Avoid partisan choice for next secretary of state
Gov. Kate Brown has the opportunity to honor the late Dennis Richardson by sending a message of statesmanship and bipartisanship that would reverberate far beyond Oregon's borders.
Or, she can play it safe and go shopping for the political version of a potted plant.
Richardson's death last week means that Brown gets to appoint a replacement for the only Republican to hold statewide office in the past 14 years.
By statute, Brown must name a Republican.
That is fair.
By recent practice, she will limit her search to only those who promise not to seek election to the post in 2020.
That is an unnecessary requirement that limits the field of worthy candidates.
Democrats argue that Brown set a precedent, in 2015, when Gov. John Kitzhaber's hasty exit from office elevated Brown, then the secretary of state, into the governor's office.
She picked as her replacement Jeanne Atkins, who vowed to limit her stay to the three years remaining on Brown's term.
Picking someone without aspirations made Brown's job easier in 2015 by avoiding an intra-party blood bath. But previous Democratic governors, when faced with vacancies in constitutional offices, appointed fellow party members who were expected to run for their seats: Phil Keisling (secretary of state) in 1991 and Ted Wheeler (treasurer) in 2010.
So, there's no reason — other than partisan political calculation — for Brown to hold Richardson's replacement to the promise of playing the role of an office accessory.
Yet Brown, no doubt, is being counseled to do just that: To find a Republican who will serve the state competently, but not spectacularly.
Someone a bit less committed to government transparency than Richardson was.
Someone not as aggressive on those embarrassing government audits.
There are plenty of folks who would take the job with those strings attached.
That would serve Brown's party well, but not her state.
What Oregon needs is a secretary of state who can carry out Richardson's vision of a less partisan and more transparent state government and, if he or she so choses, advance his or her own agenda with an eye toward keeping the job beyond 2020.
Among those who fit that description are several current lawmakers, including Sens. Jackie Winters and Alan Olsen; ex-lawmakers, such as former House Speaker Lynn Snodgrass and Sen. Neil Bryant; and Republicans who have excelled in local government, such as Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis and former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez DeRemer.
To appoint any of them without a "no-run" promise would require more political courage than Brown has shown, so we hold no illusions she will stand up to her party.
However, Brown could still send a message while appointing someone who agrees to serve only 21 months.
For starters, she could use her pick to continue to demonstrate her commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, while honoring former Republican Secretary of State Norma Paulus, the first Oregon woman elected to statewide office, who died on Thursday.
Sen. Winters is the first African American Republican to serve in the Oregon Legislature. By contrast, Chavez DeRemer (like Bemis) is young enough to advance her career without running for secretary of state in 2020. She is the first woman and Latina to have served as mayor of Happy Valley.
Ideally, Brown would not make this decision without sincerely consulting Republican Party leaders about who they would suggest as possible candidates. Otherwise, a Democratic governor will be substituting her judgment for that of a majority of voters who opted in 2016 to elect a Republican to bring some balance to state politics.
With that said, this vacancy points to the need to re-evaluate two things: the partisan nature of the secretary of state's office, and the process Oregon has for filling vacancies in statewide offices. Regardless of who she chooses, Brown could start a conversation about removing the partisan label from the office (and, concurrently take it out of the line of gubernatorial succession).
As long as the office remains partisan, party politics will be part of the calculation of who holds it — either via election or appointment.
That is a problem for an office responsible for overseeing elections, auditing state agencies and settling disputes over political redistricting.
Also going forward, the governor and the Legislature should look for better practices to fill these unexpected openings. The process for filling legislative vacancies is much better defined and more fair than what we are witnessing with Richardson's seat. When a legislator leaves mid-term, members of his or her political party put forth nominees, and then county commissioners select from that pool of candidates. A similar process could work for statewide offices as well.
Dennis Richardson said his goal was to govern as secretary of state in a nonpartisan fashion. He largely did so.
Gov. Brown, as a former secretary of state, can honor his and Paulus' legacies by picking a worthy successor and then championing efforts to make the office less subject to the raw exercise of partisan power.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)