What are we to think about the love-meets-power-meets corruption story that just brought down a popular Oregon governor? First, let's concede that the whole thing sounds like an episode of Portlandia, or at least a Saturday Night Live skit. After all, the relationship between John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes, according to acquaintances quoted in the New York Times, was based "on a shared passion for a low carbon energy future."
One hardly has to be a writer on SNL to imagine the pillow talk:
"Is that love in the air, dear?" "No, I think it's hydrogen."
"Have I told you lately how much your fossils fuel me"?
"Do we have great chemistry or what?"
For women, this is a tough one. The first instinct may be to consider Ms. Hayes a power-hungry figure, climbing her way out of a hardscrabble life. This questionable past included accepting $5000 to marry an Ethiopian so he could gain residence, and a boyfriend who planned an illegal marijuana farm. We need to work extra hard to see a woman who put herself through college, started non-profits, and stayed true to the environmental cause. Even--or especially-- if it meant attaching herself to an older man who could make things happen in their state.
The questions that brought him down, of course, deal with financial tradeoffs, and whether the mutual attraction crossed ethical lines. "We knew there was a gray area and we took intentional steps to try to clearly separate her volunteer activities as first lady from her paid professional works, "claimed former Gov. Kitzhaber at a final press conference. Whatever shades of gray they did or did not evade, the damage was done.
Their saga provided a relatively new take on First Ladydom, but not the only one. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has his troublesome issues, but, refreshingly, few residents seem bothered by his non-wife-lady-in-residence. Even though that woman, Sandra Lee, has a rather checkered reputation as a savvy climber: both in Los Angeles, where her brief marriage to the KB Home CEO upset many of his former wife's friends, and nationally, with her highly successful cooking business. (Anthony Boudain called her food a "war crime")
But Lee has kept her potholdered hands out of her boyfriend's business, and, according to the New York Observer, she polls well with women voters "who see her as an asset that is different to the usual politician's wife or partner." Whether that relationship will need to become official, should Cuomo run for President one day, remains to be seen. Jerry Brown clearly did not need a wife to become Governor of California, (again) but the effect has helped round out his image. The former Governor of that state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had the most dazzling and independent of wives, who managed to ignore most state duties and create some well-received female-oriented events. (A lot of good it did their marriage)
Now, of course, more women are becoming governors themselves, seven as we speak. (Including the openly bi-sexual Kate Brown, who just replaced Kitzhaber in Oregon) Most of the First Men tend to do their own thing. (As did Kathleen Sebelius' attorney husband when she ran Kansas) It's fair to assume the attention paid to the women behind, if not beside, the men in high office, will always be more closely watched, even if for superficial reasons. We have to thank people like Silda Spitzer, Jenny Sanford and Julianna Margulies for showing how they are perfectly able to move out and move on.
I will try to find a way for the Oregon scandal to be seen as a step forward for Feminism. Here, after all, was a powerful man brought down by a fatal attraction. And even if she did the wrong thing, it wasn't about spending too much on the silver or the jewels. It's a stretch, but rather than judge Cylvia Hayes too harshly, we can applaud her obvious commitment to the cause that brought them together in the first place.
And one can only hope the two go off somewhere where the air is clean, and the carbon levels low.