Nick Kristof (right), Democrat running for Oregon governor, is being questioned about whether he has lived in the state long enough to qualify for office. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Gubernatorial candidate Nick Kristof won’t disclose tax and other records he says establish that he is legally qualified to run for office.
Kristof has relied on the documents in making his case that he meets the requirement in the Oregon Constitution that candidates for governor have “been three years next preceding his election, a resident within this State.”
That means, in simpler terms, that anyone who wants to be on the Nov. 8 ballot needs to have lived in Oregon since Nov. 8, 2019.
The issue of residency has emerged as a political thorn for Kristof, who grew up in Oregon but spent years out of state as a columnist for the New York Times. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s office is expected to decide this week whether Kristof can appear on the Oregon ballot as a Democratic candidate for governor.
Kristof contends that his family farm in rural Yamhill County has always been his home.
He and his attorneys twice have tackled the legal question, first last August and then again this week in a 102-page submission to the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office that was obtained by the Capital Chronicle.
With legal opinions by private attorneys and in a 15-page sworn affidavit, Kristof defended his right to run on two prongs. One is an analysis by his lawyers and others that concludes that Kristof meets the constitutional requirement to run for governor. The second is referring to a string of documents ranging from tax returns to incorporation papers he maintains show he has been an Oregon resident.
A long-time journalist, Kristof didn’t submit these records to the Secretary of State’s Office and rejected a request for them from the Capital Chronicle. Kristof also didn’t answer questions about other public documents obtained by the Capital Chronicle or about his sworn statements regarding his farming operation outside the rural community of Yamhill. He also didn’t respond to an email sharing elements of this story to check for accuracy.
On Dec. 23, the Capital Chronicle requested redacted copies of his New York and Oregon driver’s licenses, his 2018 and 2019 New York and Oregon personal income tax returns, the Yamhill County property tax bill for Kristof Farms for the past three years and the farm’s 2019 corporate tax return and workers’ compensation insurance policy.
Kristof’s campaign didn’t respond with any documents or an explanation for why they weren’t being provided.
Instead, campaign spokeswoman Melissa Navas issued a four-sentence statement. She said in a Dec. 27 email that Kristof has always considered the Yamhill property his home, even when he lived and worked in New York and cities around the world.
On Monday, Kristof submitted his affidavit to the Secretary of State’s Office, again citing documents and his farming practices. When the Capital Chronicle submitted 21 written questions to Kristof about those matters, he didn’t answer. Navas responded instead with another general statement.
“Oregon has always been Nick’s home; he had a house in New York while he worked there and elsewhere,” Navas said. “So it should come as no surprise to see his New York address on some documents and Oregon address on others. Three former secretaries of state and a former justice of the Oregon Supreme Court have confirmed he is qualified for the ballot, and we have no reason to believe Secretary Fagan will decide otherwise.”
Voting in New York
One issue Kristof has addressed through his attorneys and his affidavit was his decision to vote in New York state in 2020.
Misha Isaak, a Portland attorney representing Kristof, wrote in an August memo that Kristof registered to vote in Yamhill in the 1970s and remained an Oregon voter through the 1990s. During that period, he attended college in Massachusetts and the United Kingdom and reported for the New York Times from Los Angeles, Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo, the memo said.
Documents provided by Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen indicate that Kristof registered as a Democrat in May 1977, shortly after his 18th birthday. The county has no records showing in what elections Kristof has voted since then. Van Bergen said Yamhill County did not begin keeping consistent records of individual voting history until 2006, when the state developed its centralized voter registration system.
Yamhill County deactivated Kristof’s voter registration in August 2000, after notification that Kristof had moved.
In 1999, Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, bought a home in the affluent New York City suburb of Scarsdale, and Kristof the following year registered to vote in New York. New voters in that state sign a sworn statement declaring that they’re U.S. citizens, meet requirements to vote in New York and have lived in the county, city or village for which they’re registering for at least 30 days before an election, said John Conklin, public information director at the New York State Board of Elections.
Under New York case law, a voter reaffirms their New York residency every time they sign a poll book or absentee ballot, Conklin said. Kristof most recently did so in November 2020. That was a year after the date he would have needed to establish Oregon residency to qualify for this year’s ballot.
New York law defines a residence for voting purposes as “that place where a person maintains a fixed, permanent and principal home and to which he, wherever temporarily located, always intends to return.”
Kristof didn’t respond to questions from the Capital Chronicle regarding the New York requirements.
During his October campaign launch, Kristof said he should have changed his voter registration back to Oregon prior to 2020.
“I wasn’t focused on the paperwork,” he said. “I was focused on voting to remove President Trump and vote for Joe Biden.”
In his recent affidavit, Kristof explained he registered as a New York voter for “convenience.” He said he expected to be in New York during the elections. He wasn’t, at least in 2020.
“As best I can recall, I was at home in Yamhill when I filled out and mailed my New York absentee ballot,” Kristof said in his affidavit.
He didn’t explain why he skipped voting in Oregon. On the ballot that fall were a number of races for offices in Yamhill County.
Kristof remained registered to vote in New York until July 2021, when he returned a form to the Westchester County Board of Elections stating that he no longer resided in the county, and listing his Yamhill address, according to documents provided by Conklin. Voters who move often end up simultaneously registered in more than one state until election officials learn from their counterparts in other states, returned election mail or voters themselves that the voter moved.
At the time he registered to vote again in Oregon, on Dec. 23, 2020, Kristof did not have an Oregon driver’s license, according to Yamhill County records. He subsequently voted in the only local election he was eligible for – the May 2021 special district election.
According to Kristof and his lawyers, he could be considered a resident of Oregon either since his family moved to the state 50 years ago and he has always considered it his home, or since 2018, when he and WuDunn began living more consistently in Yamhill while working on a book and overhauling the farm.
They pointed to a New York law that allows voters to vote from their vacation homes instead of their primary residences.
Conklin shared New York case law on dual residency. Three cases — Ferguson v McNab, Matter of Willkie v Delaware County Board of Elections, and Wit v Berman — dealt with people with two homes within New York state and affirmed their ability to choose one from which to vote.
“It does not explicitly state that both homes need to be in New York, but there seems to be a strong inference,” Conklin said.
Kristof’s attorneys referred to another New York case, Maas v Gaebel, in which that state’s Supreme Court ordered a county to restore to county voter rolls 29 people who owned homes in a seasonal cooperative. One of the voters in that case also owned a home in New Jersey, but told the court she intended to stay in New York indefinitely.
There is no such law in Oregon specifying which homes people can choose to use as their home base for voting.
Family owns seven properties
Kristof said in his affidavit that he has paid Oregon property taxes since the 1990s, and filed Oregon income tax returns in 2019 and 2020. Property tax statements that the Capital Chronicle obtained through a public records request to the Yamhill County Assessment and Taxation Department show that the Kristof family owns seven properties in the county.
The county records list the 73-acre family farm that Kristof now uses as his home address as belonging to his mother and his late father, who died in 2010. Kristof said he and his wife began leasing the farm in 2018.
Kristof and WuDunn are listed as the sole owners of three other properties — two neighboring properties totaling 150 acres near his family farm, and a 283-acre area in the southern part of the county.
Property tax statements from 2017 to 2021 show they were mailed to WuDunn at the couple’s Scarsdale home – nearly 3,000 miles from the assessor’s office – instead of the Yamhill farm.
Yamhill County assessment specialist Meghan Gauntt said the county lists mailing addresses for property tax statements based on written requests from the property owner or changes to deeds.
The 2021-2022 tax statements were mailed last October to WuDunn and Kristof at the family farm in Yamhill, county records show. So were statements for three nearby properties the couple bought with Kristof’s mother in 2020.
Kristof went into detail in his affidavit about stepping up farming operations in Yamhill. He described leasing the farmland from his mother and forming a new Oregon corporation. He didn’t identify the corporation by name, but he operates as Kristof Farms.
The Oregon Corporation Division shows Kristof Farms LLC was formed in 2019. WuDunn is listed as the sole member of the company. In 2019, the firm listed its “principal place of business” as being in Keizer, and in an annual report filed with the state last August, the company listed Keizer as its “primary place of business.” Kristof’s name appears nowhere in the publicly available corporation papers.
Navas, Kristof’s campaign spokeswoman, said Kristof Farms is a family business and there was no significance to WuDunn being the only member listed on state documents. She dismissed questions about the Keizer address.
In his affidavit, Kristof described investing in the farm operation and hiring three employees. He didn’t identify who was formally the employer.
The Oregon Workers’ Compensation Division’s public database showed no listing for Kristof Farms LLC or any entity with the Kristof name. An employee in the Oregon Workers’ Compensation Division’s employer compliance unit confirmed that Kristof Farms hasn’t filed proof of coverage.
Under Oregon law, an employer with one or more employees, part-time or full-time, must carry worker’s compensation insurance or be self-insured and file proof with the Oregon Workers’ Compensation Division.
There are some exceptions, said compliance specialist Lindsey Zamudio. For instance, employers don’t need to have workers’ compensation coverage for people with an ownership interest in the company, or if total payroll is less than $500 per month.
Kristof didn’t respond to written questions about the matter.
Getting legal support
In his state submission on Monday, Kristof included a three-page legal opinion from a former state Supreme Court justice and a legal memo from his attorneys. They each concluded Kristof is an Oregon resident and therefore constitutionally eligible to run for governor because he has always considered himself an Oregonian.
William Riggs, a justice on the state Supreme Court from 1998 to 2006, wrote that Kristof’s law firm, Perkins Coie, gave him a set of facts presented as hypotheticals and asked him for an independent legal opinion.
He concluded that Kristof has been an Oregon resident “since at least November 2019, and likely much longer,” citing Kristof’s frequent descriptions of Yamhill as “home.”
“Candidate’s conduct over decades and in recent years, as well as his description of Oregon as ‘home’ in contemporaneous writings, leaves no doubt that he has considered Oregon to be his home; in these circumstances, having voted in New York does not indicate otherwise,” Riggs wrote.
How Riggs came to produce the opinion couldn’t be immediately established.
Riggs, Kristof and Isaak, Kristof’s attorney, didn’t respond to written questions about whether Riggs was compensated for his opinion or whether Perkins Coie made any revisions to his opinion.
Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.