Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is showing no sign of walking away from a decades-long political career, even though he’s been abandoned by most of his party’s leadership amid influence-peddling allegations surrounding him and his fiancée.
Three senior Democrats on Thursday told the four-term governor, who is under criminal investigation by the attorney general, it was time to step down. The woman who would succeed him described a “strange” meeting after the governor summoned her from Washington, then asked her why she’d come.
Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, both Democrats, said they met with Kitzhaber Thursday morning and told him the controversy was becoming too much of a distraction. State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, also a Democrat, issued a statement asking Kitzhaber to leave.
“He was upset,” Courtney told reporters. “He was defiant. He’s struggling.”
He made no public appearances on Thursday. Sheriff’s deputies were posted outside his Portland house, and authorities said it was extra security because of the journalists milling around. It was not known if he was inside.
The state attorney general’s office on Thursday ordered Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, to release emails from private accounts that discuss state business following a public records request from The Oregonian. Hayes, through a lawyer, opposed the request. She has seven days to comply or appeal.
If the 67-year-old Kitzhaber resigns, he will be succeeded by Oregon’s secretary of state — fellow Democrat Kate Brown. Brown would be the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. A liberal Democrat, she’s widely considered to be to Kitzhaber’s left.
On Thursday, Brown described what she called “strange” behavior by Kitzhaber in a private meeting with him a day earlier. She said the governor had asked her to fly back to Oregon from a conference in Washington, D.C., but when she arrived he asked why she had returned.
She said Kitzhaber told her he’s not resigning but then began a discussion about a transition.
“This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation,” Brown said in a statement.
Questions about Hayes have swirled for months, but the pressure on Kitzhaber intensified in recent weeks after newspapers raised questions about whether Hayes reported all her income on her tax returns.
Neither the governor nor Hayes has been charged with any wrongdoing. But earlier this month, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said she was launching a criminal investigation.
Kitzhaber has said he and Hayes took steps to avoid conflicts of interest.
Hayes met Kitzhaber in 2002. She is 20 years younger.
She told The Oregonian in a 2011 profile that she grew up in a ramshackle house near Seattle and left home at 16, staying with friends until she finished high school.
By the time she was 29, she was a twice-divorced graduate student at Evergreen State College. She supported herself in part with the proceeds of an illegal sham marriage to an Ethiopian immigrant in 1997. Last year, she acknowledged buying property in rural Washington state for a pot operation in 1997 but said the grow effort never materialized.
In 1998, while trying to escape a relationship she described as abusive, she went to her boyfriend’s house carrying a stun gun. He beat her with it, according to court records. Hayes packed up her belongings and moved to central Oregon.
She set up an environmental nonprofit and in 2002 was the Democratic nominee for a legislative district in Bend. She met Kitzhaber in the waning days of his second term as governor when he campaigned for her.
Hayes lost her race. Kitzhaber left office at the beginning of 2003 and announced days later that he and his wife were divorcing. Later, he and Hayes reconnected, and their relationship became romantic.
In 2010, after eight years out of office, Kitzhaber made a successful comeback bid and became Oregon’s only governor to serve more than two terms.
Hayes took an active role in Kitzhaber’s administration. She used the title “first lady,” though the two have never married, and ran public initiatives targeting poverty and hunger. Privately, she was a frequent presence at meetings.
Kitzhaber told reporters last month he’s in love with Hayes, but he’s not blinded by it.
Also Thursday, a spokesman for the Department of Administrative Services, which maintains the state email archives, confirmed a newspaper report that the governor’s office had asked that Kitzhaber’s personal emails be deleted from the archives.
Matt Shelby said the agency had discovered Kitzhaber’s personal emails were being mistakenly forwarded to the server and then informed Kitzhaber’s office. He said the governor’s office asked that personal emails be deleted from the server, and the agency said it could not do that. He said the governor’s office is going through the emails to determine which are public records under Oregon law.
Follow Jonathan J. Cooper at https://twitter.com/jjcooper .
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