OregonLive, October 3, 2016
The leading candidates for Oregon Secretary of State offer Oregonians two starkly different visions of what the position should be. Republican Dennis Richardson describes an office that zeroes in on public spending and continues to provide the steady, impartial leadership that Oregonians have come to count on. Democrat Brad Avakian articulates a more activist role defined more by his borderless ambitions than by what best serves Oregonians.
Oregonians should cast their vote for Richardson. Not only are his plans more aligned with the mission of the secretary of state, but he will be a strong voice for accountability and voter trust for an agency whose credibility depends on it.
Richardson, a Republican from Central Point, has embodied integrity and public service from his days as a Vietnam War helicopter pilot to his 12 years as a legislator. He has shown his ability to work across the aisle and under difficult circumstances, serving in 2011 as co-chairman of the budget-drafting Joint Ways and Means Committee when the House was evenly split 30-30 between Democrats and Republicans and the economy was struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
While his socially conservative views helped tank his run for governor against Kitzhaber in 2014, they are irrelevant for the job that he seeks. In fact, Richardson has emphasized that personal philosophical beliefs have no place in carrying out the duties of the secretary of state, who serves as the chief elections officer, oversees audits of public spending, and manages the archives division, among other responsibilities. Rather, his skill set, temperament and strong sense of ethics are the characteristics that will make him an effective secretary of state who will stand for the voting rights of all Oregonians, regardless of affiliation.
Among his priorities are plans to examine government spending and audit the Department of Human Services, whose repeated failures to keep children safe necessitate scrutiny. Similarly, he wants auditors to look into schools in an effort to pinpoint what is holding back Oregon's graduation rate and outcomes for students. He also aims to boost participation and transparency in elections, such as setting up a citizens commission to develop ballot titles, support expanding taxpayer-funded primaries from only major parties to small parties and work with county elections officials to ensure the hundreds of thousands of "inactive" voters on the rolls can get a ballot if they want one.
Avakian, Richardson's Democratic opponent, also comes to the table with a long career in elected office, and has served as the labor commissioner since 2008. But Avakian has outlined an "activist" agenda in which he pledges to take the office "to the next level." He said he would use the auditing function of the office to dig into private companies, pledged to use the office to fight climate change and vows to help root out corporate wrongdoing. These are responsibilities that already belong to other officials, including the governor – a position that he can seek when it comes up for election in 2018.
In addition, Avakian's views of his role as the chief elections officer should concern anyone who understands the importance of not only acting impartially but also maintaining the appearance of neutrality. Avakian said he would champion candidates, causes and ballot measures that he believes in, refraining from speaking out only when ballots have been issued. Such advocacy will doubtlessly concern any candidate, initiative backer or voter who falls on the opposite side and whose political objectives depend on fair treatment.
The secretary of state ensures far more than whether votes are fairly counted. He or she determines whether initiatives have a sufficient number of valid signatures to qualify and decides elections violations. Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, for example, just turned back a complaint filed by Democrats against a Republican candidate for the House, challenging his residency, as Willamette Week reported. The secretary also redraws legislative district boundaries if lawmakers are unable to reach agreement.
The election will be a test of Oregon voters' ability to look beyond party affiliation, weigh the qualifications of a candidate, and compare them with the demands of the job. Democrats have a registration edge statewide on Republicans, and Avakian has avidly pushed Richardson's personal views as a way to tar him as unacceptable.
Avakian contends that's important to know because the secretary of state is first to succeed the governor in the case of death or resignation. While Kitzhaber's resignation last year and Kate Brown's subsequent ascension to the governorship became a real-life civics lesson to us all, it is a rare and remote possibility. Voters should elect candidates for the jobs that they are running for, not one that they almost certainly will not be filling.
Credit Avakian at least with being open about his broad ambitions for the office. But voters should recognize that the role – and Oregonians – need someone who puts the importance of integrity and trust before personal ambition. That someone is Dennis Richardson.
– The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board