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Oregon's First Lady Weathers Criticism, Pushes Anti-Poverty Agenda

SALEM, Ore. – Oregon's Governor and First Lady are not married. It’s something that’s attracted little attention since Democrat John Kitzhaber took office about 18 months ago. But as his partner, Cylvia Hayes, rolls out her anti-poverty agenda, some people question whether she should have the title First Lady.

There's only one person in Oregon who says "Thank you, dear" when being introduced by the governor. That'd be Cylvia Hayes. Not that it impressed the dozens of preschoolers at this day care center in Bend.

Hayes was here to highlight the work of a local anti-poverty agency. Promoting social service organizations is part of her agenda as First Lady, something she's calling her "Prosperity Initiative."

She shared her own story of growing up dirt poor in rural Washington state.

"My family lived for a time without running water or electricity," Hayes said. "And I wound up on my own at 16 at an early age, and really struggled financially for most of my life."

It's a compelling tale of a climb out of poverty. A story which ends with Hayes getting a college degree and starting her own business.

But when a local television station posted their coverage of the event, the first comment following the story asked whether it would be more appropriate to call her First Girlfriend rather than First Lady.

Similar negative comments about the couple's status -- some of them quite nasty -- follow nearly every news story mentioning Hayes as First Lady.

Hayes says she never claimed the title.

"People just started calling me that kind of by osmosis. And yes, there has been some controversy around, is it appropriate because we aren't married. And I say that those people are more than welcome to just call me Cylvia."

In fact, she remembers the first time her new role dawned on her. She was out for a jog just after the election.

"All of a sudden I just stopped," Hayes says.

"And I just said out loud, oh my gosh, I'm going to be the First Lady. Then I got to thinking, what does that mean exactly?"

Hayes and Kitzhaber call each other "life partners." They spend lots of time together, at the governor's mansion and elsewhere. And that bothers some who see their co-habitation as setting a bad example.

Teresa Harke of the Oregon Family Council says it's nothing against Hayes, personally.

"If she's doing the work of it, then kudos to her. That's great. And that's who he chose to do it. I think that a lot of people would have preferred that the First Lady was the spouse of the governor, because that is the general intention of that position."

In fact, according to the National Governor's Association, Hayes is unique. Several governors, like Kitzhaber, are divorced. But only in Oregon is the governor's unmarried companion given the title of First Lady.

While the arrangement may turn heads, it's also a reflection of the society at-large. That's according to Jason Jurjevich of the Population Research Center at Portland State University.

"Almost one out of 10 households in Oregon is of unmarried partners."

Jurjevich says that's higher than the U.S. average. And while one out of 10 may not sound like a lot, the rate of unmarried partner households has nearly doubled in Oregon over the past two decades.

"I think that sort of speaks to a lot of systemic changes that are happening," Jurjevich says. "Not only in American society but also here in Oregon."

Jurjevich says some of the increase in such living arrangements is due to people waiting longer to get married. I asked Hayes if she and the governor are planning to get married.

"I think we probably will at some point," Hayes answers. "But I also don't think that we necessarily need that to be as committed as we are. We have a phenomenal relationship. I feel very blessed by that. I certainly wasn't going to get married just for political expedience."

For now, Hayes is concentrating on her anti-poverty work. It's a way she thinks she can make a difference with the role that she's been given.

On the Web:

Cylvia Hayes biography:

Current governors' spouses:

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber looks on as First Lady Cylvia Hayes speaks as a daycare center in Bend. Photo by Chris Lehman
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber looks on as First Lady Cylvia Hayes speaks as a daycare center in Bend. Photo by Chris Lehman

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman