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An open secretary of state seat next year is already attracting well-connected Oregon Democrats

jack brown
Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, speaks on the Senate floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., on April 30, 2019.

FILE – Oregon Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, pictured in this 2019 file photo, has announced plans to run for secretary of state.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

With former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan ousted in an influence-peddling scandal earlier this year, the 2024 contest for her seat is generating notable interest.

Two Democrats with deep connections in Oregon political circles formally announced campaigns for secretary on Wednesday, setting up a competitive primary for a job that oversees elections, audits state agencies, and, if need be, takes over as governor.

One is state Sen. James Manning, a Eugene Democrat and president pro tem of the Senate, who caught some in his party by surprise in recent weeks as his ambitions for secretary became clear.

“I’ve been holding onto this for quite some time,” Manning said in an interview this week. “I’ve done a lot of soul searching.”

The other candidate is state Treasurer Tobias Read, who is term-limited from seeking reelection in his current role and had made his plans to run known for weeks.

FILE - Oregon state Treasurer Tobias Read, seen in this January 2023 file photo, is seeking the Democratic nomination for secretary of state next year.

FILE – Oregon state Treasurer Tobias Read, seen in this January 2023 file photo, is seeking the Democratic nomination for secretary of state next year.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The highest priority on both men’s list, they say, is restoring trust to a job that has recently been the subject of endless negative headlines.

Fagan stepped down in May, after news emerged that she’d accepted lucrative side work as a consultant for a chain of cannabis dispensaries at the same time her office was preparing an audit that recommended less onerous regulations on dispensaries. Fagan, once a rising star in the Democratic Party, has said she did nothing illegal, but apologized for breaking the public trust. The matter is the subject of state and federal investigations.

LaVonne Griffin-Valade, the person tapped by Gov. Tina Kotek to serve out Fagan’s term, will not run again, meaning the seat is wide open.

“The trust has been tainted in this office,” said Manning. “We’ve got to restore that.”

Manning was appointed to the Senate in late 2016, filling the seat of former Sen. Chris Edwards, who stepped down. He’s since been reelected twice and is well liked in the Capitol. As Senate president pro tem, he presides over the chamber when President Rob Wagner is away.

A retired member of the Army, where he spent 24 years, Manning says his stint as an assistant inspector general will serve him well in managing state audits. He says he has a demonstrated interest in improving elections law — including pushing for paid postage on ballot envelopes and protecting election workers from harassment.

“Oregon is ready for a new leadership,” said Manning, adding that he and Read have a “great” relationship. “They’re ready for new vision, they’re ready for someone that’s going to do something different. That candidate is me.”

Read, meanwhile, is counting on a wealth of experience to connect with voters — he spent a decade in the state House of Representatives before winning the treasurer job in 2016. Read made a bid for governor last year, losing in the Democratic primary to Kotek.

“I’m running for Secretary of State to restore trust and accountability in this important office,” Read said in a statement provided to OPB. “I’ll make sure Oregon continues to lead the nation in secure and accessible voting.”

So far, Read and Manning have the race to themselves. No other Democrats or Republicans have signaled they will run for the job, though that is certain to change in the months to come.

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