Gary A. Warner
The Bulletin

SALEM — Gov. Tom McCall’s fishing trip on the Snake River in 1971 saw control of Oregon state government flip-flop between Republicans and Democrats eight times in a matter of days.

The half-century old political turmoil led to a constitutional fix that brought Kate Brown to the governor’s office in 2015. But it also raises questions about who would succeed Brown if a long shot recall effort launched last month succeeds.

The office of Secretary of State Bev Clarno says it would be Treasurer Tobias Read, a Democrat.

Some recall advocates say, no, it should be Clarno, a Republican.

A 46-year-old article in The Bulletin could hold the key to solving the puzzle.

Reforming reforms

McCall, a liberal Republican, was just starting his second term when he went on the infamous July 1971 trip.

At the time, the Oregon Constitution placed the Senate president as first in succession when the governor died or resigned.

Under the law, any time the governor left the state, the Senate president became “acting governor,” receiving $79.30 per day. If the absence was during a session of the Legislature, the Senate president had to step down, leaving the Senate a vote short.

An Oct. 25, 1972, article in The Bulletin, recently revisited by Eugene Weekly, detailed McCall’s trip and the turmoil it caused.

McCall was traveling on part of the 216-mile long stretch of The Snake River that forms the border between Oregon and Idaho.

When his boat was on the Oregon side of the river, McCall was governor, with all powers of the office. When the boat was on the Idaho side of the river, Senate President John Burns, a Democrat, became acting governor. The change occurred eight times during the trip.

The Bulletin article said frequent trips outside of Oregon required state taxpayers to pay the “substitute governors” $34,975.99 from 1959 to 1972 — an average of $2,690.45 per year.

Oregon residents rallied to change the law, with a group called Oregonians to Reform Executive Succession leading a drive to amend the constitution.

They qualified Measure 8 for the November 1972 ballot. It said governors would retain power wherever they went.

“The governor should be the governor, even when he leaves the state,” the group’s secretary told The Bulletin.

Measure 8 reinstated the original line of succession in the constitution when Oregon became a state in 1859: secretary of state, state treasurer, Senate president, then House speaker.

Measure 8 passed by a lopsided 697,397 to 151,174 vote. The reform was entered in the Oregon Constitution under Article 5, Section 8a.

Two-for-one

Voters have twice tried to fix problems with succession that started with statehood.

Oregon is one of only seven states without a lieutenant governor. It’s the only state that doesn’t allow the Legislature to impeach the governor.

Originally, the secretary of state took over when an Oregon governor died or resigned from office.

But three times — in 1877, 1910 and 1919 — the secretary of state who became governor held onto both jobs, or simply didn’t appoint a successor as secretary of state. Some collected two paychecks for two offices.

Without impeachment, there was no way for the Legislature to punish the abuse of power.

The Legislature referred a reform measure to voters in a May 1920 special election.

Measure 5 changed the constitution so the Senate president was first in line to take over when a governor died or resigned. The House speaker was next. Holding two offices at the same time was banned.

The reform won by a vote of 78,241 to 56,946.

Over the next 52 years, two Senate presidents and one House speaker would become governors under the revised succession rules.

Today’s debate

In 1920, governors rarely left the state and were largely out of touch if they did. But by 1972, jet travel and reliable long-distance phone service made the need for an “acting governor” an archaic headache.

The 1972 reforms had tried to avoid pitfalls. It retained the 1920 prohibition on holding two offices simultaneously while reinstating the 1859 line of succession.

The issue wouldn’t come up as a practical matter until February 2015. When Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid allegations of influence peddling within his office, then-Secretary of State Kate Brown became governor. Under the pre-1972 succession, Senate President Peter Courtney would have become governor.

Brown won a 2016 special election to complete Kitzhaber’s term. She won her own four-year term in November.

After an intense 2019 legislative session, bitterness lingered between Democrats and Republicans.

The Oregon Republican Party launched a drive to recall Brown on July 15. GOP state chair Bill Currier said Brown had overstepped her authority in backing bills that overturned earlier voter-approved initiatives and saying she might use an executive order to implement parts of a carbon cap bill that had failed to win approval in the Senate.

A similar but separate recall drive is being mounted by Salem political activist Michael Cross.

Democrats say Brown was acting on the mandate voters gave her in the November election.

Recall proponents face an epic task to get the question before voters. The GOP effort must turn in 280,050 valid signatures to the secretary of state by Oct. 14.

If that somehow happens, an election late this year would ask voters if Brown should be removed from office. With Brown winning election last November by a comfortable margin, voters could say “no” and Brown would stay in office.

If the recall succeeds, a successor would assume the office for at least a year. A special election to fill the last two years of Brown’s term wouldn’t be held until November 2020, with the winner taking office in January 2021.

The question of who would be governor between the recall and the election has reopened the succession debate.

The Office of Secretary of State says it would be Read, the state treasurer and a Democrat.

Clarno’s office says the constitution prohibits an appointee from becoming governor. Clarno was named secretary of state last March after the death of Dennis Richardson, the only Republican statewide officeholder. The treasurer is next in the succession line.

Some Republicans say trying to swap Read for Brown is a waste of time and resources.

“We need a strategy, and a recall isn’t it,” said Julie Parrish, a former GOP House member and veteran campaign strategist.

But recall advocates, led by conservative radio host Lars Larson, say the interpretation of the Constitution that leapfrogs Read over Clarno is wrong.

Larson argues Clarno retains all rights of the secretary of state, including succession. He laid out his reasoning on radio station KTSA’s website.

“The most sensible interpretation is that she IS entitled to succeed Brown if recalled,” Larson wrote in an email to The Bulletin.

An opinion from the past

The 46-year-old Bulletin article about McCall’s fishing trip sheds light on what the Measure 8 proponents in 1972 intended.

“The measure also stipulates that only an elected secretary of state can succeed the governor,” The Bulletin article states. “If the secretary of state were appointed, the secretary of the treasury would assume the governorship.”

If the recall proponents don’t get the signatures they need, the succession issue will likely fade back into obscurity. That’s what happened after the lack of an impeachment mechanism was raised when Kitzhaber briefly waffled on stepping down in 2015.

If the recall moves forward, it may take a court ruling to clarify the matter.

Don’t expect Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to referee the constitutional tiff in the meantime.

“It does not look like we have ever issued a formal Attorney General opinion on this topic,” said Kristina Edmunson, Rosenblum’s spokeswoman.

— Reporter: 541-640-2750, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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