Bev Clarno retired in January 2021 after serving as Oregon secretary of state. She is the last Republican to hold statewide office. (Oregon Secretary of State's Office photo)

SALEM – Bev Clarno, the last Republican to hold statewide office in Oregon as the new year dawned, said the imbalance in political power in the state is leaving many Oregonians frustrated.

The veteran Oregon politician finished her term as secretary of state, succeeded on Jan. 3 by Shemia Fagan. Her departure leaves Democrats holding all top state offices and controlling both the Senate and House.

In an interview, Clarno noted that single-party control isn’t good for citizens or the public, She said the frustration of those who feel left out was on display last week in the insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

She said Oregonians need to realize people in minority political parties feel “nobody’s listening to them.”

“The people represented by the minorities are feeling they don’t have any voice, they don’t have any say,” Clarno said. “That’s exactly where we are.”

She said the current political environment also deepens divisions between rural and urban Oregonians. Partisanship has worsened.

“The people that are not in politics and the people that are the average citizen out there look at the partisan politics and wonder why those people don’t grow up and do a better job,” Clarno said.

Clarno’s view comes after decades of public service at the state and local level.

Gov. Kate Brown appointed Clarno to be secretary of state in May 2019, after the death earlier in the year of incumbent Dennis Richardson, a Republican from Central Point.

Brown and Clarno both served in the House in 1991, sharing an interest in native American issues. They were both in the Senate in 2003 when the chamber was split 15-15 between Republicans, led by Clarno, and Democrats, led by Brown. That forced a power-sharing arrangement that was effective, Clarno said.

She said the two leaders “had a mutual respect for one another’s principles” and that the two continued “a good relationship even though I recognize we have different ideals.”

When Richardson died, Clarno at age 83 decided to accept Brown’s appointment. Clarno said she was familiar with most elements of the office, once working for its Corporation Division and familiar with audits from her seat on a legislative auditing committee.

“I thought, ‘This is something I could do for two years,’” Clarno said.

She said she came into the job concerned about the imbalance in political power in the state. She said too much power in one party’s hands leaves officials “carried away with power.”

In the House, she noted, one party holding more than 34 of the 60 seats concentrates governance in that party’s hands.

“You don’t have to pay attention to the other side. You don’t have to be nice,” Clarno said.

When she took over as secretary of state, she found the partisan divide was deeper than it had been when she left the state Senate in 2003.

“My only thought was I’ll do what I can to make that a little nicer,” Clarno said.

She viewed the agency’s audits as vital for making state government more efficient and effective.

From the audits done on her watch, a critical review of the state’s handling of foster children was “heart-breaking.” The findings particularly struck Clarno because she once was a foster mother.

The audit found the state’s children service workers overwhelmed with caseloads and that children were being shuttled out of state to sometimes inappropriate foster homes.

She said progress was made to fix the foster care system because of the audit.

“Anytime you bring a problem to the forefront, you have a tendency to have issues addressed more readily and better,” she said.

She has recommended to legislative leaders that state audits be directly presented to legislative caucuses. Clarno said legislators don’t have the time to read sometimes complex audit reports.

“We have to get that information to them in a different way,” she said.

In the interview, Clarno was asked to critique Brown’s handling of the pandemic. She said that in a recent conversation when someone asked what she would have done if she were governor, she thought to herself, “Egads, I wouldn’t want to be governor.”

If she were governor, she said, she would not have closed Oregon’s schools.

“We are losing education for our kids,” she said. “We’re losing social relationships.”

Clarno agrees with the mandate for face masks, noting that those objecting do so as a matter of personal choice, not public safety.

“You’ve got to trust somebody who has more knowledge than you do,” Clarno said.

She said she’s not sure when Republicans will win a statewide office again. She said Republicans need a moderate candidate. She ticked off names from the 1970s – Gov. Vic Atiyeh, Secretary of State Norma Paulus and Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer.

Clarno sometimes advises candidates for public office, although “I don’t know why anyone would want to run for school board.”

She said she tells candidates that serving in office is the easy part.

“Getting elected and getting through the job interview with the public is the toughest part,” she said.

She tells candidates not to be a one-issue partisan and don’t pursue office because being a public official is “cool.”

And her other advice?

“Listen to other people,” Clarno said. “Nobody learns anything when they’re talking.”

Contact editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected]

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