YAMHILL, Ore. – Former New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof traded the concrete canyons of Manhattan and the ritzy New York suburb of Scarsdale for his old family home, located on a dirt road in Oregon, to run for governor.
But Kristof, who won two Pulitzer Prizes, including for reporting on China's failed 1989 pro-democracy movement, was declared ineligible for the seemingly simplest of reasons: He hadn't lived in Oregon long enough.
Kristof has gone to the state Supreme Court to fight the Jan. 6 decision. The justices could begin deliberating the matter as early as Thursday.
During an interview at his farm on the outskirts of the tiny town of Yamhill (population 1,000), Kristof spoke with concern about the plight of neighbors he had grown up with after moving here when he was 12. Some are barely hanging on financially. Some have died from drugs, suicide and obesity. One froze to death while homeless.
“At The New York Times, I had a very good toolbox to call attention to problems, but it wasn’t a toolbox to fix them,” Kristof said of his decision to trade journalism for politics.
Three dogs gamboled about as Kristof, whose curly hair is graying, spoke during the interview in a shed. Several acres of pinot noir and chardonnay grapevines soaked up the wintry sunshine, with the first harvest expected this year.
Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn — who shared the Pulitzer for the China reporting — wrote a book, “Tightrope,” about the despair of so many in Oregon and beyond as blue-collar jobs disappeared and hourly wages kept falling when adjusted for inflation. Easy access to opioids compounded problems, causing addiction and overdoses.
He's also written about the issues as a columnist for The New York Times, a position he resigned from last year to run for governor. He lives once again in the family house with his wife and his 89-year-old mother.
He says he saw the coronavirus pandemic make things worse — some old friends relapsed and resumed using drugs, some became homeless, some kids doing remote learning didn't have cell phone or internet access. COVID-19 was the tipping point that made him run as a Democratic candidate for the state's highest office, he said.
But the fact that Kristof voted in New York state in 2020 was the main evidence Oregon election officials cited behind their decision that he hadn't been “a resident within” Oregon for three years before the November 2022 election, as the state Constitution requires.
“For 20 years living, working, raising his kids, holding a driver’s license, filing taxes and voting as a New York resident until a year ago just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said.
Kristof's candidacy, meanwhile, has raised questions about what makes a true Oregonian.
His attorneys told the Supreme Court that Fagan's broad interpretation of the Constitution's requirements for governor may disfavor candidates like Kristof who frequently travel and maintain multiple residences. Kristof regularly visited his Oregon property, which he expanded over the years after moving away to attend Harvard and Oxford before joining the Times.
“There are many peripatetic Oregonians who, for various reasons, live in more than one place and may prefer candidates who understand the experience of living in multiple places or changing residences often,” the lawyers wrote, citing “seasonal migrant workers," university students, soldiers and others.
Reyna Lopez, executive director of Oregon's farmworkers union, PCUN, and the daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers, objected to the comparison.
“For a wealthy white man to compare the fact that he owns property in Oregon while living in New York to the lives and experiences of migrant workers is deeply shocking. Farmworkers are forced into an itinerant and difficult life ... to survive and support their families," Lopez said in a brief filed with the court in support of Fagan's decision.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who is defending Fagan's decision at the Supreme Court, referenced concerns that are as old as Oregon that outsiders would seek political office here.
Delegates to Oregon's Constitutional Convention of 1857 expressed the “holy horror of your California graceless, godless school of politicians” coming to Oregon in search of office, Rosenblum said.
Kristof's attorneys insisted "he has been a resident of the state for many years, his ties to Oregon are deep and abiding, and voters — not elections officials — should decide his suitability to be governor."
Fagan on Jan. 6 told reporters that according to Oregon law, “if a person casts a ballot in another state, they are no longer a resident of Oregon.”
But former Secretaries of State Bill Bradbury and Jeanne Atkins pointed out to the court that the provision concerns the right to cast a ballot, not “the right to be on the ballot.”
“So, even while saying that voting elsewhere costs you the right to vote here, the Legislature has not said that it also costs you the right to run for office here,” they said.
Kristof has raised $2.7 million in campaign donations. That figure includes large donations from out of state, but also contributions from every county in Oregon. If the court upholds Kristof's disqualification, he won't have to return the money. He could use it for a different campaign.
Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla, who was also running for governor before going for state labor commissioner instead, said he has encouraged Kristof to run for the state House, Congress or the county commission.
If the court overturns Fagan, Kristof will face leading candidates Tina Kotek, who recently resigned as Oregon House Speaker, and state Treasurer Tobias Read for the Democratic nomination in the May primary.
Kristof won't say what he'll do with the campaign contributions if the court rules against him.
“I have great confidence in the Oregon Supreme Court," he said. "So I’ll be on the ballot and we will need those donations.”
Kristof and WuDunn still own their house in Scarsdale. A campaign spokeswoman said they intend to sell it.
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