When she took office this week, Oregon’s new secretary of state, Bev Clarno, added to her list of historic firsts.
She’d already been the first Republican woman to serve as speaker of the house, taking the post in 1997. She was the first woman elected to the Legislature from a district east of the Cascades when she won a seat in 1989.
Now, as Clarno steps in to finish the term of late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, four of five Oregon statewide executive offices are held by women for the first time.
The remaining three — Gov. Kate Brown, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle — were in attendance Wednesday, for Clarno’s ceremonial swearing-in at the Capitol. Also present was Treasurer Tobias Read, to whom one speaker jokingly referred as the “odd man out.”
The ceremony marked Clarno’s first public appearance since Brown appointed her last week — a tenure that has already seen her dismiss three top officials at the secretary of state’s office. The new secretary, a Republican, used the occasion to once again vow she’d oversee elections, carry out audits and run the other functions of her new office without an eye toward party.
“We may not always see eye-to-eye on every issue, but we will continue to trust and respect one another,” Clarno told Brown.
Clarno, an 83-year-old from Redmond, had not held public office in Oregon in more than 15 years before being named secretary last week. She was one of three finalists interviewed by the governor, after personally submitting her name for the job on March 6, when she was in Salem to attend Richardson’s state funeral. He died of brain cancer on Feb. 26.
“The next 21 months will not be what we had imagined a few weeks ago,” she told a room packed with elected leaders and more than a dozen family members. “A few trips have been canceled. But I know these will be busy times, challenging and fulfilling ones.”
In brief remarks after being sworn in by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters, Clarno said she’d lead by listening — to her new staff, to lawmakers, to county officials and to the public.
She also addressed her age head on, quoting former 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney.
“Age is nothing but experience, and some of us are more experienced than others,” she said. “As the most experienced secretary of state in Oregon’s history, I look forward to proving that ageism belongs in the same dustbin as sexism and racism.”
The former pig farmer’s past political life was marked by a reputation for being tough — she famously bragged of having castrated hundreds of pigs in a single day while trying to wrangle votes for speaker. That mystique continued Thursday.
“She’s tough as nails and she actually knows how to use them,” said Brown, a Democrat who served as co-leader of an evenly divided Senate with Clarno in 2003. “She isn’t the type of leader who would crack glass ceilings with stilettos, she’d take a hammer and tear that damn ceiling down.”
Stat Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, who was part of that 2003 session, said Clarno “leads with a firm hand. And with that firm hand there is a sense of fairness that you and I wish that could permeate throughout this building. Bev, you have earned every step of the way.”
State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, also spoke. She recalled a time when Clarno had upbraided state officials for spending $44,000 in public money to finance a trip to the Rose Bowl, saying that was more than some families made in a year.
“She will likely bring that common sense to her new assignment,” Johnson said. “One thing she won’t bring is partisanship. She loves Oregon, and will place the good of our state ahead of political party.”
Following the ceremony, Clarno clarified her reasons for dismissing three high-ranking officials — the deputy secretary of state, chief of staff, and governmental and legal affairs director — on Monday, a day after her formal swearing in.
“I need to build my leadership team and I need to have positions filled that are people of my own choosing,” she told OPB. “Even when I had the hog farm I had to have people that I trusted to do the job.”
Clarno said she doesn’t currently anticipate changing out other high-ranking figures in the office, like the state’s elections director or director of audits.
“I won’t be working with them on a daily basis like I would my leadership team,” she said.
Clarno also mentioned an interesting tidbit: Before making a choice for who’d fill Richardson’s shoes, the governor insisted that the eventual appointee not run for election to the job in 2020. But Clarno said neither Brown nor her staff ever asked whether she’d run.
“I read that in the paper, although she never asked me that,” Clarno told OPB. “Don’t you think, maybe assuming the hardship of campaigns, that she could maybe assume I wouldn’t run? But she never asked me.”
So does Clarno plan to run? She laughed at the question.
“No. I intend to do the best job I can for the next 20-some months.”