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Influence sought by Oregon first lady isn’t unique nationally, but has caused trouble for Kotek

Aimee Kotek Wilson listens to her wife, Oregon Governor-elect Tina Kotek, speak during a press conference in November 2022. Kotek Wilson's push for an increased say in state policy is said to have created divisions in the governor's office.

Aimee Kotek Wilson listens to her wife, Oregon Governor-elect Tina Kotek, speak during a press conference in November 2022. Kotek Wilson’s push for an increased say in state policy is said to have created divisions in the governor’s office.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

A shakeup at the highest levels of Gov. Tina Kotek’s office appears to be tied to a central question: Should First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson have a greater hand in crafting state policy?

Sources with knowledge of the office have said the impending departure of three senior aides has roots in Kotek Wilson’s insistence on expanding a role that has often been treated as ceremonial in Oregon, and pushback from staff who opposed such a move.

Kotek Wilson appears to have prevailed. This week an adviser being paid nearly $144,000 a year was reassigned from another government agency to work for the first lady. And the governor has taken the comparatively rare step of instructing Oregon State Police troopers to accompany Kotek Wilson whenever she attends events on behalf of the governor’s office.

While Kotek Wilson doesn’t receive a state salary, Kotek has also given her wife a small office in the State Library alongside other staffers, the governor’s office has said, and is exploring formally creating an Office of the First Spouse.

Nearly all of those steps are novel in Oregon, where the first spouse has typically taken on a low-key role. The one recent exception, former First Lady Cylvia Hayes, engaged in conduct that ultimately led then-Gov. John Kitzhaber to resign.

There is no evidence that Kotek Wilson has tried to profit from being first spouse as Hayes did. But that recent history has given some people pause — and seems likely to have led to an ethics complaint lodged against Kotek. The details of that complaint aren’t yet public, and the Oregon Government Ethics Commission will decide whether it merits an investigation in the coming months.

Despite the questions it poses, Kotek Wilson’s ambitions for a more visible role aren’t unique. First spouses around the country have been granted state staff and formal offices as they pursue their own policy agendas.

In California, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom oversees a staff of six people, according to the governor’s office.

Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and Texas all tout formal offices for their first ladies, though the number of staffers they command is unclear. None of the offices responded to an inquiry from OPB.

The first ladies in Kentucky, New Jersey and Florida also take very active roles, and Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis is often considered one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ most influential advisers. Other first spouses — like those in Georgia and Pennsylvania — have chiefs of staff listed on state websites.

In Washington, a staffer helps First Lady Trudi Inslee with her schedule on a part-time basis only, according to a spokesperson.

What first spouses do with the state resources they’re given varies widely. DeSantis has launched several initiatives, including an effort to assist at-risk youth. Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott and Georgia First Lady Marty Kemp have initiatives to fight child sex trafficking.

North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Burgum focuses on destigmatizing addiction. That’s the same goal that Kotek Wilson touted in a statement Tuesday, in which she revealed she lives with a mental illness and is recovering from alcohol use disorder.

“Far too often, individuals have remained silent about their experience because of shame, pain, and fear,” Kotek Wilson said in a statement. “And, that is why it is so important for me to do my part to reduce the stigma around addiction and mental health.”

A mixed history in Oregon

While the role Kotek Wilson is seeking isn’t unique nationally, the fault lines those ambitions appear to have created in her wife’s administration raise questions about what exactly happened and how Kotek will proceed without three of her most trusted aides.

The governor’s office has refused to comment on why Chief of Staff Andrea Cooper, Deputy Chief of Staff Lindsey O’Brien and Special Advisor Abby Tibbs are all departing or on leave. And both Kotek and the first lady declined a request for an interview on Kotek Wilson’s role in the administration. The governor’s office has said it doesn’t have formal resignation letters to release, and the exiting aides haven’t responded to requests for comment.

In Oregon, the roles of first spouses have varied.

First Gentleman Dan Little, former Gov. Kate Brown’s husband and a retired forester, took an interest in outdoors initiatives, but largely stayed out of the limelight.

First Lady Mary Oberst, wife of former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, had a lead role in planning celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Oregon statehood and worked to revive an Eastern Oregon museum, among other accomplishments.

First Gentleman Frank Roberts, husband of former Gov. Barbara Roberts, was a sitting state senator while his wife was in office.

And First Lady Dolores Atiyeh, wife of former Gov. Vic Atiyeh, lobbied to require immunizations and seatbelt use for children.

The standout for first spouse involvement — at least in recent memory — is Hayes. During Kitzhaber’s third term in office, Hayes began pressing for increased influence in policy matters. She also accepted paid work from parties who hoped to influence some of those same policies, a sequence of events that eventually led to Kitzhaber’s 2015 resignation.

While there is no suggestion that Kotek Wilson has sought to trade on her influence, her push for a greater role within Kotek’s administration has brought Hayes to mind for some observers.

The governor’s office says it is paying for the increased costs of a police detail and additional staff for Kotek Wilson out of pre-approved funds, and that it is “ensuring compliance with state ethics laws” as it explores creating a formal office for Kotek Wilson.

Susan Myers, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, said Wednesday the governor’s office had not sought advice or a formal opinion about the creation of an Office of the First Spouse.

And while the governor has leeway to spend her office’s $31 million budget, one of the lawmakers with the most say in that budget says no one brought up the new spending dedicated Kotek Wilson’s expanded role in the recently concluded legislative session.

“There was an opportunity for the governor to point-blank ask the Ways and Means Committee here just a month ago,” said state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, co-chair of a budget subcommittee that approves the governor’s office budget. “I would have approved it if she would have asked. I would have advocated for it.”


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