Cheryl Myers discusses making history as Oregon’s acting secretary of state

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Almost lost in the shuffle of the recent resignation of Oregon’s secretary of state was the significance of an acting secretary who kept the state office running until a newly appointed secretary could be selected by the governor.

Cheryl Myers became the first person of color ever to oversee the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. Following the resignation of Shemia Fagan effective May 8, Myers oversaw the May 16 election, which took place without any major reported issues.

As acting secretary, Myers worked to streamline access to state archives and to make sure that state audits continued as scheduled without outside influence. She took several actions to hold her predecessor and former boss accountable for accepting a consulting contract with a cannabis company while state auditors were looking at how Oregon regulates the industry.

While being sworn in as next secretary of state on June 30, LaVonne Griffin-Valade said she expected “to be briefed by the hard-working folks” in the office as to how to continue to best serve Oregonians and restore faith in the office. As deputy secretary of state, Myers has regular briefings with Griffin-Valade, who has said that she won’t be running for a full four-year term as secretary of state in the 2024 election.

Now a resident of Portland, Myers is a former member of the North Clackamas School Board, where she also made history as the first Korean American adoptee to be elected. She agreed to an interview with Pamplin Media Group to discuss how she broke barriers in the state office and how she’s been keeping things running since her predecessor’s resignation.

What was it like for you growing up in Southeast Portland?

Adopted as an infant into a blue-collar, lower-middle-class family, we had few financial comforts, but we did possess a strong commitment to family and working-class values. Through my early formative years, my whole world was through a dominant culture view — immediate and extended family, neighborhood, school and church: all white. While my family was very loving and supportive, I experienced life in the skin I’m in. There were many coded microaggressions and even some blatant and hostile comments, all making me feel like I didn’t belong.

Early in my youth, looking in the mirror each morning, surprised I hadn’t become white like my older, adopted brothers, because I thought one day I would fit in. Through family and friend support, and unyielding persistence, I found my way to my own definition of belonging. No longer needing to “fit in” and growing ever confident, my purpose was to make positive contributions wherever I could; much of my success has been through empowering others along the way.

What inspired you to go from the private sector to a life of public service?

Business ownership provided financial stability and time freedom. As our children entered school, I was able to volunteer in their classrooms, which led to leadership in parent organizations and serving on district committees. I was recruited by the superintendent to apply for an open board seat and was elected twice, eventually serving eight years. It was a remarkable experience and found public service very rewarding. From there, I was recruited to run for the House of Representatives; while unsuccessful, my rigorous campaign yielded a strong reputation and led to serving on the incoming governor’s cabinet and now a dozen years serving in a variety of state leadership roles.

How did you meet Shemia Fagan and become the deputy secretary of state?

When I ran for the Oregon House, Shemia had just graduated from Emerge, the organization which trains Democratic women to run for office, and she subsequently volunteered for my campaign. Over the years we were friendly, but no one was more surprised than I when she reached out after winning her election to secretary of state. She indicated my entrepreneurial and elected background, strong state leadership experience and my inherent equity lens were compelling attributes.

What were some of the first things you did once joining the Secretary of State’s Office?

Recognizing the agency had been through significant leadership whiplash — there had been five secretaries of state in six years — centering staff has always been a top priority since day one. Turnover at the top had a significant impact; divisions had retreated into silos for survival; the executive team didn’t have a clear role, and many cross-division systems were underdeveloped. We clearly weren’t operating at the level we could, and I saw a lot of opportunity for improvement.

My first focus was on creating stability in the agency. We have wonderful, dedicated professionals at all levels of the agency; they needed systems to allow them to do their best work and leaders who believed in them. We created systems for things like public records requests, rulemaking, document review and other workflow processes that helped clarify roles. Our goal in this administration is to leave the office in better shape than we found it.

I also focused on workplace culture. Our administration was onboarded during COVID, which precluded the traditional in-person opportunities to develop a trusted environment and culture. I looked for ways, big and small, to convey a sense of connection and unity while in a virtual environment. As our No. 1 priority, we centered staff at every turn to establish a culture that set everyone up to succeed. We instituted all staff meetings with upbeat music, vibrant and fun chats along with meaningful content. Where possible, we increased the frequency of extracurricular activities and worked to foster open and direct communication with leadership and throughout all levels of the organization. These efforts have really paid off. We’ve seen employee satisfaction increase in surveys every year during our administration.

Finally, I wanted to emphasize equity. Through my lived experiences, and throughout my professional career, I’ve held equity at the core of my work, always considering whose voice might be missing, what unintended consequences may occur from policy decisions and how to increase access in all ways. I authored the design and approach for the agency’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Lorraine Wilson and am so proud of the work being accomplished. Our new director has implemented a foundational equity training for all staff and is now included in our new hire onboarding process; she’s also guiding equity work into programs across the agency, in both large and small ways.

What did you do to continue pressing for accountability following Shemia Fagan’s resignation, and why did you feel that was important?

Secretary Fagan’s actions cast a shadow over the agency, which is unfortunate because the employees of the Secretary of State’s Office do fantastic work with the utmost integrity and dedication.

Since the resignation, I have spoken openly about the secretary’s missteps. I helped reassure Oregonians the agency would continue to operate at high levels during the transition and made sure we were as transparent as possible about all things. For example, the executive team put extra resources into completing public records requests during the transition. This made certain the public was privy to complete information about Secretary Fagan’s actions and sent a strong message that our office wasn’t holding anything back.

What does the future hold for yourself and the rest of the team that you’ve built at this office?

Over the next 18 months, we will support Secretary Griffin-Valade, who has made it clear she intends to be a steady hand who can guide the office in a trusted manner. She isn’t a politician. Without donors or political allies pressuring her, she can help Oregonians recognize we will continue to make decisions based on the rules and treat everyone fairly.

We’ll be working to restore the public’s trust in the agency by doing the work with the highest possible integrity.


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