Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and Republican rival Dennis Richardson sparred Friday over two news disclosures about Cylvia Hayes, Oregon’s first lady.
Kitzhaber said “I am proud of her and I support her.” Richardson said Kitzhaber’s current term constituted “the most inept and unethical administration” in state history, and not just for Hayes’ involvement as an adviser, which Richardson alleges has brought her personal gain.
Kitzhaber praised Hayes for her news conference the previous day confirming a Willamette Week account about her illegal sham marriage in 1997, while she was a student at Evergreen State College, to an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant to enable him to stay in the United States. They never lived together and were divorced in 2002, when she and Kitzhaber began dating in the final year of his second term.
“I am proud of her and I support her,” Kitzhaber said in response to the opening question put to him at the City Club of Portland forum, which was broadcast live on public radio stations statewide. “It was the right thing to do.
“This is now a very personal issue and we just need some time to work this out together.”
They have not announced a marriage date.
Kitzhaber said he learned of the sham marriage Tuesday night, a day before the story was posted online.
Hayes appeared before reporters Thursday to give a brief statement and offer an apology to the public. The statute of limitations is five years.
Kitzhaber also defended Hayes’ activity as an adviser on energy, economic development and other issues against questions raised in a separate Willamette Week story about whether Hayes used her position as first lady for personal gain.
She was an energy consultant when they first met, and she also lost a 2002 bid for an Oregon House seat in Central Oregon.
“I do not agree with the assertions or conclusions in Willamette Week,” Kitzhaber said.
Kitzhaber also said he is uncertain whether Hayes would resume such a role if he is elected Nov. 4 to a fourth nonconsecutive term as governor.
Richardson, a state representative from Southern Oregon since 2003, declined to attack Kitzhaber directly on the marriage issue. “I feel for him,” he said.
But he called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether state ethics laws were broken in connection with Hayes’ activities as an adviser.
“When they use that access for personal gain, that’s a violation of statute,” Richardson said.
“That’s an assertion, not a fact,” Kitzhaber responded.
Kitzhaber likened Hayes’ situation to that of Frank Roberts, a state senator married to Barbara Roberts when she was governor. Frank Roberts died of cancer in September 1993; Barbara Roberts chose not to proceed with a re-election bid in 1994, when Kitzhaber challenged her in the primary and eventually was elected governor.
“I think there are some people rally concerned and nervous about strong successful women in the professional sphere,” Kitzhaber said.
Richardson attempted to link Hayes with Patricia McCaig, Roberts’ former chief of staff, who became a paid consultant on the Columbia River Crossing and who later offered unpaid political advice to Kitzhaber.
Another Willamette Week story raised questions about whether the unpaid work should have been reported as a noncash contribution to Kitzhaber’s campaign. The campaign did so subsequently, but the secretary of state said it need not have been reported.
“It’s about a pattern of avoiding responsibility,” Richardson said.
Public opinion surveys indicate Kitzhaber maintaining a lead over Richardson, but they were conducted before this week’s disclosures.
However, some results also indicate that among women likely to vote, Kitzhaber leads Richardson by double-digit margins.
Kitzhaber, in his closing, said Richardson’s opposition to women’s reproductive rights and marriages by same-sex couples put the GOP nominee out of step with Oregon values.
Richardson, who followed, assailed Kitzhaber’s record. He described the current term as the “most inept and unethical administration” in state history.
The City Club forum focused on issues of economic and racial equity, but some questions allowed both candidates to restate positions on various issues.
The City Club forum was the third of four joint public appearances planned since Labor Day. The final one is Tuesday on Portland television station KGW, cosponsored by The Oregonian.
They also have appeared together at three newspaper editorial boards, including the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group.