Senators work in a hearing room that served as a makeshift Senate chamber on Sept. 29, 2023. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon officially has a new superintendent of public instruction, new heads of the state lottery and emergency management department and more than 100 new members of state boards and commissions following Senate votes Friday.

The state Senate meets about every eight weeks outside of the legislative session to confirm or reject Gov. Tina Kotek’s nominees to boards, commissions and state agencies. On Friday, with the Capitol under construction and the Senate chamber closed, 28 senators filed into a hearing room to spend an hour debating and voting on the latest round of appointments.

Most controversial was Charlene Williams, a former Portland Public Schools leader who Kotek named to head the state education department. Williams had strong support from Senate Democrats, including Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, who recalled meeting Williams when she was a high school principal in Portland. Williams had photographs of students in her office.

“I asked what those were, and she expressed her belief that as educators, every student had a face and every student had a name and every adult in that building had a responsibility to every single one of those students to make sure that they were safe, to make sure that they were supported and to make sure that they were able to achieve success,” Gelser Blouin said. “That meeting was so meaningful to me that I have referenced that time after time after time, not quite certain who that person was. And so the first time Dr. Williams came to my office, I asked and that was her.” 

Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said he’s known Williams for many years and that she’ll bring a much-needed perspective to education in the state. 

“She has been in the classroom,” Frederick said. “She understands the classroom, and she understands the importance of individual students and how you work, and she also understands the community and the culture that those students might come from. And that’s going to be one of the key elements in order for us to make Oregon once again one of the top education states in the country.”

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said he heard about “problematic” statements Williams made, but didn’t elaborate on what he considered problematic. Conservatives have targeted Williams over her support for diversity in schools and her doctoral dissertation on Black male students. 

“We have a crisis in public education in Oregon right now,” Knopp said. “We have flight from our public schools, and a lot of that has to do with what happened through COVID and the way the state and the Department of Education responded to that. And it also has to do with policies that are being pressed by, quite frankly, this body and the Department of Education, and parents are rebelling against that.” 

But fellow Republican Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, voted for Williams because he trusted the recommendation of an educator in his eastern Oregon district. Hansell said he had heard conflicting testimony and chose to listen to constituents. 

“His advice was to me that he knew Dr. Williams and had worked with her, and that within the framework of this new job, he felt that she would do the job and would be worthy of support,” Hansell said. “Not knowing all the details about all the different things, I trust and rely upon folks back in my district.”

Hansell and Republican Sens. Dick Anderson of Lincoln City and Lynn Findley of Vale joined all Democrats in voting for her. 

Other appointments, including new lottery director Michael Wells and Erin McMahon, new director of the Oregon Department of Emergency Management, went through without discussion. 

Republicans return

It was the first time a few Republicans attended a Senate session since May, when most conservative senators began a walkout to block votes on bills they opposed. Hansell and Sens. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas; Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek; Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls and Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, didn’t return to the Capitol after the walkout ended. 

Hansell, Linthicum and Thatcher were back in Salem and voting on appointments on Friday, but Boquist and Hayden stayed away. Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, is continuing his hardline stance of not excusing absences outside of “extraordinary circumstances.”  Hayden, a Seventh-Day Adventist who filed workplace complaints after Wagner denied his requests to be excused for a Saturday church service, didn’t ask for an excused absence Friday. 

Boquist, who recently re-registered as a Republican as he tries to run for reelection, asked to have his absence excused as he planned to attend a Catholic Mass two hours away. Sept. 29 is the feast of Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel and Saint Raphael in the Catholic Church. 

“Given I am not aware of another practicing Catholic in the Senate, there should be plenty of members present for quorum required for executive appointments,” Boquist wrote. “If there is an issue, please let me know.” 

Wagner denied his request. 

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.