t have time for someone to be learning on the job,” he said, “so I’m looking forward to talking with the governor.”
Read, who ran unsuccessfully against Kotek in 2022 Democratic primary, already has at least some support for taking on the secretary role. Kotek will hear a lot of other names before she makes her decision. Under state law, she must choose a Democrat, like Fagan.
Informal conversations with Democratic politicos Tuesday turned up a wide range of names, including a trio of current or former Multnomah County officials: Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, who just won the role, former Chair Deborah Kafoury, and Commissioner Susheela Jayapal.
Current and former lawmakers are also in the mix. Former Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest-tenured lawmaker in state history, has been floated as an option if Kotek decides to appoint a short-timer. Courtney confirmed Tuesday he’d been approached about that possibility by supporters, and that he’d consider it.
“To me, this is so serious, it’s so impactful and so critical to repair that you don’t lobby for something like this,” Courtney said in an interview. “You just make it clear if questions are raised that you would be willing to do everything you could in your power… to try and make things right.”
Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber and Rep. Janelle Bynum, both considered business-friendly Democrats, were being talked up in some corners, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
Others insisted that Kotek should steer clear of appointing a sitting senator at all costs. That’s based on the current math of the Senate, where Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, has been absent since mid-March due to health issues. With Gorsek out, Democrats have a bare 16-person majority in the 30-member chamber. If Kotek named Lieber or another Democrat secretary of state, the party would find it impossible to move big pieces of its agenda through the chamber until the empty seat could be filled.
“No Democratic state senator is a viable option,” said Felisa Hagins, political director for Service Employees International Union Local 49, a key supporter of Kotek.
And then there are former secretaries of state who know the role better than anyone. Jeanne Atkins and Phil Keisling are both Democrats who formerly held the job.
For that matter, so is former Gov. Kate Brown, though she offered no indication she was interested Tuesday, even as she urged Kotek to appoint a secretary who does not want the job long-term. That’s the approach Brown took in 2019 when choosing a replacement for Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who died in office.
“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. “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.”
While the secretary of state is undoubtedly an important position, interested parties are likely familiar with one possible downside.
With a $77,000 salary set in statute, Oregon’s secretary of state is one of the worst paid in the nation – and also paid far less than many of their own employees.
That salary was a key reason that Fagan said she accepted a $10,000-per-month side job consulting for a chain of cannabis dispensaries, the deal that ultimately set off a scandal that led to her resignation.
“I’m starting over financially after a divorce,” Fagan said in a press conference Monday. “I have two young kids. I have student loans and other bills. I’m a renter in the expensive Portland metro area, and I’m the sole income earner in my household.”
One person who wouldn’t have to worry about a pay cut as secretary is Read, who as treasurer has the same $77,000 salary set in state statute.
Not that he knows it. On Tuesday, Read – the husband of a high-ranking Nike employee – said he’d been under the impression the job paid $72,000.
“I wanna figure that out and get back to you,” he said.
Lauren Dake contributed to this report.