Oregon Secretary Of State's Race Offers Lesson In Civics Education

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Clackamas, Oregon Oct. 3, 2016 11:12 p.m.
State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian (right) and former Oregon Representative Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point) appear at the North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce candidates' forum in their race for Oregon Secretary of State on Sept. 29, 2016.

State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian (right) and former Oregon Representative Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point) appear at the North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce candidates' forum in their race for Oregon Secretary of State on Sept. 29, 2016.

Courtesy of the North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce

Your civics education question of the day: What does the Oregon secretary of state do?

If you answered "become governor if something happens to the person elected governor," you can have  partial credit — bonus points if you mentioned Kate Brown or John Kitzhaber.

But that’s not going to get you full credit on today’s quiz.

This question of what the secretary of state does — and what that has to do with civics education — has become part of the race for that position in November.

The secretary of state is the Swiss Army knife of Oregon government. It supervises seven divisions, from audits to archives, corporations to elections.

And running elections is what led Democratic candidate Brad Avakian to bring civics education into his run for secretary of state.

“Oregon has really been ahead of the curve nationally with vote-by-mail," Avakian told a business group in Clackamas last week. "But let’s start doing more to inspire people to want to vote and be engaged in our communities, and that starts with the return of civics education to our middle schools and high schools.”

David Wilkinson’s room at Beaverton’s Westview High.

David Wilkinson’s room at Beaverton’s Westview High.

Rob Manning/OPB

The word “return” suggests civics education somehow left Oregon schools, but it’s still a big part of mandated social studies standards. The Department of Education says 92 percent of school districts in Oregon are following those standards, and most of the districts considered "out of compliance" say the problem is temporary or the result of a misunderstanding.

Civics starts as early as kindergarten with standards like, "Distinguish between democratic methods and decisions made by authority." By the time students reach eighth grade, civics expectations in U.S. history classes can be quite high, with standards like, "Examine important Supreme Court decisions prior to 1880 and the impact of the decisions on government practices, personal liberties, and property rights."

But Avakian is talking less about what teachers are doing in classrooms.

"I'd love to see us expand on that, especially down in the high schools and middle schools, let's talk about doing internships and mentorships with public officials and state agencies," Avakian said.

As secretary of state, Avakian said he would teach students to vote by sending them ballots every election season.

"It won't count in the official results," Avakian said. "But you know what? We'll give a real voice to young people in Oregon and when the election is done, we'll count those youth votes and show Oregon what young people thought."

The Republican nominee for the position, former state Rep. Dennis Richardson, would suggest Avakian might need a lesson in civics education himself.

“I’m all in favor of greater emphasis on civics, but it’s really not the role of the secretary of state to be running on a platform that he hasn’t got the power to implement," Richardson said.


Richardson is one of the best-known Republicans in Oregon, thanks to his failed run for governor against John Kitzhaber. Kitzhaber resigned last year after reports questioning his fiancee's role in state government.

Now Richardson is running for the No. 2 job in Oregon, a race that opened up for the 2016 election after Kate Brown rose left the position to take over as governor.

Both Richardson and Avakian have served in the Oregon Legislature. Avakian went on to become state labor commissioner, where he pressed his former colleagues to approve investments in career education. It's a move that goes beyond the usual limits of the labor commissioner. Richardson would suggest Avakian is trying to get elected by promising to take a similar approach to the job of secretary of state.

“It’s a political ploy that sounds good to the voters, but really, it’s not the job of the secretary of state to take over the responsibility of the education committees in the Legislature — and we have a Department of Education,” Richardson argued.

Avakian disagrees, arguing the secretary of state has a tie to education.

“Well, the secretary of state actually sits on the state Board of Education, so it has a very direct role in developing school policy,” Avakian said.

But the secretary doesn’t get a vote on the State Board of Ed.

What the secretary of state can and can’t do is actually kind of an open civics research question.

And it can get nuanced. For instance, both Avakian and Richardson are eager to get the secretary of state job so they can start auditing. But they disagree about who is subject to audits.

Avakian said the secretary can audit not just government agencies, but businesses that have contracts with the state.

“That doesn’t mean you audit every corporation that’s on contract with the state — that is absurd. But when you see red flags going up and the taxpayer may be getting ripped off, the secretary needs to be the watchdog,” Avakian said.

Avakian has drawn both criticism and praise for sometimes leveling steep fines against rule-breaking businesses. But regulating business and labor practices, including civil rights violations, is squarely within the labor commissioner's job.

Richardson said Avakian’s approach to audits — to investigate businesses — is illegal.

"The audit capacity needs to be within state law," Richardson said. "That's one difference between us. ORS 297.210 says that the audit capacity within the Secretary of State's Office is to be utilized against public agencies."

Avakian said it is legal, adding his opinion is backed up by a section of ORS 297.210 that mentions "as State Auditor shall have the accounts and financial affairs of state [entities] ... reviewed or audited as the Secretary of State considers advisable or necessary." That section of Oregon law doesn't specify contracts or businesses.

Richardson contended there’s plenty of work for the secretary of state auditing government bureaucracy, and there are other agencies tasked with regulating businesses.

And the secretary’s power is not just a Democrat-Republican debate.

Green Party candidate Alan Zundel said he sees the office as a way to change public land policies and how voting is conducted.

And Independent candidate, Paul Damian Wells said he would challenge the legitimacy of partisan elections.