We Asked Every Statewide Official About the Koteks

Few had qualms about spouses making state policy.

Gov. Tina Kotek and first lady Aimee Kotek Wilson. (Office of the Governor)

The most alarming story in state government is the exodus of top staffers from Gov. Tina Kotek’s office, each driven out by conflicts with the governor’s wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, and her increasing role in shaping Oregon policy.

But you wouldn’t know that from talking to the top officeholders in Oregon, all Democrats, many of whom say they see nothing wrong with the spouse of an elected official assuming a policymaking role in the office. That is, when they’ll talk about it at all.

The role of the first lady in the governor’s office wouldn’t seem to be a partisan matter. But while Republicans are raising the specter of the influence-peddling scandal that ended the fourth term of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, Democrats are lining up behind Kotek. In part, that’s because no one has found evidence that Aimee Kotek Wilson has used the governor’s office for personal gain—she just wants a say in policy decisions. “This is a distraction, to a large degree,” says Rep. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland), who’s running in Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District.

Others hope the Oregon Government Ethics Commission will establish guardrails. In the Legislature, it’s common for lawmakers to hire family members. Sen. James Manning (D-Eugene) reminded us that his late wife, Lawanda Manning, served for many years as his chief of staff.

The closest thing to a defection came from State Treasurer Tobias Read, who said his wife, Nike executive Heidi Eggert, would not receive a policymaking role in his office. Read cautioned against granting an office to “a person who didn’t undergo the same scrutiny of the same application process for a staff position.” But Read, too, mostly demurred when offered the chance to criticize Kotek directly.

Still, we’ll keep pressing. Over the past several days, we asked more than a dozen officials and candidates the following questions:

1. Does your spouse hold a policymaking role in your office? Would you be comfortable with such an arrangement?

2. What concerns, if any, do you have about the first lady having an office in the governor’s office?

Here are the responses we received:

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden: “No, she does not [have a policymaking role]. She has her own independent business.

“It is up to each elected official to design their office within the guidelines and legal parameters of the office which they hold. I am glad Gov. Kotek is seeking guidance from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.”

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley: “Of course, I greatly value my partner’s insights stemming from her work and life experience, but she does not have any formal position in my office.”

Oregon Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade: Her office said that her husband, Tom Griffin-Valade, “does not hold a policymaking role in her office.” She declined comment further.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum: Her spokesman responded on her behalf. “Her answers are: No, and no,” Roy Kaufmann wrote. “Because DOJ General Counsel represents the state—both the Ethics Commission and the Governor in her official capacity—the AG is not going to publicly share any concerns she may have, if any.” (Full disclosure: Rosenblum is married to the co-owner of WW’s parent company.)

Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read (running for secretary of state): “I certainly benefit from conversations with her, but I think that that is different. It doesn’t make sense to me that a person who didn’t undergo the same sort of scrutiny or the same application process for a staff position or following the other sorts of qualifications….That’s me. That’s how I would think about that in the situation I can imagine myself in.

“It might well be a policy question that the Legislature and others want to weigh in on. I think that’s the way to take that on rather than starting something without being diligent and deliberate about it.”

State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner (running for state treasurer): “In many states, the governor’s spouse does have a role. I don’t understand at the moment what the governor’s wife has been doing or not doing. Do I think that the governor’s wife or spouse of any kind could have a role? Yes. Do I think that it’s important to do so in a very transparent, clear, well-defined way? Yes, and I hope that that’s the direction that they’re moving.”

State Sen. James Manning (running for secretary of state): “If you want to maintain trust and your integrity, the first thing I do is consult with the right people. In this case, I would have reached out to the ethics commission first. When my wife was here—she passed away almost three years ago—she served as my chief of staff in the Senate. I conferred with her all the time. People would stop by to see her and not me.”

State Rep. Maxine Dexter (running for Congress): “I’m going to say ‘maybe.’ I trust Tina Kotek. I understand her integrity, her leadership. I appreciate that she’s creating new ways of us thinking about how she’s going to lead. The caveat to that is, it concerns me when people whom I also deeply respect in her office have left. I think there’s a reasonable possibility there, but there are some red flags.”

Former Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal (running for Congress): “What I understand is that there are many states where the governor’s spouse does have a formal role in the office. I think, with the appropriate structure and oversight, it can be done.”

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