Two state senators face off for Oregon secretary of state
When Shemia Fagan re-entered state politics two years ago, she unseated an incumbent Democratic senator who opposed rent control.
When Kim Thatcher entered state politics 16 years ago, she unseated an incumbent Republican representative who supported a budget-balancing tax increase.
As sitting state senators and current major-party nominees for Oregon secretary of state, Fagan and Thatcher have agreed on a couple of things — but they approach issues from differing political perspectives.
Fagan, 39, is a lawyer from Portland whose District 24 covers parts of Multnomah and Clackamas counties. She unseated a Republican in 2012 to win the first of two terms in the Oregon House, left in 2016 after the birth of her second child, and then unseated longtime Democratic state Sen. Rod Monroe in 2018.
Her model for secretary of state is Mark Hatfield, a Republican whose election at age 34 in 1956 opened the way for his two statewide victories as governor and five more as a U.S. senator before he retired in 1996.
"The core of his message was that people are not Democrats or Republicans, they are people," Fagan said during a recent in-person debate on Portland television. "I think I've been able to live that value … to continue to see people as people who ultimately sit around the kitchen table and often talk about the same issues, that aren't divided by party registration and shouldn't be divided in Oregon."
Thatcher, just turned 56, is a small-business owner in Keizer whose District 13 covers all of Newberg as well as parts of Marion, Yamhill, Washington and Clackamas counties. She unseated a Republican in 2004 for the first of five terms in the Oregon House, then won an open seat in the Oregon Senate in 2014.
Her model for secretary of state is Dennis Richardson, who in 2016 became the first Republican to win the office since 1980 (when Norma Paulus was re-elected) and the first to win statewide since 2002. Richardson, a former legislator and the party's nominee for governor in 2014, died of brain cancer in 2019. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown appointed former Republican legislator Bev Clarno to serve out the remainder of Richardson's term.
"He saw this as a managerial and nonpartisan office," Thatcher said in the same debate.
Also on the ballot are Libertarian Kyle Markley of Hillsboro, who opposes limiting campaign contributions in Measure 107, and Nathalie Paravicini of Portland, a naturopathic physician who supports Measure 107 and the use of ranked choice voting. Both have statements in the statewide Voters' Pamphlet, but neither has raised much for a statewide campaign.
Oregon has never elected a third-party candidate to this office.
Fagan and Thatcher support Measure 107, which would amend Oregon's free-expression guarantee to allow limits on contributions, and a commission separate from the Legislature to redraw legislative and congressional district lines after every 10-year census. They also agree on some prospective targets for audits and Oregon's two-decade-old system of mail balloting.
But they disagree on other issues.
Duties and politics
The secretary of state is Oregon's second-ranking statewide office. That person is the chief elections officer — although elections are conducted by the 36 counties — and the chief auditor. The secretary of state also oversees public archives and business registrations and houses the small-business advocate.
Since 1972, the secretary of state is next in line to succeed the governor. Though Brown is the only recent governor to ascend directly — when John Kitzhaber resigned in 2015 — Hatfield is among three other recent secretaries of state who were elected governor. Four of the eight others since 1956, counting Richardson, ran for governor and lost.
Fagan has raised about $2 million since she got into the race days after the withdrawal of Jennifer Williamson, a former House majority leader. Fagan edged state Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton and Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebonne in the May 19 primary after raising $750,000. Most of it came from public employee unions opposed to Hass's 2019 vote in favor of public-pension changes.
"I'm proud to be supported by a broad coalition of people," Fagan said.
Among her recent contributions are $100,000 from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee — the secretary of state will redraw legislative lines in 2021 if the governor and Legislature fail to agree on a plan after the 2020 Census — and $50,000 from Brown's campaign committee.
"I think it's so telling that so much money is being poured in from unions, especially when that money is not being purposely given for a secretary of state's race," Thatcher said. "The secretary's premier job is to serve as a check on the executive branch."
Thatcher has raised about $663,000 as of Oct. 18. She easily won the primary against someone who ran for governor as a Republican and Democrat in two previous elections.
Among Thatcher's largest contributors, in addition to loans from her own business, are $25,000 from Timber Unity, $11,000 in-kind from Stimson Lumber chief executive Andrew Miller and $10,000 each from Frank Timber Resources and Freres Timber, both of Lyons.
On the issues
• Elections: Both say they support Oregon's system of mail ballots. But they differ on other election law changes. Fagan supports and Thatcher questions election-day voter registration, which Oregon voters ended in 1986. Fagan voted for and Thatcher against automatic voter registration via driver records in 2015 and postage-paid ballots in 2019.
But Thatcher said she would carry out the 2015 law, known as "new motor-voter," which requires newly registered voters to opt out or choose a political affiliation by postcard.
"I have yet to see that it is increasing the voter participation rate," she said. "However, that is the law."
Fagan, noting that both bills passed largely along party lines, said: "I do not believe voting rights should be a partisan issue."
Thatcher said she disagrees with criticisms by President Donald Trump and national Republicans about the security of mail ballots. "Oregonians can be very sure that our vote-by-mail system is secure," she said.
She fended off attempts by Fagan to link her with Trump, saying that she shows up at Republican gatherings because she is a Republican running for statewide office.
As for Fagan's stance: "Let me be clear: Claims of widespread voter fraud, whether by the president or anybody else, are myths."
• Audits: The secretary of state oversees professional auditors who look at the finances and performances of state agencies and school districts, which get the lion's share of their operating costs from the state budget. Both Fagan and Thatcher say they want to examine the state employment department, which has faced a huge backlog of claims and a long-delayed computer modernization project, and the state's response to the Labor Day wildfires.
"Audits are the best tool the secretary of state has to make sure our policies reflect Oregon values," Fagan said. "Everybody wants to make sure education is working well. Everybody wants to make sure people have that safety net to fall back onto."
Thatcher also wants to take a look at expanded state spending on public schools under the Student Success Act, which projects $1 billion more annually from business taxes.
She said there are limits to what the secretary of state can do after an audit is completed and its recommendations are made public, along with the agency's response.
"That is up to the governor and Legislature," Thatcher said, although she would encourage a more active joint legislative committee to follow up on audits.
• State Land Board: Along with the governor and state treasurer, the secretary of state sits on this board, which under the Oregon Constitution manages state lands for the maximum public benefit consistent with conservation.
The board will consider a plan to redesignate the Elliott State Forest on Oregon's southern coast as an experimental forest overseen by Oregon State University. Previous timber sales, which benefit the Common School Fund, have been challenged as inconsistent with habitat conservation.
Among Fagan's endorsers are the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club. She said it's time to decouple the forest from the constitutional obligation for it to generate money for the schools.
"I would not agree to sell the Elliott State Forest to private companies," Fagan said.
Thatcher says that while it is time to revisit the forest's management, there is a place for a broader discussion beyond environmental protection.
"I would like to see Oregon's forests put to work responsibly and sustainably so we can fund our schools again, but also keep in mind the ecological concerns that Oregonians value," she said.
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