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Oregon Supreme Court says no to Nick Kristof’s governor candidacy

Nick Kristof at his family farm in Yamhill, Jan. 14, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Nick Kristof at his family farm in Yamhill, Jan. 14, 2022.

Nick Kristof, the former New York Times columnist who quit his job to run for Oregon governor, is officially out of the race.

In a 33-page opinion issued Thursday morning, the Oregon Supreme Court gave finality to a determination Secretary of State Shemia Fagan made in January: That Kristof cannot legally vie for the governorship, because he does not meet the state’s three-year residency requirement for the job.

“We recognize that relator has longstanding ties to Oregon, that he owns substantial property and operates a farm here, and that the secretary did not question his current Oregon residency,” the opinion reads. “Moreover, he has thought deeply and written extensively about the challenges faced by those living in rural areas of Oregon — and the rest of the country. But that is not the issue here. The issue, instead, is whether relator has been, during the three years preceding the November 2022 election, ‘a resident within this State.’”

In light of the evidence, the court found, Fagan was within her rights to rule that Kristof was not.

In a tweet Thursday, Kristof called the decision “very disappointing,” but suggested he would continue to be active in Oregon.

“While I won’t be on the ballot, I’m not giving up on our State,” Kristof wrote. “I know we can be better. I will continue working to help people who are struggling, who lack opportunity and hope.”

The decision, anticipated for the past several weeks, will reshape the dynamics of the race to replace Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. In fundraising, Kristof has far outpaced the other two best-known Democratic primary candidates, former House Speaker Tina Kotek and State Treasurer Tobias Read. And he’d pitched himself to voters as the sole true outsider in the race in a year in which poll after poll has shown Oregonians frustrated with the current state of their state.

The justices’ decision also helps answer an unusual but important question: What does it mean, at least for political purposes, to be a resident of Oregon?

In January, Oregon election officials ruled Kristof did not meet the three-year residency requirements established in the state’s constitution and therefore could not run to be governor. Oregon election officials ruled that to meet the three-year residency requirement for this year’s gubernatorial race, a person must be a resident in Oregon for the entire three-year period starting in November 2019.

Kristof has argued that term “resident” should be interpreted somewhat loosely. He and his lawyers have argued for months that he grew up in Yamhill, still owns and maintains a farm there and has always considered Oregon his home. They added that the historical point of having a residency requirement in the Oregon constitution was to exclude those who were unfamiliar with the state, and that Fagan gave “no weight to forty years of published writings in which Kristof” claimed Yamhill was his home.

Fagan disagreed. In January, she said there was there was a mountain of “objective evidence” showing Kristof considered himself a New York resident until recently. That evidence included Kristof’s decision to vote in New York in 2020. Kristof also had a New York driver’s license that year.

Justices wound up agreeing with Fagan’s reading of the law, finding that her concept of resident was in line with historical interpretations, including a residency requirement for president in the U.S. Constitution.

“In the nineteenth century and in the context of political rights — and election-related rights in particular — ‘residence’ meant ‘domicile,’ the one place where a person has established his or her permanent abode,” the court found.

Next the court looked into whether, given the evidence, Fagan was required to allow Kristof onto the May ballot. Justices found she was not, giving the same credence to driving and voter registration records that the secretary did in her January decision.

On the subjects of Kristof’s decision to maintain his voter registration in New York state until late 2020, the court wrote: “The choice of where to register is a meaningful one, as it provides evidence of the political community to which a person feels the greatest attachment — the community in whose elections that person wishes to have a say.”

It added that Kristof “remained registered to vote in New York and retained a New York driver’s license until late 2020, actions that are at odds with an intent to change his domicile to Oregon a year or more earlier.”

Kristof also suggested in his petition to the court that the state’s residency requirement might be unconstitutional. Justices declined to weigh in on that question, saying it was not proper for the task at hand.

Kristof has suggested, at times pointedly, that the attempts to force him out of the governor’s race have political motives. At the start of his political campaign, Kristof positioned himself as an outsider and said Fagan — a longtime politician with ties to the Democratic establishment — was basing her decision on “politics, not precedent.”

Despite being a first time candidate with no governing experience is a political newcomer, Kristof managed to amass significantly more money than Kotek and Read. He has raised more than $2.5 million in the race and continued raising money while awaiting a ruling on his political fate. It’s unclear what will happen to that money now that he is out of the race.

Kristof and Fagan are both expected to hold press events on the court’s decision Thursday.

Kotek, whose path to the Democratic nomination became potentially easier with the court ruling, offered an olive branch in her response to the court ruling:

“Nick Kristof has long written about pressing issues facing Oregonians and his voice will continue to be important as we tackle Oregon’s biggest issues,” she said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him as a fellow Democrat.”

This story will be updated.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lauren Dake, Dirk VanderHart