The top two candidates for secretary of state said on Monday during an election forum they did not want to use the office as a stepping stone to run for governor and questioned each other’s independence from influence by their political parties.

State Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, and Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, are facing off in the Nov. 3 election for the only statewide office without an incumbent on the ballot. It is the only executive office held by a Republican in a state where Democrats also have a supermajority in the Legislature.

The virtual forum was hosted by EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group and moderated by Gerry O’Brien, editor of The Bulletin newspaper in Bend.

Oregon is one of five states that does not have a lieutenant governor. The secretary of state becomes governor if the incumbent dies or leaves office. Gov. Kate Brown was secretary of state in 2015 when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid allegations of influence-peddling.

Thatcher promised to carry on the legacy of Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, the Republican elected to the office in 2016. Richardson announced in June 2018 that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died in February 2019. Under Oregon law, Brown was required to name a Republican to fill out the remainder of Richardson’s term. She appointed former state House Speaker Bev Clarno of Redmond, a Republican, with the implicit agreement that Clarno would not run for the office this year.

Thatcher said that if Richardson were alive, he would be “sailing to re-election.”

“Voters crossed party lines because we need checks and balances in our government,” Thatcher said, adding later, “it’s a little easier when you’re not part of ‘the club.’”

Thatcher also touted her endorsement by the Independent Party. Though it accounts for just under 125,000 of the state’s nearly 2.87 million registered voters, it is recognized as the state’s official third major party. In 2020, the party has endorsed Democrats and Republicans in state races.

Fagan said it is up to voters to decide who is secretary of state.

“I don’t think any political party is owed a position,” she said.

Fagan promised to be an independent advocate for all Oregonians.

“Ultimately, it’s what your values are,” not the political party label, she said.

While the forum was generally cordial, each candidate took shots at the other.

Thatcher questioned Fagan’s independence, saying she was “beholding” to Brown and other top Democrats. The secretary of state needs to be “a watchdog in state government, not a lapdog,” Thatcher said.

Thatcher said large donations from unions and Democratic Party groups would undercut Fagan’s independence.

Fagan has raised just under $1.8 million, while Thatcher has raised just over $576,000. Fagan spent heavily to win a close May primary, beating Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, by just 4,400 votes out of more than 587,000 cast. Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a former 2nd Congressional District candidate of Terrebonne, finished a distant third. Thatcher received 85% of the vote in the Republican primary.

Fagan criticized Thatcher for being part of Senate Republicans’ walkouts to deny a quorum to vote on a carbon cap-and-trade bill that Democrats said they had enough votes to pass.

Fagan also hit Thatcher for refusing to say whether she will vote for President Donald Trump’s reelection. Thatcher was a delegate from Oregon to the 2016 Republican National Convention. She had supported U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, early in the election season, but ended up casting her delegate vote for Trump. She was quoted in the Portland Tribune as saying, “I can honestly say I feel less uncomfortable with Trump.”

Fagan accused Thatcher of being a candidate “propped up by extreme right-wing groups.”

“The bottom line is she is signaling one thing to her base and something else to the rest of us,” Fagan said.

There were some areas of broad agreement. Fagan said she had “no plans” to run for governor in 2022. Thatcher said that if elected, she would serve four years and likely run for reelection.

Each said they would aggressively pursue audits of government agencies and programs. Thatcher said she would “shine a light” on parts of government that were not working for residents. Fagan singled out the Oregon Employment Department, which broke down under the stress of record-smashing benefits filings during the coronavirus pandemic. She said audits were done before and part of her audit would be why the earlier audits were not implemented.

Both generally support Oregon’s vote-by-mail system and creating a commission to decide legislative district lines for reapportionment. Both want a more independent public records advocate.

Thatcher and Fagan both said they supported the concept of open primaries, though the decision would have to come from the political parties. Only the Independent Party allows the 970,000 voters registered as non-affiliated to vote in its primary elections. Democrats account for just over 1 million registered voters, while Republicans have just over 731,000 registered voters. All voters can cast ballots in the general election.

The secretary of state’s audits division investigates and issues reports on public spending by state government. The elections division has oversight of elections, including candidate filings, campaign finance records and ballot measures. The corporate division handles business filings. The archives division maintains the state government’s records.

Fagan is a graduate of Wahtonka High School in The Dalles. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and religion from Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, and has a law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. An attorney specializing in employment issues, she was elected to the House in 2012, beating incumbent Republican Patrick Sheehan, then reelected twice. She won her Senate seat in 2018.

Thatcher is a graduate of Oregon City High School. She attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and Portland State University. She’s the owner of Highway Specialties and KT Contracting Co. She was elected to the House in 2004 and won reelection every two years before running in 2014 for the open Senate seat when Sen. Larry George, R-Sherwood, retired. She won and was reelected in 2018.

Other secretary of state candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot are Kyle Markley, of the Libertarian Party, and Nathalie Paravicini, who is endorsed by both the Pacific Green and Progressive parties.

The Oregon Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.

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