Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and his Republican challenger, state Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point), faced off in a tense debate today at the City Club of Portland.
Moderator Dave Miller of Oregon Public Broadcasting, which carried the debate live, opened the event with a series of direct questions to Kitzhaber about the controversy swirling around Kitzhaber's fiancÃ©e, first lady Cylvia Hayes.
Hayes has faced a series of ethical questions this week. She has for years served as a policy adviser to Kitzhaber, but WW reported she has used her position in the governor's office to land at least $85,000 in consulting contracts for herself and then used taxpayer-paid staff to aid her private business. In addition, Hayes yesterday admitted to violating federal law when she entered into a sham marriage for pay in 1997 to help an immigrant gain a green card. WW disclosed the sham marriage Wednesday.
The questions bear directly on Kitzhaber's role as governor: Hayes is a public official who is subject to ethics law, and Kitzhaber is accountable under those laws to make sure she is not involved in conflicts of interest or using his office for her personal gain.
Kitzhaber said he was "taken aback and hurt" when he first learned of the fraudulent 1997 marriage that Hayes entered into with an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, Abraham B. Abraham.
Kitzhaber said he and Hayes "have some work to do" on their relationship.
Kitzhaber tried to assert that his relationship with Hayes was a personal matter, but Miller pushed him, noting questions that WW raised earlier this week about Hayes' dual roles in the governor's office—she has served as both a policy adviser to Kitzhaber and has also operated a private consulting business from his office.
Richardson pushed hard on the potential conflicts of interest those dual roles pose. "You have the first lady tripling her income in one year from companies that want access to the governor's office," Richardson said. (Records show that in 2012, Hayes reported income of $27,000, and in 2013, she signed private consulting contracts worth at least $85,000 with companies seeking to influence policy in the same areas in which Hayes serves as a Kitzhaber adviser.)
Kitzhaber defended Hayes and his office's handling of potential conflicts. "We put proper protocols in place, and we welcome all scrutiny," Kitzhaber said.
Richardson said that as Hayes' fiancé, Kitzhaber could not be expected to assess Hayes' situation objectively and asked for an independent investigation. "I call on the governor to call for a special prosecutor to do an investigation," Richardson said.
OPB's Miller pushed Kitzhaber for a response. "Would you push for a special prosecutor?"
"No," Kitzhaber said. The governor said he disagreed with any assertion that Hayes had done anything wrong in her role as his adviser or first lady. He characterized WW's reporting as an attack on a "modern professional woman and first lady."
In their closing statements, Kitzhaber and Richardson returned to familiar themes. Kitzhaber said the choice for voters comes down to values and "the ability to deliver."
He listed social issues, including reproductive choice, gay rights and tuition equity for undocumented immigrants, on which he and Richardson differ.
"Oregon is a vastly better place than it was four years ago," Kitzhaber said. "We have delivered for Oregon."
Richardson stumbled through his closing statement but accused Kitzhaber of presiding over "the most unethical and inept administration in the history of Oregon."
Afterward, Kitzhaber declined to answer a reporter's questions, and his security detail hustled him out of the Sentinel Hotel ballroom.