For months, this year’s race for Oregon secretary of state has had a typically partisan hue: Democrats are trying to regain their dominance of the executive branch, while Republicans defend the sole statewide office they hold.

Now, the only candidate who has experience in the Secretary of State’s Office is hoping to change that narrative.

Rich Vial, who resigned his position as deputy secretary of state in January, revealed in recent days he’s mounting an atypical run at Oregon’s second highest executive position.

Once presumed a leading contender for the Republican nomination, Vial has decided to eschew the two-party system. Instead he’s running as a non-affiliated candidate, and hoping that the roughly 34% of Oregon voters who, like him, don’t currently subscribe to a single party, can propel him to the November ballot.

“I think voters generally will come to a place where they say that the two-party system is broken and we need to do something different,” Vial told OPB, nodding to repeated legislative sessions marred by disputes and Republican walkouts. “It sure feels like with the last couple of sessions we’ve had, this could be the time.”

But in order to make his case statewide, Vial will need to emerge victorious in an unprecedented election. He’s hoping to win the online-only primary being run by the Independent Party of Oregon, which is opening up its contest to IPO members and unaffiliated voters alike.

That election will include a “STAR” voting system, in which voters rate the candidates on a scale of zero to five. It will also feature leading Democratic candidates in the race — state Sens. Shemia Fagan and Mark Hass, and former Congressional candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner — along with Sen. Kim Thatcher, who is vying for the Republican nomination.

Rich Vial, former Republican lawmaker and deputy secretary of state, near his home in 2018.

Rich Vial, former Republican lawmaker and deputy secretary of state, near his home in 2018.

Lauren Dake/OPB

The online election will be held from April 28 to May 12 and is open to more than 1 million Oregonians.

Vying for the Independent Party nomination isn’t Vial’s only potential path to the ballot as a non-affiliated candidate. Under state law he could try to collect more than 20,000 valid signatures for a nominating petition, or attempt to convene an “assembly of electors” of at least 1,000 people in one place to nominate him for the office — a nonstarter as the country battles the novel coronavirus. He could also run as a write-in candidate.

“I’m hoping that Independent Party route gets me on the November ballot,” Vial said. “If it doesn’t, I may have to go one of these other routes.”

Vial acknowledged that his path to victory is steep. Even if he wins the Independent Party nomination, he’ll likely be squaring off against major-party-backed opponents who have far more resources to get their message out. He’s unsure whether his existing connections will be willing to risk angering major-party candidates by backing him. 

But the former Republican state lawmaker, who served as deputy under Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno, says he concluded that he needed to run without going through his former party. Part of that is the nature of the Secretary of State’s office, which among its duties oversees elections and state audits.

“It’s very important for the Elections Division to be run completely free of any partisan influence,” Vial said. “If you’ve got a complaint being filed against a Republican and you’ve got a Democrat as secretary of state, frankly that often does affect how that complaint’s going to be handled, and vice versa. That’s the way politics works.”

Vial’s own time in the Secretary of State’s Office was marred by extensive accusations of partisanship. As Clarno’s deputy, Vial was the public face for the office as it explained decisions to reject a series of ballot measures affiliated with environmental and conservation groups.

Vial and Clarno contended that the rejections were in line with state law, but the decisions were criticized by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a Democrat, who refused to defend them in court. The rejections have since been overturned by judges. Advocacy groups involved in the measures repeatedly suggested Clarno and Vial were motivated by past donations from timber and business interests.

The scrutiny over the measures is ultimately what led Vial to depart the office in January, he said. At the time, many people assumed he would seek the Republican nomination for Secretary.

“Frankly, it was very difficult for me to do the work of the deputy secretary of state because everything I did was scrutinized from the standpoint of it being partisan,” Vial said. “If somebody didn’t like it, that was the first thing that they went to.”

He acknowledged perceptions of his time in the office could make his nonpartisan platform a tough sell: “Will people say, ‘Oh, the guy’s just a wolf in sheep’s clothing’? Maybe.”

Asked about his plans should he win, Vial didn’t offer many sweeping ideas for changing the secretary of state’s office, though his website does offer an array of suggestions for making Oregon politics less partisan in general. 

“The reality is, nobody listens to the secretary of state,” he said.

Vial did say he’d like the Legislature to make the position nonpartisan, similar to Oregon’s labor commissioner. And he suggested that the state’s primary system should be altered so that not just major parties benefit from state-funded primary elections. Both Republicans and Democrats limit voting in their primary elections to voters registered with the party.

“If you don’t want to have open primaries, meaning that everybody can vote in your primary,” Vial said. ‘Then maybe we shouldn’t use taxpayer money to fund your primary.”