Had Oregon’s former First Lady Cylvia Hayes looked more like Sonia Sotomayor, John Kitzhaber might still be governor.
Had Hayes looked like a Supreme Court Justice, Kitzhaber probably wouldn’t have been so quick to show her off, to announce that she would be his “first lady” and that his staff should treat her as his spouse, although they were unmarried.
If Hayes had looked like Sotomayor – or for that matter Kitzhaber’s replacement, Gov. Kate Brown – the public wouldn’t have been so quick to pounce with insults at the first hint of scandal: First Bimbo. First Skank. First Shack-up.
Hayes’ relative youth (compared to 67-year-old Kitzhaber) and her attractiveness sexed up a conflict-of-interest story, now the subject of state and federal investigations. It’s a head-shaking mess.
How could Gov. John Kitzhaber – a former emergency room physician with a 35-year history in state politics – have been so hornswoggled by Hayes?
Because he helped create her.
Even before he was sworn in for his third term in 2011, Kitzhaber had big plans for his first lady.
“I don’t think she cares one way or another about the title. But she’s certainly my first lady,” Kitzhaber told The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes.
Why did Kitzhaber insist on calling Hayes “first lady?” Was he that mesmerized by her? Or was it simply because he could? He has cultivated the image of a Lone Wolf who likes to do things his way.
Whatever his reasons, after Kitzhaber publicly bestowed the title on her, the media obliged. In news stories she was automatically referred to as “First Lady Cylvia Hayes.” Various organizations invited her to speak on her presumed areas of expertise – climate change and sustainable energy. Using her “Oregon First Lady” title and access to government staff, she pursued contracts for her private consulting business. Money came in. Some of it she didn’t declare on her taxes.
The governor’s former communications director, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, warned Hayes during a staff meeting that she could not “go on her merry way.” Hayes took offense, demanded an apology, and Johnson lost her job.
Kitzhaber gave Hayes a taste of power and a long leash. Four years later she had him strung up like a roped calf. Even out of office, the revelations continue to come, primarily courtesy of Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss.
In the latest installment, Jaquiss reveals how a few years before Hayes met Kitzhaber she obtained $40,000 from an octogenarian. Even more damaging, though, are some of the e-mails that Kitzhaber tried to have deleted after they were requested by investigators and the media.
“Cylvia Game Plan: Dec. 2013-Dec. 2018” reads one, offering her goal summary: “Build my policy and professional credibility and desirability so that I land lucrative work making big positive impacts at end of term.”
If things had gone as planned, according to her e-mails, last month at the start of Kitzhaber’s historic fourth term, the governor would have named her formally to a staff position. From there and until June 2017 her plan was to: “Work the policy areas hard. Develop paid speaking and outside Oregon income opportunities. Speak a lot. Get published a lot. Set foundation for book/s – me, John, John and me (outline, generate interest, sample chapters).”
Considering how it has turned out, an L.A. Times headline summed it up succinctly: “Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber, first lady leave lofty post and vision behind”
What was the vision? Here is a sample of Hayes’ boilerplate: “We need to fundamentally alter the structure of our economic system to better account for fiscal capital, natural capital, and human capital.”
Ironically, the new Gov. Brown – who is regarded as more liberal than Kitzhaber – may very well force more of Hayes’ idealism to fruition than her boyfriend would have.
When Kitzhaber first introduced Hayes to the spotlight, her story was that she had grown up in rural poverty, with an alcoholic father and had been on her own since 16. There has been nothing to suggest that isn’t true. It might explain her raw ambition and eagerness to get while the getting is good.
There are all kinds of tickets out of poverty. Beauty is one of them. There’s nothing wrong with a woman using what she’s got, but while good-looking women are admired, they are often not taken seriously in a professional capacity, if looks are all they seem to have.
Hayes’ credentials included a bachelor’s and master’s degree in environmental studies from The Evergreen State College. The kind of work she was doing as a consultant for clean energy was somewhat amorphous. It wasn’t as if she was installing solar panels. Many of the questions raised about Hayes’ qualifications came down to what value she brought to the work she was doing, besides being close to the governor.
For all the media coverage that Hayes has received, it’s striking how little her family has come to her defense. The best compliment a family member paid her was probably from her younger brother, Lee Johnson, who told The Oregonian, “She can mend a fence, fix your plumbing. … She’s just amazingly competent in a lot of things.”
White trash, some people gleefully called her.
It wasn’t a facetious comment earlier to suggest that Kitzhaber wouldn’t have landed in trouble if his fiancee had looked like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Like Hayes, Sotomayor had an alcoholic father and an impoverished childhood. Instead of rural poverty, Sotomayor grew up in a Bronx housing project. However, she was surrounded by doting relatives – especially an extended network of aunts, a godmother and a grandmother.
The photos in her memoir, “My Beloved World,” show a child wrapped in love and attention. She studied hard and had big dreams. She built a career based on steady progress. Although she was ambitious, she was also cautious about “reaching for too much too soon.”
At age 60, Sotomayor has achieved more than she could imagine. At 47, Hayes is no longer young, though she is still lovely to look at. What other resources does she have to fall back on? What is her life’s work?
It’s hard to fault her for thinking she needed more than high-sounding policies and vision statements in contemporary politics. Had she looked different and been a little more politically astute, she might have gotten away with it.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons