How dirty media brought down Oregon’s clean-energy governor and his activist fiancée

Gov. John Kitzhaber

This article was originally published at

John de Graaf

Full disclosure:

  1. I know and admire Cylvia Hayes.
  2. I support the initiatives that she actively promoted.
  3. I have no special knowledge of her financial dealings.

Regardless, I believe the recent attacks on Hayes and her fiancé, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), have been sensationalized, and are at best misleading. They feel like more of a witch hunt than honest muckraking. Indeed, there was little real muck to rake. A close look at the public record and the media stories attacking the couple reveals a pattern of innuendo, conflicting accusations, and shameless scandal mongering. But before we get to that, let’s go over some background.

The basics

On Feb. 13, 2015, Kitzhaber announced his resignation as governor, after relentless media attacks, particularly from Portland’s leading paper, The Oregonian, claiming that Hayes had violated state ethics rules and evaded taxes and that the governor had abetted her in some of these activities. An emotional Kitzhaber delivered a resignation speech questioning the roles of both the media and his own Democratic Party in forcing him out of office:

[I]t is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and with no independent verification of the allegations involved. But even more troubling — and on a very personal level as someone who has given 35 years of public service to Oregon — is that so many of my former allies in common cause have been willing to simply accept this judgment at its face value.

Kitzhaber had just begun his fourth term as Oregon’s governor (there was a hiatus of eight years between his second and third terms). He won reelection in November even as some of the allegations regarding his fiancée were already swirling about in the media. Kitzhaber was a popular governor because he got things done. A former physician and state senator from the conservative rural community of Roseburg, he was a moderate Democrat, criticized by the left for what it considered his too-cozy relationship with the state’s powerful timber industry. Nonetheless, he was liberal on social and most economic issues and strongly committed to a clean, green energy future for the state.

Indeed, it was Kitzhaber and Hayes’ mutual interest in climate change and clean energy that drew them together in the first place. They began dating in 2003, after Hayes lost a race for state representative in a district outside of Bend, Ore. She did influence him in one obvious way — encouraging Kitzhaber to walk his talk by driving a Prius instead of a gas-guzzling SUV.

In an October 2014 story in The Oregonian, Anna Griffin got the basic facts right as she traced Hayes’ path from a poor childhood in an alcoholic household to her involvement with Kitzhaber, who was out of office when the two first began a relationship. Hayes, who’s now 47, left home at 16, married at 19, divorced at 21, and had another failed marriage before agreeing to marry an Ethiopian immigrant to enable him to get a green card, for which Hayes was paid $5,000. With another boyfriend, she purchased some farmland in rural Washington with the idea of starting a marijuana farm (well before it was legal), a project that never got off the ground. She was not prosecuted, and the two bad judgments remained hidden from her public life story until both were exposed by the media in the fall of 2014.

Hayes voluntarily left behind the people that she had been associating with during that time and started building a new life. She worked hard at various jobs and completed studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., as a first-generation college graduate, then went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental studies and sustainability. She moved to central Oregon, got deeply involved in environmental and energy issues — her passion — and formed a nonprofit called 3E Strategies that she later turned into a private consulting business. According to Griffin, neighbors and friends in Bend described Hayes as a “straight shooter who stands up for her beliefs.” She lived simply and her passion for the environment outweighed her material considerations. “It’s what she lives and breathes,” one neighbor told Griffin.

In 2006, Hayes was named to then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s (D) Renewable Energy Working Group. Griffin allows that Hayes was appointed because of her expertise and “geography,” not political connections: “There weren’t many environmentally active Democrats in Central Oregon willing to make regular trips to Salem to talk energy policy.” Later, Hayes’ company received a contract with the Oregon Department of Energy for consulting work. While critics claimed that the money was granted to her based on her relationship with Kitzhaber, then running for his third term as governor, “Hayes and her company were cleared of any wrongdoing after a state Department of Justice investigation,” as The Oregonian itself reported. In fact, Mark Long, an Energy Department employee accused of favoring Hayes and steering money to her, ended up winning a $1 million settlement from the state in the wake of those false accusations.

When Kitzhaber became governor again in 2011, Hayes stepped into the first lady role. There is little question that she wore that mantle while promoting several political causes: clean energy and climate change; an anti-poverty campaign; and a new measure of economic performance called the Genuine Progress Indicator. In each case, they were causes the governor also believed in.

The claims

Multiple claims of corruption have been made against Hayes by Oregon media, particularly The Oregonian, the state’s biggest newspaper, and a Portland alt weekly, Willamette Week.

They started with charges that Hayes used state workers, including Mary Rowinski, her personal assistant as first lady, to take care of her pets, run personal errands, and arrange some travel for her energy consulting work. While these may technically be violations of stringent state ethics laws, they seem quite minor. Rowinski and Hayes were friends, and Rowinski had a role in Hayes’ decision to adopt two cats from the Humane Society, so she offered to help take care of them when Hayes was traveling.

The most significant claims of wrongdoing have to do with a two-year (2011-2012), $118,000 fellowship she received from the Clean Economy Development Center (CEDC), a green energy nonprofit. The money went to Hayes’ 3E Strategies business. The Oregonian reported:

It was that payment that led to questions about whether Hayes failed to report income on her federal taxes. In 2012, the year Hayes said she received $88,000 from the fellowship, she listed only $27,000 in business income … The income may have been reported on her company’s tax returns.

Since the money was actually paid to her company, that seems a real possibility.

Critics also charged that the fellowship bought political influence for CEDC. But its director, Jeffrey King, maintains that none of the money had been used to shape Oregon policy and that he never met with or tried to influence Kitzhaber. According to King, Hayes’ work for the center was paid for by two foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Energy Foundation, and was for “communicating the economic benefits of clean energy” through writing and speaking. “CEDC does not engage in any lobbying activities,” King emphasized.

Critics seemed to want things two ways regarding Hayes’ CEDC fellowship. On the one hand, they suggested the money was a gift with no real work attached, intended to influence the governor. But on the other hand, they were accusing Hayes of too much activity promoting clean energy. Indeed, Hayes performed significant work for CEDC, but much of it was outside the state of Oregon, and it had ended prior to clean energy legislation being proposed by Kitzhaber.

Criticism in the media of Hayes’ work for CEDC prompted the governor to announce that she would have no further policy role in his administration. Beginning in January 2014, Hayes also no longer accepted outside paid work and, in her role as first lady, acted solely as a volunteer in promoting her poverty and environmental causes.

If Hayes is corrupt, one friend of hers told me, then she was “selling herself far too cheaply.” High estimates are that Hayes earned a bit more than $200,000 in total over the last four years as she served as first lady, a decent salary but hardly an extravagant one. Given business and other expenses, her actual earnings may have been far less than that.

In addition to outright claims of corruption, there’s been an undercurrent of misogynistic criticism of Hayes, subtly implied by outlets like The Oregonian and stated outright by its online commenters and by right-wing blogs. She’s been disparaged as a gold digger, a trophy girlfriend, a bimbo, and a conniving, manipulative opportunist. In truth, Hayes is a passionate, effective advocate for her issues and a gifted, charismatic communicator. I’ve seen her speak amidst a host of other well-known experts, and her combination of great storytelling and use of factual data stole the show, in my opinion. Hayes wanted to have a career and an impact beyond that of first lady. She’s an outspoken environmentalist and activist, not a modest, retiring woman content to stand silently behind her man — and certain people in Oregon just couldn’t stand that.

The Genuine Progress Indicator

Much of the criticism of Hayes and Kitzhaber involved her nationwide efforts to promote a new measurement of economic success called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). My first conversation with Hayes, in 2011, included a discussion of GPI, a project dear to her heart and to Kitzhaber, who says he has been aware of the problems with using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to assess economic success since he first heard Sen. Robert Kennedy discuss the subject in 1968. Kennedy claimed that GDP (then known as Gross National Product) “measures, in short, everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” GDP is a notoriously blunt instrument for assessing quality of life. It counts all monetary expenditures, including the costs of cleaning up oil spills, treating cancer, etc., as positive while ignoring welfare-enhancing activities such as housework and volunteering, because they are unpaid activities.

The idea of GPI was first described in a 1995 Atlantic Monthly article. The authors called for starting with GDP but then subtracting the cost of defensive expenditures like environmental cleanups, loss of resources, and cancer treatments, while adding the value of housework and other useful unpaid activities. It took awhile, but the idea of GPI finally started gaining traction in the last few years; Maryland adopted it as one tool for measuring progress in 2010, as did Vermont in 2012.

Hayes was an advocate of GPI for Oregon, and in 2012 was awarded a $25,000 grant from Demos, a New York nonprofit, to promote the idea. She and Kitzhaber ran the contract by the governor’s legal counsel and it was revised to remove specific references to GPI work in Oregon. Hayes became an effective national spokeswoman for the concept, and helped organize a conference in Maryland promoting the idea, at which she and then-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) were the main speakers.

In April 2013, Hayes and Kitzhaber traveled to Bhutan for an international meeting on alternative measures of progress, and to learn about the policy tools adopted by the small Himalayan nation whose former king famously declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” (Full disclosure: I was an advisor to Bhutan’s U.N. happiness initiative in early 2013 and one of the people who encouraged Hayes to travel there.)

Later that year, Kitzhaber proposed a GPI project for Oregon. The Oregonian insinuated that Kitzhaber was improperly influenced by Hayes in doing so, despite the fact that he had been interested in alternative measures of progress long before he met her.

The Genuine Progress Indicator offers the clearest example of how Hayes pushed a policy, with Kitzhaber’s participation, from both her public and private roles.

…[Before Kitzhaber’s GPI proposal] came the first couple’s infamous  trip to Bhutan for a global GPI gathering. Kitzhaber drew scorn from Republicans who wondered whether the governor was pursuing serious policy or generating fodder for a “Portlandia” script.

The April 2013 meeting was … organized by a coalition of organizations and governments pushing for worldwide use of the measure. Germany, a coalition leader, paid for Kitzhaber and Hayes’ travel and lodging. …

Kitzhaber soon afterward chose the GPI from a menu of alternative measures. It’s the one measure Hayes was paid to promote. It’s the measure that helped her become a fixture at speaking engagements nationwide.

What makes a trip to Bhutan — paid for by the Germans, not Oregon taxpayers — “infamous”? It was an educational trip, not a junket to a tropical beach at taxpayer expense. The only thing infamous about the trip was the scorn heaped on it by the Republicans and The Oregonian. But why let the facts get in the way of a good Portlandia joke?

The Oregonian is also wrong in saying that GPI is the “one measure Hayes was paid to promote.” In fact, her contract with Demos refers to work on GPI “and other alternative measures.”

And there’s no indication that Kitzhaber chose GPI over other alternative measures because of Hayes’ lobbying. Rather, GPI is the most popular alternative measure around, currently being considered by a host of states, including deeply red ones like Utah.

So The Oregonian’s “clearest example” of Hayes’ manipulation of Kitzhaber fails completely to stand up under scrutiny.

Certainly, Hayes made errors of judgment along the way and did not take sufficient steps to put an obvious firewall between her private livelihood and her position as Oregon’s first lady.

But in all of this, a sensation-seeking media, which hounded a governor out of office without proof of ethical misconduct, has much to answer for.


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