My enduring image of Shemia Fagan is as state senator, with her fist held high, signaling her alignment with progressives holding a rally on the Oregon Capitol steps.
Fagan considered herself a fighter, unafraid of anyone and toughened by her difficult upbringing — traits that made her swift downfall as secretary of state even more stunning.
She was the darling of Portland-area progressives, where she built her base. She handily ousted moderate Democratic Sen. Rod Monroe, of Portland, in the May 2018 primary. She won election two years later as secretary of state with heavy backing from the state’s six largest public employee unions, a race in which U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, also endorsed her.
But Fagan never seemed to establish strong bonds with her fellow state leaders, even those who shared her ideology — bonds that might have mitigated the public outcry over her consulting job in the cannabis industry. Even the Democratic Party of Oregon leadership agreed with her resignation, which she announced last week.
Republicans had distrusted Fagan even more than they did former Gov. Kate Brown. Some worried that Brown would take another job, thereby elevating Secretary of State Fagan to the governorship. Back in 2019, state Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, resigned from the Senate Housing Committee because of how committee chair Fagan treated him.
In short, Fagan’s missteps were so severe that her ambitious political career came crashing down — just like former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, the candidate whom Fagan replaced in the 2020 Democratic race for secretary of state.
“The reasons for resigning are probably very similar to what forced out (Gov.) John Kitzhaber in 2015,” political scientist Jim Moore said when I contacted him. “She looks like she lost the trust of those with whom she worked — other statewide officials and key legislators. Since politics is about relationships and trust, losing that means that there is nothing left to do but leave.”
Fagan announced her resignation just days after news broke of her $10,000-per-month consulting contract with cannabis dispensary company La Mota. “While I am confident that the ethics investigation will show that I followed the state’s legal and ethical guidelines in trying to make ends meet for my family, it is clear that my actions have become a distraction from the important and critical work of the secretary of state’s office,” she said.
I don’t share her confidence. Public officials of all stripes regularly ask the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for written guidance about potential conflicts of interest. Fagan did not.
On May 1, she did say, “I exercised poor judgment by contracting with a company that is owned by my significant political donors and is regulated by an agency that was under audit by my audits division.”
Oh, and not to mention that she apparently was getting a lot of moola for doing little work, unless she was doing that work while skimping on being secretary of state. Three years ago, former Republican legislator Rich Vial resigned as deputy secretary of state after moonlighting as an attorney in private practice.
By the way, Vial was making $172,000 a year as deputy. The secretary of state earns only $77,000 a year.
“Earns” is in the eye of the beholder. Most elected officials have vast discretion over how much work they do. Some governors, for example, have been known to put in long hours; others have not.
In any case, Oregonians underpay their statewide elected officials, both in comparison with the private sector and with other states. In response to the Fagan fiasco, Sen. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas, called for raising statewide elected officials’ pay to equal that of the Oregon Supreme Court chief justice, which is more than $162,000.
Gov. Tina Kotek, who oversees 42,000 state workers, is paid merely $98,600.
The secretary of state’s salary of $77,000 is at least $25,000 below what an elementary school assistant principal earns in the Salem-Keizer School District. Yet the secretary of state manages 230 employees and oversees a two-year budget topping $109 million.
Fagan cited the low pay for why she took the cannabis consulting job, as well as teaching a law school class at Willamette University.
“I am very sympathetic to Fagan’s straitened circumstances — $77,000 is about enough to rent a two- or three-bedroom place in many parts of Oregon,” Moore said.
“Why not lobby the Legislature to raise the salaries of statewide officials? (Gov.) Vic Atiyeh got a raise into the low $50K-range 40 years ago — the equivalent of about $160K today. Since there are members of the Legislature also pushing for a raise for our part-time House and Senate members, I think there could have been a productive conversation there.
“But why she decided to take on a well-paying second job with a company with business before the state of Oregon — regardless of the tax status of that company — is mystifying.”
Moore added: “The problem Fagan faced was not unusual in Oregon history, but the solution she came up with was. It is a striking end to the career of a person who could have won future statewide races for a variety of offices.”
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