Oregon Secretary of State: Mark Hass, Democrat

Sen. Mark Hass on the Oregon Senate floor. (Courtesy of Mark Hass)
Sen. Mark Hass on the Oregon Senate floor. (Courtesy of Mark Hass)

The secretary of state manages a mixture of crucial, if less than exciting, state functions: elections, audits, corporation registry, and the state archive. And yet, this year, the Democratic primary has more intrigue and maneuvering than the second season of Succession.

That's for a few reasons:

1. It's an open seat. Republican Bev Clarno, a placeholder, currently serves as secretary of state. Gov. Kate Brown appointed her after Dennis Richardson, who was elected in 2016, died in February 2019. Clarno is not seeking election to the post. (State Sen. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) faces no serious competition in the GOP primary.)

2. It's a census year, which also means redrawing the geographic boundaries of Oregon's legislative and congressional districts, a process called redistricting. In Oregon, the Legislature takes first crack at drawing the lines, but if lawmakers cannot agree, in what is by definition a contentious process, the secretary takes a pen to the maps.

3. The secretary of state also becomes governor if the current one should die in office or resign. (That happened in 2015, when Gov. John Kitzhaber quit amid an influence-peddling scandal and Kate Brown assumed the job.) There's speculation in Salem that Gov. Brown, who cannot seek reelection again, would love a job in a Biden administration.

So who's the right Democrat for the nomination?

The field includes three strong candidates: Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a lawyer and natural resources consultant from Terrebonne in Central Oregon, and state Sens. Shemia Fagan (Portland) and Mark Hass (Beaverton).

Of the three, McLeod-Skinner, 52, may be the least known to Portland voters. She comes from Ashland originally and, after serving on the city council in Santa Clara, Calif., for two terms, became city manager in Phoenix, Ore. In 2018, she ran against U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) in the 2nd Congressional District, and performed creditably, getting 39 percent of the vote. She's smart and demonstrates independent thinking—she's the only candidate in the race who won't accept corporate money—but her campaign to jump-start her political career shouldn't be confused with the kinds of experience in Salem that, no matter which party one belongs to, are essential when holding statewide office.

There's no one in the race with more experience in the capital than Hass, 63. In his nearly 20 years in Salem, the onetime KATU-TV news reporter has shown himself to be patient, moderate and capable of large accomplishments that required long negotiations and significant coalition building. His skills earned him the highest rating among senators in WW's 2019 "Good, Bad and Awful" survey of metro-area legislators.

He passed bills for full-day kindergarten (2011) and Oregon's pioneering, mostly free community college system (2015). He deserves enormous credit for his work on tax policy as longtime chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He was a prime architect of the 2007 bill that created a state rainy-day fund that has Oregon sitting on a larger chunk of savings than all but a handful of states. More recently, he led the push for passage in 2019 of a corporate tax known as the Student Success Act. That tax will diversify the revenue sources of a state historically dependent mostly on income taxes, and bring in $1 billion a year for schools.

Going back to 2003, when Hass was one of a small cluster of Democrats who voted for large cuts in public employee pensions, he has been persona non grata with public employee unions.

Since that vote, which cost at least two other Democrats their political careers, Hass, whose wife, Tamra, is a speech pathologist in the Beaverton schools, has regularly balanced the need for new or different taxes with cuts to public employee benefits. That is the third rail of Oregon Democratic politics, and his courage to put his hand on that rail for the good of the state speaks to his independence. It also suggests he would be an honest broker of the state's elections system, willing to audit state agencies without fear of alienating his friends, and a careful steward of state resources.

Which brings us to the vexing candidacy of state Sen. Shemia Fagan (D-East Portland). Fagan is clearly a rising star in Oregon Democratic politics. After growing up dirt poor in Dufur and The Dalles, she went to college and earned a law degree at Lewis & Clark. In 2012, she beat an incumbent Republican in a House seat representing East Portland and Happy Valley. She served two terms and then stepped down to have her second child.

In 2018, Fagan returned to politics with a vengeance, walloping longtime incumbent state Sen. Rod Monroe (D-Portland) in a Democratic primary.
Stylistically, Fagan, 38, is aggressive, outspoken and occasionally willing to challenge the party's orthodoxy. In 2019, as a freshman senator, she alone rose on the Senate floor to vote against her party's leader, Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), for his mishandling of a sexual harassment scandal. She helped passed a groundbreaking rent control bill last year and is a firebrand in the more conservative Senate. Fagan clearly has a bright future in Oregon politics.

The way Fagan entered the race, however, raises questions about how she would govern. She filed late, at the end of February, deciding to run only after former state Rep. Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) dropped out on the eve of a WW story about her misuse of campaign funds.

Public employee unions went looking for a replacement for Williamson and found Fagan. When asked why public employee unions didn't like Hass in WW's endorsement interview, Fagan was uncharacteristically reticent. She would only say she was a longtime ally of labor.

To be sure, Fagan has the seal of approval from the left wing of her party, groups that often work in concert to achieve the greatest effect. She has the pro-choice forces and environmental lobby on her side. But two-thirds of the $175,000 in her campaign coffers so far come from the three major public employee unions. If she's reluctant to be forthright about why she and not others was the recipient of such generosity, it calls into question her willingness to challenge public employees when she's handed the authority to audit the state's books.

In announcing her candidacy, Fagan called out the Republicans' walkout of the state Senate as a threat to democracy. It may well have been. But by naming that a chief threat to Oregon, she made partisanship a top issue. If that's how she campaigns, we have to wonder how she'd govern.

For that reason, we endorse Hass.

What Hass will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: Going for morning runs with his son Sam, a middle-schooler: "We're up to 2 miles a day."