Here is how the 2 candidates running for Oregon secretary of state say they’d do the job

Laveta Brigham

State Sen. Shemia Fagan of the Portland area and Sen. Kim Thatcher of the Salem area are running for secretary of state this fall. Oregon’s secretary of state oversees elections, produces audits of state and some local government programs through the Audits Division, is a voting member of the State […]

State Sen. Shemia Fagan of the Portland area and Sen. Kim Thatcher of the Salem area are running for secretary of state this fall.

Oregon’s secretary of state oversees elections, produces audits of state and some local government programs through the Audits Division, is a voting member of the State Land Board and is first in line to become governor if the current governor steps down or can no longer serve.

The secretary of state can also play a pivotal role in the once-a-decade job of redrawing the boundaries of legislative and Congressional districts and often weighs in on government transparency policy and law. The Oregonian/OregonLive asked Thatcher, a Republican, and Fagan, a Democrat, each 10 questions about how they would handle crucial aspects of the job.

Some of their answers are similar: Both declined to cite any specific dollar limit that should be imposed on campaign contributions and both said Oregonians deserved to know why current Secretary of State Bev Clarno and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum concluded that contribution limits voters passed in 2006 did not apply to state races after the Oregon Supreme Court ruled such limits are constitutional.

Thatcher and Fagan disagreed on the current campaign finance transaction reporting deadlines for candidates and political action committees face. Fagan said candidates and political action committees should have to report transactions more quickly, while Thatcher said tightening the deadlines too much would disadvantage campaigns and political action committees with volunteer treasurers. In practice, Fagan’s campaign has opted to wait the maximum allowed time to disclose transactions while Thatcher’s campaign has reported at least some of her transactions in close to real time.

Fagan and Thatcher also indicated they would use differing approaches to redistricting in 2021, if Legislature fails to successfully complete the job and it falls to the secretary of state. Fagan said she would form a “People’s Commission” to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district lines and would bar a short list of people with a stake in the outcome from serving on the commission, including people serving in or running for office, legislative staffers, political party members and registered lobbyists. Thatcher said she would form a commission as laid out in an independent redistricting commission proposal that failed to qualify for the ballot this November. It had a longer list of people who could not serve on the commission, including political consultants, big political donors and people who work on political action committees.

Fagan, who was elected to the state House in 2014 and served one two-year term before running successfully for the Senate in 2018, is an employment lawyer. She has reported raising $1.6 million this election cycle, which included a hard-fought three-way Democratic primary. Fagan has raised more than $750,000 since the May 19 Democratic primary.

Fagan’s top political donors are the public employee unions SEIU 503 with nearly $300,000 and AFSCME with more than $200,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, such as social media advertising, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis of state campaign finance data. The statewide teachers union Oregon Education Association gave Fagan more than $100,000 and the Washington, D.C.-based group Emily’s List that supports pro-abortion rights women Democratic candidates gave Fagan $62,000.

Thatcher, who effectively ran unopposed in the Republican primary, has served in the Legislature since 2005 after she won a seat in the House. She won election to the Senate in 2014 and owns two contracting companies that work on state highway projects.

Thatcher reported raising more than $500,000 this election cycle. Her top political donors are the Oregon Firearms Federation, which calls itself as “Oregon’s only no-compromise gun rights organization,” with $20,000. The rural advocacy group Timber Unity gave Thatcher nearly $19,000, major Republican donor and head of Stimson Lumber Andrew Miller gave Thatcher $11,000 and Thatcher’s company Highway Specialties donated nearly $11,000.

Here are their answers to 10 key questions posed by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Some responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Voters of every age, party and region of Oregon overwhelmingly favor campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements, according to a recent poll. What statutory dollar limit, if any, would you support on PAC donations as secretary of state?

Thatcher: Before setting any specific dollar limits for the state, I would want to consider recommendations from a special multi-partisan commission that I would convene made up of voters from major and minor parties as well as various groups, such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and others seeking accountability in campaign finance.

Fagan: As someone who grew up in and out of poverty in rural Oregon, I support measures that allow anyone, regardless of how much wealth they have access to, the opportunity to participate in our political process. I’m proud to have led bipartisan efforts in the Legislature to get dark money out of politics (House Bill 2983 in 2019), and my record shows my support of contribution limits. The public should be heard about what limits are appropriate. The limits need to strike a balance — not so low as to push campaign spending into independence expenditures; not so high as to discourage small-dollar donations.

The job of redrawing Oregon’s legislative and congressional district boundaries has fallen to the secretary of state in all but one instance over the last century. Critics say lawmakers have a conflict of interest in setting their own election boundaries. Is it time to change the law or state constitution to hand the job to an independent commission? If so, what limits or requirements would you set for its membership?

Fagan: Article IV Section 6 of the Oregon Constitution requires the Legislature or the secretary of state to conduct redistricting. I support amending the Constitution to implement an independent commission that is centered on equity and diversity. Until the Constitution is amended, as secretary of state, I will convene and oversee a People’s Commission that reflects the rich diversity of Oregon. Oregonians who are currently serving or running for office, work for a legislator, lobbyists, or those who hold a position in a political party will not be able to serve. Participants on my commission will be compensated fairly with a stipend, just like legislators are paid to do the public’s business.

Thatcher: I believe it is time for Oregon to consider establishing an independent commission like the one outlined in Initiative Petition 57. Instead of legislators picking their voters, voters should be picking their legislators. The framework established in IP 57 calls for a commission made up of people who do not have something to gain from redrawing the legislative boundaries, including lobbyists or campaign workers. I would like to see similar wording if we were to make a constitutional change in the future.

Oregon politicians historically said transparency on campaign finance transactions balances the state’s lack of contribution limits. But big contributions often show up a month after-the-fact or after the election. Do you have any specific plan to make it easier for Oregonians to track the flow of political money in the state?

Thatcher: The current database used to track campaign contributions and expenditures, OreStar, needs to be more user friendly and accessible for voters to track how dollars are raised and spent. If elected secretary of state, I would like to review the online databases for campaign finance used in other states to see how theirs are set up. I would also work with the National Association of Secretaries of State and other interested groups who’ve been working on these issues to explore how to make it easier to follow the money.

Fagan: First, OreStar needs to be overhauled so that the information is not only transparent but also accessible. For example, the details of personal expenditures for reimbursement that are currently unavailable on OreStar should be reported just as other contributions are. Second, reporting deadlines should continue to increase throughout an election until contributions must be reported within 24 hours the week of election day.

Oregon’s Republican secretary of state and Democratic attorney general have refused to explain why they believe voter-approved campaign contribution limits do not apply to state elections, after the state Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that such limits are legal. Is it the right decision for them to keep their reasoning secret from the public?

Fagan: No. Legal analysis that has been done should be disclosed to the public. People may not always agree with what I have to say, but they’ll always know where I stand. We all need to follow the law of the land in Oregon, the cornerstone of which is the Oregon Constitution and the (Oregon revised statutes). As secretary of state, I would follow the letter of the law and trust that my colleagues, whether they are Republican or Democrat, are upholding the same standards.

Thatcher: I am a big proponent of transparency, especially in our elections system. Voters should have been given a straightforward answer as to why they made the determination like they did.  With such an important issue during an important election year like this, I think voters are entitled to more information, not less.

In 2016, Sen. Doug Whitsett sponsored legislation (Senate Bill 1579) requiring agencies to provide a summary of the legal advice they had been given on a rule or order. Senate President Peter Courtney testified in its favor. Shining a light on this campaign finance decision can also help in good government decision making moving forward.

Oregon currently allows political candidates and PACs to delay reporting their transactions for 30 days, until the timeline shrinks very close to elections. Is that a good law and if so, why?

Thatcher: We talk a lot about citizens running for office in Oregon, but it can be expensive to hire bookkeepers and accountants to keep up with all the campaign finance rules and regulations. The 30-day reporting timeline can offer a little grace for smaller campaigns, but it never hurts to review the current laws. Thirty days is more than reasonable, and we could probably lower that threshold.

When we go into seven-day calendar reporting, the challenge is there are so few professional treasurers and the reporting requirements aren’t insignificant, that it makes it difficult for them to keep up and nearly impossible for volunteer treasurers to keep abreast of all the reporting laws. The Legislature has previously considered 48-hour reporting but determined it would be difficult to keep compliant.

Fagan: No. Reporting deadlines should continue to increase throughout an election until contributions must be reported within 24 hours the week of election day. I’ve been proud to support legislation to get dark money out of politics and legislation to implement contribution limits.

Some Oregon lawmakers would like any campaign contribution limits to include a loophole so that “small donor” political action committees — public employee unions and other membership organizations — can continue to spend unlimited amounts on candidates’ campaigns. Do you support this?

Fagan: I support treating “small-donor” PACs differently. Whether they will have any limits at all is a question on which the public should be heard. My guiding principle is one person giving one million dollars is not the same as a million people giving one dollar. For example, many of the grocery workers on the frontlines of COVID-19 belong to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Of the UFCW’s 29,000 members, I’m told about 8,500 voluntarily give a dollar or more per week. When Oregonians talk about getting big money out of politics, they are not talking about 8,500 grocery workers giving what they can every month because they need to earn a living wage and health insurance.

Thatcher: I think it’s time for campaign finance reform and I believe Oregon voters will agree with me and vote in favor of ballot Measure 107 (to amend the state Constitution to make clear contribution limits are allowed). The definition of “small donor” PAC, may or may not be something that is ultimately part of the final outcome of the limits adopted as a result of this measure if passed by voters. The final details would be up to local governments and the Legislature. If elected secretary of state, as I’ve said, I would pull together an advisory commission to make recommendations on the limits and other transparency issues called for in the measure.

Elections officials are increasingly running into misinformation and conspiracy theories that undermine public trust in democracy. Oregon’s secretary of state asked Facebook and Twitter earlier this year to stop the spread of what she said were false reports that the state changed Republican and Democratic voters’ party registrations to nonaffiliated before the May primary. How would you tackle this challenge?

Thatcher: The best way to combat misinformation is with good, solid truthful information. I believe the state Elections Division and county clerks can do a better job of explaining to voters, especially during primary election season, that there is often an overlap when people are making last-minute voter registration changes and ballots are already printed and about to go out in the mail with a previous registration on them. Communication is also key and encouraging voters with concerns to call and visit their county clerk or the state elections staff to ask questions about their voter registration can help dispel rumors. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 restrictions, many offices weren’t open.

While I believe Oregon’s vote by mail process has a high degree of security, I have proposed a top to bottom review of our elections system from voter registration to the last ballot counted. Voters need to have trust in the integrity of the process.

Fagan: The biggest threat to our elections is misinformation. The secretary of state has the Office of Civics Education. That’s why I’ll launch an ambitious campaign for all Oregonians, young and young at heart, on civic education and spotting misinformation. Widely shared misinformation is undermining our faith in our democracy and our public institutions. I’ll protect Oregon democracy from the threats of today and build defenses against the threats of tomorrow.

Under Oregon public records law, the only way to challenge an elected official’s denial of a public records request is to sue in court. That puts a price on transparency that many Oregonians cannot afford. What, if anything, should Oregon leaders do to address this?

Fagan: I will implement the recommendations of the Public Records Advisory Council, including having an independent public records advocate. The bill to implement the recommendations would have passed in February of 2020, but Sen. Thatcher and the Republican walk out shut down the legislative session, and the bill wasn’t able to move forward.

Thatcher: Over the past 16 years of my service in the Oregon Legislature I have worked on issues surrounding public records and sponsored legislation to make these records more accessible and affordable to Oregonians. I am currently a member of the Public Records Advisory Council and the Joint Committee On Legislative Counsel Subcommittee On Public Records.

The solution to records is straightforward.  We need to get more of them up online. Moreover, we need to reduce the number of exemptions and encourage that when there is an exemption where they may exclude, but the statute doesn’t strictly say shall exclude, that government entities turn over those records without redactions.

If elected Secretary of State I plan to work with the Archives Division and the (Public Records Advisory Council) to continue working on the problem you raised in this question.

Sen. Fagan: During the Democratic primary, you said that as secretary of state, you would make sure the Audits Division does not play “gotcha” when it reviews government programs and that you would select audit areas in part based on the idea “that workers providing services must be protected and secure …” What is a specific example where state auditors played “gotcha”? If auditors uncover evidence that specific state workers failed the public, would you favor publicly reporting what happened or shielding the identity or acts of those workers?

Audits are the best tool the Secretary of State has to make sure that our policies reflect Oregon’s values. Audits should be used to make public services work better. I know how a family is impacted when public services fail, like the broken health care system that left my mom battling addiction for most of my life, or the housing crisis that pushed my family in and out of homelessness. I also know what is possible when public services work. That is why I’ll audit the Oregon Employment Department, find out what went wrong, so this never happens again. I’ll audit our emergency response system, both responding to COVID and the recent wildfires. There is no one in this race more committed than me to making public services work for those who need them most.

Sen. Thatcher: State highway projects are your contracting companies’ bread and butter. If state auditors want to examine areas of state government that delve into programs that have contracted with your companies, what input would give have as secretary of state? How would you handle any complaints about those same programs to the state waste, fraud and abuse hotline?

If I’m elected Secretary of State, I plan to separate my involvement and interests in my companies so there will be no conflict of interest with my position at the state. If state auditors are looking at programs contracting with one of the companies I owned, then I would insist on a hands-off approach, including but not limited to utilizing an outside auditor who is not in my supervising purview. I will do whatever it takes to get an honest and unbiased accounting to the public of all programs.

The Waste and Abuse Hotline deals with individual complaints about specific agencies and programs. If something were to come up about my past dealings with one of my companies, I would not have any involvement with the audit team regarding that matter. I want the auditors to feel they have as much independence as possible but also know I have an open door if they need my assistance.

Sen. Fagan: Many Oregonians across the political spectrum have trouble relating to supporters of the opposing political party. As chair of the Senate Housing and Development Committee this year, you started a hearing late, blamed the delay on a rural advocacy group’s demonstration at the Capitol, and appeared to unnecessarily limit the speaking time of the few people there to testify. Is this indicative of how you would interact with people, including from other parties, as secretary of state?

I grew up in rural Oregon in a conservative Evangelical family, and I disagree strongly with some of the political beliefs of my closest childhood friends and loved ones. But like (Oregon’s former Republican U.S. Senator) Mark Hatfield said, people aren’t Republicans or Democrats, they are people. Oregon’s secretary of state should serve Oregon, no matter what political party she is registered to. As a working mom to two young kids, I can tell you with certainty that running late in the morning is not a partisan issue.

Sen. Thatcher: During the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump urged his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully” on Election Day. This raised concerns for many that people, some potentially armed, will intimidate voters at voting sites. What do you say to Oregonians who are thinking about showing up to “watch” ballot drop sites and local elections offices?

While Oregon has a long-standing tradition of openness and transparency in our elections system, I do not condone intimidation or violence of any kind. I’m proud of our county clerks allowing observers to watch the ballot sorting and counting process. Even during the pandemic, they have attempted to accommodate citizens being able to view the proceedings. I would encourage anyone who wants to take part in this to contact their county clerk ahead of time to find out the procedures since there may be limitations on space.

— Hillary Borrud: [email protected]; @hborrud

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