Oregon Doesn’t Have a Lieutenant Governor, but Shemia Fagan Says She’ll Serve in That Role Nonetheless

Oregon’s next secretary of state will be sworn in Jan. 4 and, from day one, will be in the conversation about succeeding Kate Brown.

Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan on Election Day 2020. (Alex Wittwer)

State Sen. Shemia Fagan (D-Portland) will be sworn in Jan. 4 as Oregon's next secretary of state.

It's a big job: The secretary is responsible for elections, auditing state agencies, registering all businesses operating in Oregon, and serving alongside the governor and state treasurer as a member of the State Land Board.

And, as set out by the Oregon Constitution, the secretary of state automatically becomes governor should the sitting governor leave office for any reason. (That last happened in Oregon in 2015, when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid an influence-peddling scandal and was replaced by now-Gov. Kate Brown.)

That right of succession has led people—including Fagan—to say that the secretary of state is Oregon's de facto lieutenant governor. On Dec. 29, Fagan's campaign sent out an email invitation to her swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4.

In her invitation, Fagan wrote, "On January 4, I will be taking the oath of office to be sworn in as Oregon's next Secretary of State. My opportunity to serve as Oregon's Secretary of State and Lieutenant Governor is one of the greatest honors of my life."

That statement was eye-catching because Oregon is one of just five states that doesn't have the office of lieutenant governor.

Fagan's campaign spokeswoman Annie Ellison tells WW that Fagan's announcement merely states the role Fagan will serve; it does not claim she will actually be lieutenant governor.

Ellison points to a similar language on the secretary of state's website:

"Oregon does not have a Lieutenant Governor, therefore, the Secretary of State serves in this capacity," the website says.

The function of lieutenant governor has long attracted grousing nationally.

When Brown took over for Kitzhaber, for instance, The Boston Globe noted that Oregon's method of replacing its governor undermined the justification for states even having lieutenant governors in the first place.

"Paying a lieutenant governor doesn't exactly bankrupt the state, but it's a superfluous position that has no place in modern state governance," the Globe wrote. "A few states, like Texas, give lieutenant governors actual power, but in most places they're just the appendix of state government, serving no purpose yet still capable of causing big problems."

Oregon has periodically considered creating the office of lieutenant governor.

Former state Sen. John Lim (R-Gresham), who served in the Capitol from 1993 through 2009, long championed legislation that would have created the office in Oregon. Lim had some clout but his proposal languished. In 1999, he got it through the Senate, which led The Oregonian's editorial board to weigh in on the idea.

"Oregon has gotten along for 140 years without a lieutenant governor and has no need for one now," The Oregonian opined. "There's no real reason to ask the voters even to think about joining the 42 states that have this position and, in many cases, are probably wondering why." Lim's bill died in the House.

In 2011, then-state Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point) introduced legislation that would have created the office of lieutenant governor. Lawmakers again declined to move the idea forward. Richardson went on to win election as secretary of state in 2016, becoming the first Republican to win statewide office in 14 years. (Richardson died in office in 2019 and was replaced by fellow Republican Bev Clarno, who did not seek election.)

Although Lim and Richardson extolled the role of a potential lieutenant governor in economic terms—they wanted the official to direct Oregon's international trade efforts—there's little doubt that a central appeal of the post is its proximity to power. Here's how the Los Angeles Times put it when the paper endorsed then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom for reelection to that office in 2014.

"This is a notoriously do-little job, a bully pulpit at best, a ceremonial post at worse, a relic of a past era," the Times wrote. "Being lieutenant governor mostly serves as a perch for gubernatorial candidates-in-waiting."

In Oregon, where there hasn't been an open governor's seat since 2010, the list of potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2022 is already lengthy. It includes Fagan; Meyer Memorial Trust chief investment officer Rukaiyah Adams; Labor Secretary Val Hoyle; Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury; House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland); Metro Council President Lynn Peterson; State Treasurer Tobias Read; and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

Being viewed as lieutenant governor in such a crowded field could benefit Fagan. (Dr. Bud Pierce, the Salem oncologist who was the GOP nominee in 2016, has announced his candidacy.)

Fagan has already represented Oregon at virtual meetings of the National Lieutenant Governors Association and appears on that group's website with other newly elected members.

In a statement, Fagan said she looks forward to serving as Brown's second-in-command.

"Oregon's secretary of state serves as our lieutenant governor, and I take these duties very seriously," she said. "That is why I am building a diverse and experienced team that will be ready to serve Oregon on day one."

"Today, we face multiple crises threatening the lives and livelihoods of our families," Fagan added. "Oregonians deserve an 'all hands on deck' approach from their leaders. They will get that from me."

Correction: This article originally said John Lim served as senate majority leader in 1995. In fact, the late Sen. Brady Adams (R-Grants Pass) held that position. WW regrets the error.

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