Contrasts, conflicts clear on redistricting, voting by mail and other issues
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Conflicts were frequent and agreements few Tuesday evening as the two major-party candidates to be Oregon's next secretary of state, Democrat Shemia Fagan and Republican Kim Thatcher, clashed during a half-hour debate televised and livestreamed by NewsChannel 21.
Little if anything was off-limits, from voting records and campaign donations to past business dealings.
The two candidates, who served together in the Legislature. are seeking the state’s second-highest ranking position that voters gave four years ago to Republican Dennis Richardson – the first GOP statewide official in years -- who died of cancer early last year.
As required, Democrat Gov. Kate Brown – a former secretary of state who became governor upon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s resignation – named Republican Bev Clarno of Redmond to fill the position, on an interim basis, as Clarno said she would not run for a full term.
Thatcher said in her opening statement that many Oregon voters “crossed the aisle” to elect Richardson, realizing “we need checks and balances,” and said he “would be sailing on to re-election,” had he lived.
But Thatcher said only she can carry on his legacy in terms of accountability and transparency. She said she would bring 28 years of business experience to “help get businesses back on track” after the travails of COVID-19.
Fagan, a state senator and civil rights attorney, touted her votes on issues like expanding paid sick leave and creating the Oregon Office for Small Business, which the secretary of state oversees.
“This job, for me, is about making sure government works for everybody,” she said, noting her endorsements by the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club.
One early question asked about the issue of redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of the state House and Senate district lines by lawmakers – or, under the state Constitution, by the secretary of state, if lawmakers cannot agree.
Thatcher said she supported a proposed ballot measure that didn’t quite make the fall ballot, to create an independent commission to draw those lines, and that it represented the “fairest chance of making sure we have a non-partisan drawing of the lines.”
Fagan agreed, in part, saying “I think it’s really important we shouldn’t have politicians drawing their own boundaries” – adding quickly, “like Thatcher did” a decade ago, serving in the Legislature and helping create her own “nice, safe Republican district.”
Fagan said there’s a need to draw the lines so as “not to protect incumbents,” and said a truly independent commission would also be “rooted in racial equity.”
When the candidates got to ask each other a question, Thatcher targeted Fagan’s $100,000 contribution from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee – and noted that Fagan has “Democrat” on her campaign signs.
Fagan said she’s proud to be a Democrat, but added, “I’ve been the lone no vote of my party on more than one occasion.” Thatcher fired back that she sees Fagan’s “’wide coalition’ as “left and lefter, not right or middle. It just seems like you are wanting to follow along with what big government interests want. That’s how I see your ‘independence.’”
Fagan returned the volley, saying Thatcher doesn’t have her GOP affiliation on her lawn signs because she “realizes President Trump is not very popular in this state.”
Fagan then went on the offensive, claiming Thatcher’s highway contracting business was ordered to pay a $63,000 fine after being investigated for contracting fraud, a cover-up and fake invoices.”
“Yes,” Thatcher said, “my company had a dispute and went to court.” But she said the settlement was to pay attorney fees and was nowhere near the amount that ODOT sought.
“It was not a fine, as you characterized it,” she said. “If the allegations were true, we’d be out of business.” And she vowed if elected to work with attorneys “to separate myself” from the business, to avoid any conflict of interest.
Fagan said the judge actually used the word “sanction” and urged voters to Google the matter and read for themselves.
Thatcher fired back, claiming Fagan had to have several businesses closed down “because you didn’t file the right paperwork. You’re an attorney, you’d think you know better.”
Fagan later denied that as well, saying, “I’ve never had a failed business.” She noted that anyone can register business names for $50, and had several ideas with her brother that they didn’t pursue. “It goes away because you don’t repay the fee,” she said, calling it a “false attack.”
As for Oregon’s pioneering vote-by-mail system, Thatcher said while “we do have a good system,” she believes “it’s worth looking into every step of the voting process, to make sure we have the best processes. I want to open up more in-person voting opportunities, when possible. I just think that we can do a better job.”
Fagan said she’s supported expanded access to the ballot, from “motor voter” automatic registration through the DMV to prepaid postage for ballots, which Republicans opposed. She said she stands up to President Trump’s “lies” and added, “Claims of widespread voter fraud are a myth, perpetrated by people who want to make it harder to vote.”
Thatcher said “motor voter” may have expanded the voter rolls, but “hasn’t been shown to increase participation.”
“The devil’s in the details,” she said.
In closing statements, Thatcher noted that 99 percent of her donations had come from Oregonians and said, “When my opponent takes money from the governor, that’s too much a conflict of interest.”
Fagan said her opponent has “tried to restrict (voter) access … propped up by the extreme right wing,” while she’s worked to expand it. And she touted her endorsements by the postal workers union, firefighters, the Oregon Education Association and senators Merkley and Wyden.