Nick Kristof (Kristof campaign photo)

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan was right to keep former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof off the ballot for governor, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 33-page unanimous opinion, the court affirmed Fagan’s early January decision that Kristof hadn’t lived in Oregon long enough to run for governor. The Oregon Constitution requires candidates for governor to live in the state for three years prior to their election. That meant Kristof needed to establish residency by November 2019.

He voted in New York in November 2020 and didn’t register to vote in Oregon until a month later, which convinced Fagan and nonpartisan staff in the Secretary of State’s Elections Division that he didn’t meet the constitutional requirement.

Kristof has maintained that he has been a resident of Oregon since childhood, and that maintaining a home in New York didn’t mean he gave up Oregon residency. He pointed to the property he owns in Oregon and the family farm he manages as further proof that he has lived in the state. 

“We recognize that [Kristof] 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 justices wrote. “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.” 

In making his case to both state election officials and the Supreme Court, Kristof largely relied on legal arguments about Oregon history and the meaning of the word “resident.” He didn’t provide documents, such as tax returns, that could prove his presence in Oregon to election officials, and he repeatedly ignored requests from the Oregon Capital Chronicle for those documents. 

The justices called out the lack of documentation in their opinion, referring to Kristof as a “relator” for legal purposes.

“Given the objective evidence in the record of relator’s continued presence in and related connections to New York in 2019 and 2020, and the limited detail on key components of his ongoing connections to Oregon, the secretary was not compelled to find that, as of November 2019, relator had reestablished his residence in Oregon and intended that Oregon, not New York, be the state in which he would reside indefinitely or, ultimately, to conclude that relator had changed his domicile to Oregon,” they wrote.

The Supreme Court gave Kristof until Tuesday, Feb. 22, to request a reconsideration by the justices, but he said during a somber news conference Thursday that he won’t seek that.

“This is the end of the road for my campaign,” Kristof said. “I will not challenge the court. I have great respect for the Oregon Supreme Court, and so I will find other ways to try to do what I can to about the issues that I care about.”

It was a markedly different approach than he took after Fagan disqualified him, when Kristof decried her decision as an act by a “failing political establishment” threatened by his early success as an outsider.

In her own news conference on Thursday, Fagan said Kristof’s comments about political motivations crossed a line. Election workers in her office and around the country have faced harassment and threats for decisions they made, she said, though she’s unaware of any incidents directly connected to Kristof’s comments. 

“Increasing harassment and attacks on election workers often begin with empty allegations, saying that something was biased or corrupt,” she said. “And so we’re asking people to be careful.”

The court declined to consider Kristof’s arguments that residency requirements violate the U.S. Constitution, saying that question is too complicated to decide in the kind of court case Kristof brought.

“That does not mean that the courthouse doors are closed to consideration of this claim, just that it is not suited to the extraordinary legal remedy of mandamus,” the opinion said.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, whose office represented Fagan, welcomed the ruling.

“The Oregon SC today upheld the @OregonSOS decision to disqualify candidate Nick Kristof from the ballot because he does not meet the 3-year residency requirement,” Rosenblum tweeted. “I appreciate the court’s extraordinary efforts to resolve this dispute quickly & give guidance for future candidates.”

The court decision will have major ramifications for the Democratic primary for governor, where Kristof was one of three frontrunners along with former House Speaker Tina Kotek and state Treasurer Tobias Read. Kristof has raised more than twice as much money as Kotek, with $2.7 million to her $1.1 million, though his fundraising has slowed since Fagan’s January decision.

He continued campaigning after being disqualified from the ballot, meeting with voters on campaign trips and releasing details on his plans to address homelessness. His campaign finance reports show he spent more than $430,000 so far this year on the campaign but still had $1.6 million on hand.

Kristof said he will support the other Democratic candidates as they work to fix problems he cares about, but it’s too early for him to think about supporting other candidates.

He said he also doesn’t know what he’ll do with campaign contributions. Kristof refunded a handful of donations after Fagan disqualified him. He said he doesn’t fully understand potential legal issues with returning contributions.

Deborah Scroggin, director of the state Election Division, said Kristof has 10 days to decide what to do with his campaign bank account. He can decide to run for another office and repurpose his campaign account, he can give the money to other political action committees or he can return it to donors and close his bank account.

He can’t use campaign funds for personal reasons.

In a statement, Kotek said she hopes Kristof will remain engaged in working to help Oregonians.

“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. “I look forward to working with him as a fellow Democrat.”

In his own lengthy statement, Read asked Kristof’s supporters to support him instead.

“This is now a two-person race for the Democratic nomination for Governor, and there is a clear choice,” he said. “Continue the status quo in Salem or vote for Tobias Read, someone who isn’t afraid to confront the urgent challenges we face in Oregon.”

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.

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