Could Nick Kristof Be Oregon’s Next Governor?

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YAMHILL — SEPT 11: Pulitzer Prize winning writer Nicholas Kristof and wife Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sheryl WuDunn on their farm in Yamhill, Oregon, September 11, 2021. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Center for Creative Photography/University of Arizona)

It’s been a very long time since a first-time candidate for Governor of Oregon got front-page billing on every national print or cable news site in the United States. But then, Nicholas Kristof is not an ordinary first-time candidate and Oregon is no longer an ordinary state. 

Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist for the New York Times, is what people in the business call a “bigfoot reporter,” who has the smarts, the guts, and the talent to lap the field any day in the week. Oregon’s win—if such were to occur—would be the Times’ loss, and a loss for readers of his columns and books.

The formal announcement Wednesday was foreshadowed by months of speculation, in Oregon and elsewhere. It came with a video and a website that illustrated Kristof’s expertise with social media and modern campaign techniques. He’s good on camera, and has a message that will resonate in communities like the small town in Yamhill County where he grew up and now lives and runs the family farm. Failures to deal with drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, and lack of opportunity plague many Oregon towns outside Portland and its upper-income suburbs. 

Kristof, in an interview with KGW-TV’s Laural Porter, promised to campaign on issues that would resonate statewide: “It breaks my heart when I see three-quarters of the state by geography talk about seceding and going to Idaho. That obviously isn’t going to happen but it reflects a real division. . . . There’s incredible distrust in the state. That’s not good for anybody in Oregon. . . . There are so many areas we need to address. We have a very short school year. We allow kids to drop out before the age of 18 in ways that other states don’t… Fundamentally it’s about making education a priority. And especially making sure kids stay in school and don’t drop out.”

But the voters in a Democratic primary next May will be mostly from Portland and its suburbs, while most of the “other Oregon” that Kristof describes will vote in the Republican primary. Or so goes the conventional wisdom. Democrats own the state, and have since 1986, and no Republican of note is running for governor in 2022. 

Democrats have at least two other credible candidates who could win in any normal year. But 2022 will not be a normal year, as Oregon reels from wounds inflicted by violence and dysfunction in Portland and restive nativist movements in rural areas in the hinterlands. 

Kristof’s candidacy is not the only factor to promise an unusual race for governor. State Sen. Betsy Johnson, a conservative Democrat from Columbia County, downriver from Portland, has announced a gubernatorial run as an Independent. She figures to be to the right of Kristof, whose writing and speeches mark him as a more liberal Democrat. Johnson has built a reputation in the Senate as a hard-nosed budget writer and a friend of business, while keeping Democratic credentials on issues such as abortion. 

Johnson, 70, lacks the charisma and national image of Kristof, 62. But he lacks the everyday political experience and influential contacts of Johnson, whose father was an influential Republican legislator in the 1960s. Her candidacy is the major new development since I wrote in July about a potential Kristof candidacy.

As a registered Independent, Johnson will bypass the May primary and, with 23,744 valid signatures, appear on the November ballot. She already has some $503,818 in the bank for a sure-bet re-election to the Senate; she has obviously been thinking about the governorship.

There are both similarities and big differences between Kristof and Johnson. Both grew up in rural counties and both have law degrees but have not practiced law. Johnson is business-oriented; she owns and operates a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft company, and is a licensed pilot. Kristof is one of the nation’s premier journalists and has no other business or professional background; nor has he held political office.

Johnson grew up in a wealthy family. Her father, Sam Johnson, owned and operated a lumber mill and owned land in Central Oregon. Her mother was a member of the Oregon Board of Higher Education. Johnson’s undergraduate work was at Carleton College in Minnesota; her law degree is from Lewis & Clark in Portland.

Kristof grew up on a farm near Yamhill, son of parents who were refugees from Hungary; both were well-known professors at Portland State University. He took his undergraduate degree at Harvard, then as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he earned a law degree. He also spent a year at the American University in Cairo.

Although both Kristof and Johnson will campaign as outside the current Democratic domination of Oregon’s state government, neither is far from the party mainstream. Nor would they be notable “firsts.” Johnson would be the third female governor, Kristof the third journalist; he would also be the second governor from Yamhill County. Former Gov. Barbara Roberts (D), was born in Yamhill County.

At least two other formidable Democrats have declared for governor: State Treasurer Tobias Reed and House Speaker Tina Kotek. Both are from the Portland area, and have deep experience in political office. They appear evenly matched, and a contentious split between them could only help Kristof and Johnson. 

There is—as often seems to be the case—an off-camera roadblock to Kristof’s candidacy: Oregon law requires three years’ residency to be elected governor. Kristof voted in New York, where he also owns a home, in the 2020 general election. The three-year window is from Nov. 8, 2019 to Nov. 8, 2022, date of the Oregon vote. 

Kristof’s attorneys sent a 15-page opinion on the matter to Willamette Week in August. It summarized: “Kristof is eligible for the position of governor as he will have been ‘a resident within this State’ for a period of ‘three years next preceding his election,’ within the meaning of Article V, section 2 of the Oregon Constitution,” the legal opinion says. “Kristof will readily establish that his Oregon residency began on or before November 8, 2019. Accordingly, he is eligible to serve.”

The document,  from Perkins Coie lawyers Thomas R. Johnson and Misha Isaak, makes a strong case that Kristof’s “home” is in his heart and in his property decisions, frequent public writings, and other action in the Yamhill farmhouse. It’s hard to imagine an Oregon court finding otherwise, but the Oregon Constitution is written in the language of 1857:  “No  person shall be eligible to the Office of Governor . . . who shall not have been three years next preceding his election, a resident within this state.”

Lawyers Johnson and Isaak make a pretty persuasive case, at least for me. I think of Nick Kristof as a citizen of the world, with an office/residence in New York, but his heart, hearth, and soul remained in Yamhill County, Oregon. 

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Floyd J. McKay, emeritus professor of journalism at Western Washington University, covered Pacific Northwest politics as a reporter and opinion writer for four decades, primarily in Oregon. He was commentator/news analyst at KGW-TV (King Broadcasting) from 1970 to 1987. Previously a print reporter, he returned to print and online reporting and commentary from 2004 to 2017 with the Seattle Times Op-ed page and Crosscut.com. He is the author of Reporting the Oregon Story: How Activists and Visionaries Transformed a State (Oregon State University Press, 2016). He lives in Bellingham.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I have two unanswered questions about Kristof: first, purple state rhetoric aside, how far left is he going to run? Judging from his column writing, I’d guess pretty far left, but maybe he’ll surprise me. And as a corollary to that question, how does he stack up ideologically relative to Kotek and Reed?

    And second, how good candidate is he going to turn out to be? First time candidates tend to make rookie mistakes, and this is a big stage on which to make your first political appearance. Will Kristof be disciplined and on message? He’s obviously a smart dude so maybe he’s got the candidate thing all figured out, but I sense from his writings that he may well be a little naive about the rough-and-tumble of what he is going into — a hotly contested gubernatorial race.

  2. After adoring tone of post, I’m tempted to borrow old Warren Magnuson quip. The only problem with electing Nicholas Kristof as Governor is that Oregon might lose him next Easter.

  3. I’d give Kristof a good shot. Oregon misses the national spotlight that Wayne Morse and Tom McCall once commanded. Not just vanity, but a desire to put a new image forward to bump aside the anarchist tag of Portland. Besides, the state likes wordsmiths.

  4. Sandeep has the right questions that Kristof faces, particularly the second one. It’s one thing to deal with criticism of your work as a writer (god knows we have all done that), but another when the attack is coming from an audience member, or an opponent on live television. Writers of Kristof’s rank get a lot of love when they travel to campuses, think tanks and prestigious forums. The rough-and-tumble Sandeep describes is becoming increasingly nasty compared to Oregon’s halcyon days of Tom McCall and Bob Straub.

    On Sandeep’s first question, my guess is that the “liberalness” of the three Dems is not likely to differ a great deal; what is more important is the issues they chose to pursue. The Kotek and Reed have records, Kristof has clippings; all will be vented as the game proceeds. In his announcement video, Kristof tries to identify himself before others do it for him, and one way he does this is to also identify his issues.

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