A Top Aide Warned Gov. Tina Kotek the Arena in Which the First Lady Involved Herself Lacked a Coherent Plan

Viewed together, the emails and Aimee Kotek Wilson’s calendar tell a story of the first lady’s unusual role, and how it has and could still impact an issue of vital importance to Oregonians.

Tina Kotek and Aimee Kotek Wilson.

Upon taking office last year, Gov. Tina Kotek laid out three clear priorities: housing, education and behavioral health. On two of the three legs of that stool, Kotek has made her agenda clear: To increase housing, she wants to build 36,000 new units a year, and to improve schools, she’s lasered in on early literacy.

That leaves behavioral health. On that priority, records now make clear that the involvement of Kotek’s spouse, Aimee Kotek Wilson, has been a source of conflict between the governor and her staff. The new information raises questions about whose interest Kotek is serving: that of the public or her wife.

Last week, the governor’s office released more than 6,000 emails and the first lady’s calendar as a result of a public records request by WW and other news media. Those emails capture the confusion that her top staff, including the governor’s mental health adviser, Juliana Wallace, still felt about Kotek’s behavioral health agenda 14 months after she took office.

“Juliana has been working on her [behavioral health] initiative workplan now for months and we haven’t been able to give her clear direction from you,” Kotek’s special adviser, Abby Tibbs, wrote the governor in a Feb. 7 email.

“[I] respect the pushback,” Kotek replied. “BH [behavioral health] is complex. We spent a good part of the first year staffing up.”

It’s far more than an intraoffice dispute. Oregon regularly falls at the bottom of national rankings for the delivery of behavioral health services, a failure that contributes to homelessness, crime and poor educational outcomes.

Viewed together, the emails and Kotek Wilson’s calendar tell a story of the first lady’s unusual role, and how it has and could still impact an issue of vital importance to Oregonians.

The calendar shows Kotek Wilson regularly met with people whose employers had major policy or financial interests in front of the state, particularly in the area of behavioral health.

To be sure, there is no evidence that any party sought to influence Kotek Wilson or her wife through the meetings, but why they got access and whether the meetings helped build long-term relationships are now matters of public interest.

For instance, Kotek Wilson’s calendar shows at least six calls or meetings with Dr. Robin Henderson over the past 15 months. Henderson is CEO of behavioral health at Providence Health & Services Oregon.

Providence is in the middle of at least two pressing behavioral health issues. The first is whether Multnomah County should spend $25 million the Legislature recently allocated for a new sobering center. In an April 2 draft letter, Providence and other hospitals said the county should abandon the sobering center concept (now five years in the making) and send the patients to Providence and Legacy’s Unity Center for Behavioral Health instead. “The first stop for receiving [people who are highly intoxicated] must include clinical assessment and triage,” the letter said.

Providence has also been unsupportive of another behavioral health initiative: the development of a statewide “mission control” system that Oregon Health & Science University developed to bring transparency to the availability of psychiatric beds, according to OHSU’s report to the Legislature.

The governor’s office says the meetings between Kotek Wilson and Henderson occurred because the first lady was seeking advice for a number of events, including a behavioral health summit the Oregon Health Authority held last fall. Providence spokesman Gary Walker told WW that Henderson helped Kotek Wilson prepare for events but never discussed either the sobering center or the mission control for behavioral health with her. The governor’s office concurs.

The only other outside organization that shows up in the first lady’s calendar as frequently as Providence’s Henderson is the consulting firm Deloitte, which appears at least six times.

Records from the Oregon Health Authority show that in 2022, Deloitte won a $2 million contract to help the agency rethink how the state delivers behavioral health services.

On Kotek’s watch, OHA increased the contract with Deloitte to $21.5 million—and billings in 2023 averaged more than $1 million a month.

“Deloitte helped facilitate the Serious Mental Illness Roundtable that was held in September,” the governor’s office says. “First Lady Kotek Wilson did not engage in any discussions pertaining to Deloitte’s contract with the Oregon Health Authority.” (The governor’s office says Deloitte helped Kotek Wilson prepare for the roundtable.)

“Kotek Wilson may be an expert on mental health issues,” says Paul Gronke, a political science professor and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. “But meeting with her could be a way to get the governor’s ear. What it does is raise questions that wouldn’t be there if the [first spouse]’s office existed in an official structure and was subject to scrutiny.”

For her part, Kotek continues to say the story about the first lady is no story at all. She says her wife’s meetings are appropriate and not an indirect avenue for access to her: “I will continue to be transparent as to the purpose of any and all meetings that the First Lady participated in.”

The emails released last week put on the record for the first time the deep-seated disagreement in Kotek’s office about the first lady’s role—a disagreement Kotek dismissed at a press conference earlier this month as “supposition.” And one thing that’s certain from the calendar is that Kotek Wilson began taking part in substantive policy meetings as early as February 2023, her wife’s second month in office (see calendar excerpts, below).

Unlike some states, Oregon has never funded or set statutory duties for the role of first spouse. Recent governors have followed different models. From 1995 to 2003, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s wife, Sharon Kitzhaber, wanted little to do with Salem. Mary Oberst, the wife of Gov. Ted Kulongoski (2003 to 2011), continued her job at the Oregon State Bar. Cylvia Hayes, Kitzhaber’s fiancée (in his second stint, 2011 to 2015) peddled access to his office, leading to Kitzhaber’s resignation. Dan Little (2015 to 2023) took scant interest in the office of his wife, Gov. Kate Brown.

Kotek Wilson worked as a case manager and behavioral health counselor for about three years before her wife’s election. When she made it clear last year that she wanted to be involved in policy, emails show that the governor’s chief of staff, Andrea Cooper; her special adviser, Tibbs; and her deputy chief of staff, Lindsey O’Brien, all pushed for structure, definition and disclosure in any role Kotek Wilson might play.

Emails suggest they asked Kotek’s lawyer, Richard Lane, to lay out legal parameters for her wife’s role. (Kotek has refused to make Lane’s memo or any communication from him about Kotek Wilson public, claiming attorney-client privilege.)

By January, however, emails show, Cooper had lost the battle. She was excluded from a meeting to discuss Kotek Wilson’s activities.

“I was asked not to attend the scheduling meeting where these [upcoming] events were added to the first lady’s calendar,” Cooper wrote to colleagues Jan. 25.

By early March, Cooper was on her way out and her colleagues were also ready to give in.

“I understand that after the [legal] advice provided to the Governor that she has clearly made a decision to move forward on the FL [first lady] role in her own way/direction,” Tibbs wrote to other staff March 10. In other words, the first lady would have a full-time chief of staff and state police protection in addition to the scheduler and office she’d already been assigned, no matter the concerns staff expressed.

Within two weeks, Cooper, Tibbs and O’Brien would leave Kotek’s office, to be followed shortly thereafter by deputy general counsel Lindsey Burrows and, on April 24, communications director An Do. The staff exodus sent a clear message about whose opinion Kotek valued more.

Reed’s Gronke says successful politicians surround themselves with people chosen for their expertise, effectiveness and loyalty. “Losing most of your cabinet,” Gronke says, “that’s a huge problem.”

Correction: This story originally misstated the number of housing units Kotek wants Oregon to produce each year. WW regrets the error.

Check the Calendar

First lady Aimee Kotek Wilson’s calendar shows a wide range of meetings, some in concert with the governor, some on her own. In addition to those mentioned in this story, here are five meetings that show the breadth of her acquaintances and interests.


  • Date: July 15, 2023
  • Whom she met: Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson
  • Why it’s interesting: Although embattled, Vega Pederson is both very powerful and very busy. Her meeting with the first lady is a sign of Kotek Wilson’s clout. (Kotek’s office says although the meeting was on Kotek Wilson’s calendar, she did not attend the meeting.)


  • Date: Aug. 11, 2023
  • Whom she met: Leslie Fox and Sophia Yun of Janssen Pharmaceuticals
  • Why it’s interesting: Janssen is a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, the embodiment of Big Pharma, an industry that sells billions of dollars’ worth of drugs to state-subsidized patients.


  • Date: Sept. 15, 2023
  • Whom she met: Fee Stubblefield (with Kotek)
  • Why it’s interesting: An assisted living tycoon and rancher who is pursuing carbon capture strategies, Stubblefield plies interests far afield from behavioral health.


  • Date: Jan. 10, 2024
  • Whom she met: Becky Hultberg, CEO of the Oregon Hospital Association (with Kotek)
  • Why it’s interesting: Oregon’s 60 hospitals are struggling financially but remain a potent economic force with many issues before the state.


  • Date: March 12, 2024
  • Whom she met: Kristen Leonard, public affairs adviser for the Interstate Bridge Replacement project and Red Cross board member
  • Why it’s interesting: The $6.5 billion IPR is looking for billions of dollars. (The governor’s office says the meeting was to introduce Kotek Wilson to Red Cross regional CEO Priscilla Fuentes.)

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