As Oregon’s first lady, Cylvia Hayes played an active role in championing many of the progressive climate policies her fiance, former Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), sought to advance. At private conferences and public events, she spoke passionately about clean energy, low-carbon fuel and the need for West Coast leadership on climate change — all priorities for the governor as he embarked on a historic fourth term in office.
In the wake of Kitzhaber’s resignation last week and in the face of allegations that the first couple crossed ethical and perhaps even legal boundaries by conflating Hayes’ private and public work, many of those same policies have fallen under suspicion.
Investigations into the couple’s conduct by federal and state prosecutors have been launched, with a separate investigation by the Oregon Ethics Commission pending their results (Greenwire, Feb. 16). Along with emails, receipts and tax records, federal prosecutors have requested any communication relating to ocean acidification and renewable fuel standards, policy measures for Kitzhaber on which Hayes played a promotional, and sometimes advisory, role.
In the meantime, longtime opponents of Kitzhaber’s climate policies have seized on the investigations as grounds for halting a number of bills currently making their way through the state Legislature. Shortly after Kitzhaber announced his resignation Friday, House Republican Leader Mike McLane told reporters that any legislation for which Hayes played a lobbying role should be suspended until the investigations are complete.
Republican complaints, Democratic math
That sentiment was echoed again yesterday as the Oregon Senate convened to vote on S.B. 324, a measure extending the state’s clean fuels standard. In a session that lasted nearly four hours — and grew so rancorous toward the end that Senate President Peter Courtney (D) was forced to make a personal appeal for decorum — Republicans repeatedly returned to the investigations.
Citing the subpoenas, Sen. Tim Knopp (R) said it would be "crazy" to pursue the bill. "I think it is an incredible mistake to move forward on this bill at this time," he said. "This bill should go back to the voters."
Democrats, meanwhile, dismissed references to Hayes’ role in the measure as "distractions." Sen. Lee Beyer (D), who originally introduced S.B. 324 in 2009, sounded a particularly personal note in his rebuttal.
"This bill was passed under a previous administration — I’m the sponsor, and I have been for last three sessions," he said. "It’s mine, it’s nobody else’s, and I resent the fact that we’re blaming it on someone else."
Earlier this year, Hayes confirmed to the EO Media Group that she was paid $118,000 over the course of two years for consulting work with the nonprofit Clean Economy Development Center. During that time, the center conducted polling and worked on the ground to promote Oregon’s fuel standard.
Ultimately, however, Republicans’ opposition was not enough to tip the basic math of the Senate. Democrats hold the chamber with an 18 to 12 majority, and passed the bill 17-13, with only one of their party voting against.
The bill now moves to the House, where Democrats also maintain a majority. Both chambers emerged solidly Democratic in November’s midterm elections.
Those majorities mean that the climate policies Kitzhaber advocated will likely move forward, Sen. Chris Edwards (D) told ClimateWire following the vote.
"It’s the Legislature, not the governor, that proposes laws," he said. "Whoever the next governor is, as long as they’re a Democrat, they’re going to find a lot of common ground with the Legislature on [climate] issues."
Reading between blurred lines
Much still depends on the ongoing investigations and what they reveal of the nature and possible overlap of Hayes’ public and private work.
In the years before Kitzhaber and Hayes met, the two shared a guiding interest in renewable energy and environmental policy. As a former activist turned clean-tech consultant, Hayes brought a business sensibility and startup energy to the relationship she would form with the governor in 2002, according to people who worked alongside the former first lady.
Kitzhaber, for his part, was a veteran politician with a "big green" vision that saw his state, alongside Washington state and California, at the forefront of national climate action.
"They coincided on the issues, although Hayes came at them from more of a bottom-up perspective," said Frank Vignola, director of the University of Oregon Solar Monitoring Center.
Vignola, who had worked alongside Hayes on renewable energy issues since the early 2000s, said he saw nothing strange about her appointment to the head of the state’s Renewable Energy Working Group in 2010. "She knew all the people involved," he said.
Nevertheless, her appointment — at a moment when Kitzhaber, a longtime political figurehead, was preparing a fresh election bid — raised a number of eyebrows and set a precedent for the skepticism that would accompany the first couple for the remainder of their time in office.
Then, in early autumn of last year, the newspaper Willamette Week revealed that Hayes had legally married a teenage Ethiopian immigrant in 1997. Hayes admitted to receiving $5,000 for the arrangement, which allowed the man to remain in the country and continue school.
A cascade of new revelations followed, as records surfaced showing Hayes’ consulting fees, travel expenses and personal use of staff. In one much-rehashed example, the former first lady appears to have sent state workers to tend to her dog and cats, according to documents obtained by The Oregonian newspaper in 2014.
Both Hayes and Kitzhaber have consistently denied that they engaged in any ethical or legal breaches during their time in the governor’s mansion. In one of his last meetings with the press in late January, Kitzhaber reiterated his support for and common ground with his fiancee.
Citing their work on climate and clean energy, Kitzhaber said that he was in love but that "I am not blinded by love."
"The fact that we have a convergence of interests does not seem to me to imply that if those issues appear in my administration, that influence is necessarily exerted," he said.