Turmoil Over First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson’s Role Threatens the Governor’s Agenda

The current situation bears some similarities to the circumstances that ended Gov. John Kitzhber’s career. There are also big differences.

Tina Kotek and Aimee Kotek Wilson have been together 19 years. Tina Kotek and Aimee Kotek Wilson have been together 19 years. (Facebook)

Since taking office 15 months ago, Gov. Tina Kotek has laid out a clear and decisive agenda on her top priorities: housing, homelessness and mental health.

But on March 22, Kotek’s office announced the abrupt departures of three top aides, led by chief of staff Andrea Cooper. The exodus of three well-regarded Kotek loyalists stunned Salem insiders and could slow execution of Kotek’s plans.

At the center of the turmoil, multiple sources say: conflict between the governor and her staff over the role played by Kotek’s wife, first lady Aimee Kotek Wilson. On March 23, WW broke the news that Kotek Wilson would receive state-paid office space and staff support.

The involvement of Oregon’s first lady in policy work—and the resignation of top staff—carries echoes of the influence-peddling scandal that felled Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, in 2015.

“I can’t believe they are opening this can of worms,” a former Democratic lawmaker says. “Very little upside and lots of downside.”

Here are the basics:

Who is Aimee Kotek Wilson?

After graduating from Antioch College in Ohio, Kotek Wilson, now 47, came to Oregon, where she worked on Democratic legislative campaigns. She later lobbied for the state’s largest labor organization, Service Employees International Union, and worked for then-Secretary of State Kate Brown and House Democrats. In 2013, she left politics to work for Health Republic, a now-defunct health insurance co-op. After the co-op folded, Kotek Wilson went back to school at Portland State University, where she earned a master’s degree in social work in 2017. Kotek Wilson worked as a counselor and case manager for Cascadia Behavorial Health from 2018 to 2021. She also has lived experience. “I am a person who lives with mental illness, and who is also in recovery from an alcohol use disorder,” she says. “To all individuals who are living with a mental illness, struggling with addiction, or are in recovery, I want you to know that you matter and should have hope.”

What does she do for Oregon?

Unlike some states, Oregon does not define any role for the first spouse, nor does it provide specific funding to support that person. Some spouses, such as Mary Oberst, the wife of Gov. Ted Kulongoski (2003-2011), or Dan Little, the husband of Gov. Kate Brown (2015-2023), wanted little to do with their spouse’s work. Kotek Wilson, however, speaks in public—as does the governor—in the collective “we” about Kotek’s administration. She has attended staff meetings on behavioral health, one of the governor’s top priorities. In those meetings, the governor’s office says, Kotek Wilson has talked about topics such as barriers and gaps in the behavioral system and the expense and delay that contributes to the workforce shortages. People who know the couple well say Kotek Wilson is at the center of an inner circle with a small radius. “She has always been Tina’s No. 1 adviser,” another former lawmaker says. “Tina absolutely listens to Aimee—more so than others, for sure.”

How is she like Cylvia Hayes?

Hayes, the fiancée of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, declared from the beginning of Kitzhaber’s third term in 2011 that she would serve as an official adviser on economic and environmental policy. Like Kotek Wilson, she occupied highly coveted space in the governor’s suite of offices and attended staff meetings. Like Hayes, according to multiple sources, Kotek Wilson has put Kotek’s staff in a difficult position because she is unelected and was not hired for her subject matter expertise. (Both first ladies served as unpaid volunteers.)

How is Kotek Wilson different from Hayes?

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission found in 2019 that Hayes used her official position to generate lucrative contracts, resulting in 22 violations of ethics law. There is no evidence Kotek Wilson is seeking to benefit personally from her position in the governor’s office; however, OGEC fielded a complaint on the matter just before WW’s press deadline.

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