Just Blame the First Lady

A slow drip of ethics allegations have Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber fighting for his political life, despite his best efforts to deflect them.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes kiss at his swearing-in ceremony in January. (Don Ryan/AP/The Atlantic)

Updated on February 12, 2015, 3:25 p.m.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber is embroiled in a weird, confusing scandal that threatens his political life. For Kitzhaber's growing legion of detractors, it's theater of the absurd on the level of Portlandia, while his embattled supporters seem to view it as more of, well, a Salem witch hunt.

The case is a picaresque tale of ethics, money, romance, and betrayal, plus good old-fashioned power politics. But it raises interesting questions on how political spouses are treated and scapegoated, and how the media would treat the scandal if it happened on the East Coast—or in a Republican-led state.

The Democratic governor's troubles started in October 2014, when Willamette Week, Portland's powerhouse alt-weekly, delivered damning revelations about his fiancée Cylvia Hayes, styled as the state's first lady. The biggest national splash came from news that she had been involved in a sham "Green Card" marriage years earlier. In 1997, Hayes married an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant to help him earn U.S. residency, accepting $5,000 in return. She said she needed the money. The couple divorced in 2002 and never lived together. While marriage fraud is a crime, hers was past the statute of limitations. The news took many people by surprise, including Kitzhaber, who was running for reelection to what would be his fourth term. Hayes apologized to him and to the public. (Hayes and Kitzhaber have been together for more than 10 years, and have been engaged for five months.)

That case made national headlines, but at the same time, the paper noted that Hayes was potentially falling afoul of state ethics rules. Even though she wasn't an elected official, she keeps a desk in the governor's office, and there were charges that she was using her connections in the state to further her private business as a consultant. In some cases, she advocated for causes in the government that helped her clients, a violation of conflict-of-interest laws.

Despite the scandal, Kitzhaber won reelection by almost six points in heavily Democratic Oregon. Now, however, the business scandal is causing much worse headaches for him. Hayes has been forced to disclose a series of cases where she received consulting fees on clean-energy issues that occurred even as she consulted the governor on the same issues. As The Oregonian explains, that conflicted with Kitzhaber's previous statements about how her work was handled, as well as with federal tax forms.

On January 30, in an effort to stanch the bleeding, Kitzhaber announced that Hayes would not serve in any role for the rest of his four-year term as governor. It didn't end the flap. The Oregonian, calling the press conference "disastrous," called on him to resign. Some of Kitzhaber's fellow Democrats are calling on him to resign; others, while stopping short of that, have conspicuously avoided defending him. He has also called on the attorney general to launch a full factual review, which appears to be unprecedented in state history. Meanwhile, he has pledged to cooperate with an inquiry by the state ethics commission, but apparently worked hard to prevent the inquiry from beginning in the first case.

All of this culminated in reports Wednesday that Kitzhaber was on the verge of resignation, fueled in part by Secretary of State Kate Brown ending a trip to D.C. early to return home. The truth was even stranger, according to Oregonian reporter Laurie Gunderson: Kitzhaber planned to resign, then changed his mind.

How could such a thing happen? After all, with Kitzhaber's reelection in November he notched an unprecedented fourth term as Oregon governor. (He first served two terms between 1995 and 2003, then ran again in 2010 and triumphed.) But that might be part of the problem. Maybe Kitzhaber has just lost his edge, and it's not uncommon for politicians to encounter ethical bumps toward the ends of their careers. Kitzhaber, a doctor by profession, also presided over the catastrophic flop of the state's Affordable Care Act-mandated insurance exchange. After spending millions, the site was unworkable, and Oregon had to resort to joining the federal exchange—which, needless to say, was no paragon of excellence. The New York Times suggests that Oregon has simply succumbed to "Kitzhaber fatigue."

Democrats can also safely abandon Kitzhaber because of the state's succession law. The state has no lieutenant governor, but in case of a vacancy in the governor's office, the secretary of state would take over until the next biennial election, in 2016. Kate Brown, who holds that job, is a Democrat.

It's hard to imagine this scandal wouldn't be larger national news if it was happening on the East Coast, closer to the media magnets of New York and Washington, or if it were happening to a Republican governor—just ask Chris Christie or Mark Sanford or Bob McDonnell. In New Jersey, Christie isn't anywhere near resignation, notwithstanding a handful of investigations and allegations, and yet the George Washington Bridge story was in national headlines for weeks. One key difference is that Christie is a major 2016 presidential hopeful, and both McDonnell and Sanford were consistent entries on presidential or vice-presidential lists before their respective downfalls. (Yes, really, Mark Sanford, as hard as that is to imagine now.) Still, it's hard to imagine the national press would be so slow to pick up on this case in an East Coast blue state.

It's also an uncomfortable example in how the woman often ends up bearing the blame. Charlotte Alter had a good exploration of this phenomenon in August, discussing the McDonnell corruption trial. Bob McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia, centered his defense strategy around claiming that his wife had been conducting shady dealings with businessman Johnnie Williams, on whom she had a crush, but that he was in the dark and had been deceived. The tactic has a long and shameful history. In McDonnell's case, it didn't work: He was still convicted and sentenced to two years in jail. She won't be sentenced until February 20.

How does Kitzhaber get off blaming Hayes? After all, he's a four-term governor of the state, and must have had some understanding of the ethical issues involved. Asked by a reporter if he was "blinded by love," Kitzhaber did say his eyes were "wide open," but he also seemed to distance himself from the controversy, saying Hayes is "an independent woman" and announcing her de facto banishment from the government. In a string of uncomfortable and unsavory moments, this scapegoating is the latest.

Update: Secretary of State Kate Brown issued a statement Thursday offering some more details on her last-minute return to Oregon. The statement suggests just how baffling the situation is, and casts doubt on Kitzhaber's composure:

Late Tuesday afternoon, I received a call from the Governor while I was in Washington, DC at a Secretaries of State conference. He asked me to come back to Oregon as soon as possible to speak with him in person and alone.

I got on a plane yesterday morning and arrived at 3:40 in the afternoon. I was escorted directly into a meeting with the Governor. It was a brief meeting. He asked me why I came back early from Washington, DC, which I found strange. I asked him what he wanted to talk about. The Governor told me he was not resigning, after which, he began a discussion about transition.

This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation.

I informed the Governor that I am ready, and my staff will be ready, should he resign. Right now I am focused on doing my job for the people of Oregon.