Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade signs her oath of office Friday. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Former Portland auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade took office as Oregon’s secretary of state on Friday, pledging to spend the next 18 months restoring trust shaken by her predecessor’s unethical behavior. 

During a brief ceremony and a short press conference from a ceremonial office in the state library, Griffin-Valade and Gov. Tina Kotek touted Griffin-Valade’s nearly two decades of experience as a government auditor in Portland and Multnomah County. Neither mentioned former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan by name, but the shadow cast by Fagan’s abrupt downfall lingered.

“Moving forward, I hope to be able to reassure many that this office is doing the work and doing it well, that this secretary of state really believes in Oregon, really believes in transparency,” Griffin-Valade said. “I think I’m a steady hand that will guide the Secretary of State’s Office from now on, or for the next year and a half, and otherwise I wouldn’t have taken this position.” 

Kotek introduced Griffin-Valade, saying she had faith her appointee would lead with integrity and transparency and restore confidence in the office. 

“I’m so excited to see her leadership as the Secretary of State, and it’s a good day for Oregon,” Kotek said.  Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade signs her oath of office on June 30, 2023. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Big work ahead

Griffin-Valade said she was surprised when Kotek called her to ask if she would be interested in serving as secretary of state.

“I got a fairly high level overview of the entire organization,” she said. “That’s not quite where I want to be. I want to dig down and meet people and understand how the office is managed and how the office is working. I want to see, with audits, the work product and the quality of that, make sure that the auditors are following standards, and that’s going to take me a while.”

Griffin-Valade said she hasn’t yet decided whether the office will conduct a new audit of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. Fagan resigned following revelations that she accepted a $10,000-per-month consulting gig with a cannabis company that helped shape the audit. The state Department of Justice is reviewing the audit, as one of several ongoing state and federal ethical and criminal investigations into Fagan, the La Mota cannabis company and its owners, who hired Fagan as a consultant. 

The secretary of state has a broad range of responsibilities, including registering businesses, serving as Oregon’s chief elections officer and running audits of state agencies. Elected secretaries of state are next in line for governor if anything happened to that person, but Griffin-Valade wouldn’t replace Kotek as an appointee. Instead, state Treasurer Tobias Read would take over as governor if Kotek left office in the next 18 months. 

Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade embraces her husband, Tom, after Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Meagan Flynn, right, administered her oath of office Friday. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

One of the most pressing election issues before Griffin-Valade is how to enforce Measure 113, the voter-approved constitutional amendment that could bar 10 conservative senators from another term in office because they racked up more than 10 unexcused absences during a walkout that shut down the Senate for six weeks.

The measure wasn’t clearly worded, and two senators have asked the office for a formal determination on whether they would be allowed to file for re-election. The secretary of state’s office initially said it wouldn’t allow those senators to file for re-election, but Deputy Secretary of State Cheryl Meyers, then acting secretary, acknowledged ambiguity and asked the Justice Department for an opinion in May. Candidate filing opens in September. 

Griffin-Valade has a strong reputation as an auditor in Multnomah County, though she’s largely unknown in the rest of the state. 

“Unlike most of the names tossed out in this guessing game – legislators and former legislators who the governor worked with during her long tenure as House speaker – I’d never heard of Ms. Griffin-Valade,” observed state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, in his email newsletter to constituents on Friday. “She’s been a highly respected public auditor in the Portland area for many years. The choice tells me the governor’s more interested in restoring public trust than positioning any candidate for next year’s election to the office.”

Griffin-Valade said she doesn’t plan to run for a full term in 2024, leaving a wide-open field for Democratic and Republican hopefuls. She’ll earn $77,000 as secretary of state on top of her pension of $31,000 from the Public Employees Retirement System.

She’s the sixth secretary of state in the last decade, not counting the state officials who served as temporary acting secretaries between appointments. Former Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, held the post from 2009 to 2015, when she became governor upon former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s resignation. Brown appointed Jeanne Atkins to finish her term. 

Atkins didn’t run for a full term, and Republican Dennis Richardson won the race for secretary of state in 2016. He died about halfway through his term in 2019, and former House speaker Bev Clarno finished the remaining 21 months of his term. Clarno didn’t run for a full term, and Fagan defeated Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer in 2020.  Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade embraces her husband, Tom, after Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Meagan Flynn, right, administered her oath of office on June 30, 2023. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Rural Oregonian

Griffin-Valade, 69, was born and raised in John Day, where her father worked as a truck driver and her mother was a mill worker. She holds a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Western Oregon University, as well as a master’s degree in public administration and a master’s of fine arts from Portland State University.

She and her husband, Tom, raised four children, two of whom were from Griffin-Valade’s first marriage. Her husband, three of her children and three grandchildren attended her swearing-in ceremony. 

She spent most of her life working in public service, including as an elementary school teacher, a mentor for homeless youth in Marion County and with young people aging out of foster care in Washington County. She was hired as a senior management auditor in Multnomah County in 1998, following a battle with breast cancer, then was elected as county auditor in 2006. She was elected as Portland city auditor in 2009 and served until 2014.

Since 2021, she has published four mystery novels following the adventures of Oregon State Police Sgt. Maggie Blackthorne in Eastern Oregon. The most recent novel in the series came out in January, and the series has an average rating of 4.42 out of 5 stars on book site Goodreads

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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 Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.