Democrat Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek Walks Back Plan to Expand Her Wife’s Role in Administration, Apologizes

Democrat Governor Tina Kotek is backing down from plans to widen her wife’s role in the administration and apologizing for her handling of the topic. Public scrutiny has been mounting on First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson as she becomes a growing threat to the governor’s policy agenda. 

In a long statement and subsequent Wednesday afternoon press conference, Kotek appeared to close the door on an effort she has quietly pursued for months, according to public records, to create a formal office for her spouse, Kotek Wilson.

Several emails released last week showed that Kotek’s steps in the direction—despite significant concerns raised by staff—were an important reason three of the governor’s top aides announced their departures last month. Kotek’s communications director and a staff attorney have since resigned, although it isn’t clear the departures are related.

“After listening to and reflecting on the concerns of Oregonians who have contacted my office, as well as the advice of staff, I want to be clear about the next steps: There will not be an Office of the First Spouse,” wrote Kotek in prepared remarks before a planned news conference. “There will not be a position of Chief of Staff to the First Spouse.”

The move marks a rapid turnaround. Kotek had shown no public qualms about exploring a more significant role for Kotek Wilson.

However, it also wasn’t apparent on Wednesday what the change could amount to. The governor made it clear in her statement the first lady “will continue to accompany me and attend events representing the Governor’s Office, such as Tribal visits and ceremonial events, and she will listen to Oregonians about the issues most impacting them…”

Kotek refused to say what the first lady wouldn’t be doing if anything. That’s an essential question since Kotek Wilson’s calendars show she’s met extensively with many officials on behavioral health matters. The governor said she is waiting on an opinion from the Oregon Governor’s Ethics Commission before finalizing her wife’s role.

“I think it’s important to say what she will be doing, and I think her calendar will be transparent,” said Kotek. “That’s, I think, what Oregonians are asking.”

Governor Kotek said the first lady will be free to utilize her small office among other governor’s office staff members. The governor said she had reassigned one of Kotek Wilson’s assistants in response to her decision, although the office continues to employ an advisor who assists with the first lady’s calendar and is working to clarify her office’s role.

She suggested that the governor’s chief regret was haphazardly communicating how she views the first lady’s public role — a topic she started to think about last year when she and Kotek Wilson toured Oregon.

“I think things just kind of moved without much clarification,” said Kotek. “That’s why it’s been a little uncertain and messy. We’re bringing clarity to it.”

In an early April meeting with reporters, the governor suggested she was only at the beginning of considering how the first lady’s more wide-ranging influence could work and announced she would be submitting formal questions to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

“We weren’t sure what questions we needed to ask,” said Kotek then. “We are now expediting that because of the public interest, and so we are going to the Ethics Commission to figure it out.”

However, the documents released last week show staffers had been flagging possible issues about the arrangement for months, posing the types of detailed questions the governor told reporters her office had just started to consider. 

They clearly demonstrate that Kotek had already hired a chief of staff for her wife: Meliah Masiba, the former legislative director for the state’s sprawling Department of Administrative Services. The governor’s office recast the position publicly as an “advisor” once concerns surfaced about Kotek Wilson’s role in March.

“I take responsibility for not being more thoughtful in my approach to exploring the role of the First Spouse,” said Kotek. “I am sorry for the way this conversation between my office and you has started.”

Kotek is standing firm on the decision for the spouse’s bodyguard protection

It appears Kotek is standing firm on her decision to grant the first lady from the Oregon State Police bodyguard protection when she appears publicly, a move that emails show caused friction in her office.

Kotek says her office is “assembling a First Spouse Manual to spell out policies and procedures related to that role, including protocols for addressing any staff concerns or complaints.”

Protocols appear to be similar to those Abby Tibbs, one of Kotek’s now-departed aides, called for in a mid-March email shortly before leaving the office. However, it’s also apparent from emails released on Friday that members of Kotek’s staff have been working on a formal job description for Kotek Wilson since at least February.

The governor said she would refuse to release the internal legal opinion she received about the first lady’s role, saying the decision to not release the document applied to all her office’s legal opinions.

Kotek has frequently said her wife has valuable insight on how to address serious struggles with mental health care and substance use in Oregon.

“The First Lady and I share a profound commitment to standing up for the most vulnerable among us, fighting for a more just world, and making sure we leave this world better than we found it,” said Kotek Wednesday. “She is a social worker, someone with lived experience and someone who has throughout her career helped lift up the stores of others to make meaningful change.”

Kotek noted her wife doesn’t receive pay for her participation in the administration and says the couple “jointly and intentionally decided that she not return to employment or have any outside income as to avoid any perceived or actual conflict of interest.”

The first spouse in Oregon is considered a public official. However, as Kotek often notes, there aren’t specific rules for the role. Instead, that has been left chiefly for governors and spouses to determine.

Kotek’s Wednesday remarks suggest that while she has tabled possibilities for her wife’s role, the subject remains unsettled. 

“I am committed to defining the role of the First Spouse with respect to what we learn from [the Oregon Government Ethics Commission],” said the statement, “not only on behalf of this administration but future administrations as well.”