‘It Wasn’t Even a Close Call’

Former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s gubernatorial campaign has run into the obstacle that has been looming over his road to the May primary election: getting on the ballot. 

On Jan. 6, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan announced that Kristof doesn’t meet the residency requirement to serve as governor. Kristof can appeal the decision. Prior to the SOS decision, his campaign has issued statements defending his Oregon residency status. 

But, “It wasn’t even a close call,” Fagan said at a Jan. 6 press conference. 

The Oregon Constitution requires the governor to be at least 30 years old and be a resident of the state for at least three years before the election. 

At the press conference, Fagan said that Kristof was one of 11 of candidates who the office decided did not meet eligibility requirements for a public office.  

According to a public records request from Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Secretary of State’s office requested additional information from Kristof on Dec. 21, the day after he filed his application to be on the May Democratic Party primary ballot. 

Fagan said that until late 2020 or early 2021, Kristof had lived in New York for 20 years, where he received mail, filed income taxes and voted. She added that Kristof’s application didn’t pass “the smell test.” Fagan said that she supports her office’s decision to reject his application for governor. 

The Office of the Secretary of State said Kristof claimed he had filed income taxes in Oregon in 2019 and 2020, but he didn’t provide any documents. The office didn’t specify which documents he should submit to prove residency, but Lydia Plukchi, a compliance specialist with the office who reviewed Kristof’s application, said at the press conference said it was willing to accept anything. 

Kristof’s campaign has generated attention from national news outlets, Fagan said. And that despite Kristof and her being in the same political party and his celebrity status, the same rules apply to everybody, she said. “Regardless of public attention, the officials know the rules are the rules for everybody,” she added. 

Voting as an Oregon resident would have been a good start to prove residency, she said. Voting as an Oregon resident is easy, thanks to vote-by-mail, Fagan added, which has been used by others who are residents but are out-of-state. And that whenever someone votes in another state, they are no longer an Oregon resident, she said. 

In a Jan. 3 102-page reply to the Office of the Secretary of State’s eligibility query, obtained by OPB, Kristof’s legal team argued that the traditional idea of a resident has “antiquated, privileged and sexist assumptions” because many people do not have “one true home.” 

The reply continues that Kristof has claimed residency in Oregon for at least three years and cites his columns, a CNN interview and a Portland Monthly article. Kristof’s legal team says he has been a resident since 1971. 

And that isn’t the first time his legal team has issued a statement on his residency. 

On Aug. 21, the legal team sent a memo to Willamette Week that the Oregon courts have not defined what residency is, but that Kristof left for college in 1978 and continued to consider Oregon his home. 

In the conclusion of the Aug. 21 legal memo, his legal team said Kristof grew up in Oregon and is here regularly. “He manages a farm and an agricultural business here,” the letter said. “He has hiked the entire length of Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail, sent his children to OMSI camps, backpacked around Mount Hood, eaten at Mo’s in Lincoln City, and grieved the loss of family members and friends as part of a community here. He has done all of that over decades.” 

Despite his pending application status, Kristof still raised campaign contributions, bringing in $2.45 million in 2021. Most of his campaign contributions have been large sums and from out-of-state contributors. 

Some of his donors include $50,000 from former NBC producer Tom Bernthal, $50,000 from Bill Gates, $50,000 from Melinda Gates, $50,000, $40,000 from Miguel Bezos (Jeff Bezo’s father) and $40,000 from WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey. But his largest contribution was $75,000 from the Oregon Labor Policy Network, a pro-union political action committee. 

Fagan said that it is up to Kristof to decide whether he should return the campaign money to his donors. 

Many politicians use the same campaign committee account for different political races, which Treasurer Tobias Read and House Speaker Tina Kotek have done when they ran for past offices. Political committees like Kristof’s have also used campaign money to support other candidates, such as state Sen. Brian Boquist whose Boquist Leadership Fund supports conservatives running for office. 

Casey Kulla, a Yamhill County commissioner, is also seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. He tells Eugene Weekly, “This is the outcome many of us expected. While Nick loves Oregon, just like all of us who feel called to serve, we have an obligation as elected leaders to follow the law. 

Kulla says he hopes Kristof considers running for Yamhill County Board of County Commissioners or for the local state representative seat, “where he can be effective for his community.”

The Office of the Secretary of State said in the Jan. 6 press release that the deadline to file and appear on the May primary ballot is March 17. Afterward, the office begins printing ballots. 

Fagan said at the press conference that her office is working with Kristof’s legal team to get the issue settled in the courts before the ballot deadline. 

“I have no doubt Mr. Kristof’s sentiments and feelings toward Oregon are genuine and sincere,” Fagan said. “They are simply dwarfed by the mountains of objective evidence that until recently he considered himself a New York resident.” 

Kristof tweeted that he will appeal the decision, saying that a failing political establishment in Oregon “has chosen to protect itself, rather than giving the voters a choice.”

Kristof held a press conference in Portland hours after Fagan’s.

“We will challenge, and we will win,” he said. “We have great faith in the courts, and we will continue to campaign, and we will win that, too.”

Because he’s a political outsider, he said that the Oregon political class views him as a threat and is trying to keep him off the ballot. “Instead of trying to end homelessness, they want to end my campaign.”

He said he will release tax documents around tax season.

This story has been updated.