A young Jackie Kennedy, shortly before moving into the White House, said she did not want to be called First Lady.
“It sounds like a saddle horse,” she said.
By now, Oregon’s First Lady Cylvia Hayes must feel like she’s been rode hard and put up wet.
She brought it on herself, but she had the complicity of a public that fawns over the spouses and children of governors and presidents and will bequeath them unearned authority.
Last week, Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss detailed how Hayes has been using her relationship with boyfriend/partner Gov. John Kitzhaber – and the title “Oregon’s First Lady” – to promote and make money for her private consulting business, 3E Strategies. (The three E’s stand for Ecology, Economy, Equity.)
If this conflict of interest sounds like a “so what?” to you, imagine if Michelle Obama started a consulting business out of the White House, and as owner and CEO kept a desk adjacent to the Oval Office. Imagine if she advertised for clients as “First Lady of the U.S.” with the implication that she – and thus, her clients – would have direct access to the president. Meanwhile, she’s making good money.
In reality, Michelle Obama could start such a business as a former first lady after her husband leaves office. When they return to living private lives, both of the Obamas will be free to pursue a living capitalizing on their experience in the White House. Their daughters may also find a way to capitalize on their White House connection, just as former “First Daughters” Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush won lucrative, on-camera television jobs even though neither had significant work experience in broadcasting.
Why do we use titles like First Family, First Lady, First Daughter? All of these people have their own proper names. What’s first about any of them?
When Kitzhaber was running for governor in 2011, he made it clear he saw Hayes as his first lady. She was initially coy about the title. After Kitzhaber was elected, she acted mystified about what she referred to as her “bizarre” role of first lady – but seemed to enjoy playing the part.
She got a taste of power and influence. Why not use it for a larger purpose?
“Like most Oregonians, I do not have a big nest egg,” she told The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes in 2011, shortly after she moved into the governor’s mansion. “I cannot afford not to make a living … and I feel really blessed to work in a field where I have a lot of expertise, and work that I think does good things for the world.”
Reading that profile now, almost four years later, it’s not surprising how this story is turning out. Mapes describes Hayes’s wonder as she looks around the stately governor’s mansion – a long way from her humble childhood home that once had no running water or electricity.
That was then. This was now: Two college degrees, her own business consulting on environmental and sustainability issues, political ambitions (she previously ran unsuccessfully for state representative) and a boyfriend who’s governor.
Kathryn Gray told Mapes that her longtime friend Hayes was a determined networker who established a consulting business “by sheer force of will. She just walked in on everybody who had anything going on and twisted their arm to get involved in the sustainability and environmental movement.”
As first lady, Hayes can do some serious arm-twisting. She failed to heed an early warning: Before Kitzhaber took the oath of office, the state investigated how a company called Teem that Hayes was involved in won a $60,000 state contract even though it ranked last in bidding.
Hayes was eventually cleared of wrongdoing in that investigation, but only after the case cost taxpayers $408,000.
“And the meter keeps running,” The Oregonian reported at the time.
According to Willamette Week, Hayes has signed consulting contracts worth $85,000 with three organizations – Demos, Resource Media, and the Energy Foundation. All do business with the governor’s office. Demos, for example, is pushing for states to replace the Gross Domestic Product Index with something called the Genuine Progress Indicator.
Hayes – with Kitzhaber’s support – is in charge of something called The Oregon Prosperity Agenda. This is described as “a bold approach to creating a robust, thriving economy by removing barriers to overcoming poverty and empowering citizens to maximize their potential.”
It sounds like little more than moving public funds around, with Hayes looking on and smiling as she takes credit for feeding the less fortunate. It burnishes her reputation while seeking speaking engagements and clients for 3E Strategies.
Feeding the hungry is always a worthy cause, but what has the Oregon Prosperity Agenda actually accomplished? Look at its goals: “Success for the Prosperity Initiative will mean that all Oregonians have comfortable homes and enough to eat. All of our children, regardless of income levels, are getting a first-rate education. People in entry-level jobs have clear, navigable pathways to well-paid positions. Entrepreneurialism and innovation are thriving. Income inequality is shrinking dramatically.”
Those are just words on a Website. Hayes doesn’t know how to arrive at those goals anymore than Nancy Reagan knew how to end drug abuse.
On the first lady’s Website, the section “How You Can Help” lists suggestions that are largely symbolic: “Go to the Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon’s Facebook page and take the pledge to help end hunger!”
She wants it all: The title and power of first lady, the lucrative career as a business owner and CEO and the freedom to intertwine them as it suits her purposes. Who’s going to stop her in a one-party state governed by her boyfriend?
Hayes knew what her past included (an illegal green card marriage to an Ethiopian teenager in exchange for $5,000 and an illegal pot-growing operation with a “dangerous man”), yet she pursued a high-profile public post, apparently unconcerned she would be found out. Indeed, she might not have been found out had Jaquiss not started investigating her conflicts of interest as First Lady Inc.
Kitzhaber’s vigorous defense of her displays his arrogance.
“We have not violated the law,” he said during one of his debates with gubernatorial challenger state Rep. Dennis Richardson. “We have simply given a modern, professional woman an opportunity to continue her career. In 2014, it seems ludicrous to conclude that a woman who had a successful career long before she met me and long before she became First Lady should be expected to give up her life work because she is married – hopefully, soon – to a governor.”
It’s now questionable how much of a career she had before she started dating Kitzhaber.
Next to Hayes’ photo on her First Lady Website is the state motto: “She Flies With Her Own Wings.” If she has the expertise to develop clean energy and fight climate change, Hayes can do so without trading on any name except her own.
She can learn to fly with her own wings by dropping the first lady title when she’s soliciting business for 3E Strategies. She can move her desk out of the governor’s office and stop using state employees to help her with her private business.
Unfortunately, many Oregonians are loath to vote for Richardson, a Republican. Polls suggest that Kitzhaber will be re-elected.
If so, Hayes and Kitzhaber will work out their relationship issues in private. In public they will stand together, fighting poverty and promoting prosperity, in their own special way.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons