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Ex-Merkley aide chosen as secretary of state

SALEM — A former top aide to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley will succeed Gov. Kate Brown as secretary of state, Oregon's new governor announced on Friday, ending nearly a month of speculation about who would be picked for the job.

Jeanne Atkins will be sworn in as Oregon's 25th secretary of state March 11, taking over the position Brown left to succeed John Kitzhaber, who resigned in February amid an ethics scandal.

The secretary of state is an elected position whose job is to investigate public spending and government performance and act as the state's top elections official. Brown was first elected to the position in 2008 and re-elected in 2012.

"I share the values and enthusiasm for this position that Governor Kate Brown demonstrated during her tenure," Atkins said in a statement. "I will be diligent in carrying out the responsibilities of the office of Oregon secretary of state."

Atkins will fill the position until Oregon's next general election in 2016. She said she doesn't plan to run for the position once her term is up.

Atkins retired in January as the state director for Merkley, a post she'd held since 2009. Before that, she was Merkley's chief of staff while he was speaker of the state House. She said when the governor's office reached out to her about the position, she told them she'd be interested if she could return to retirement after the 2016 election.

"I had told people, give me a few months of rest and I'll be happy to volunteer here or there," she said.

She was also formerly staff director of the Office of Family Health in the state Department of Human Services and the Senate Majority Office, and worked in public affairs for nonprofits such as Planned Parenthood Columbia/Willamette and the Women's Equity Action League in Washington, D.C.

Atkins said implementing a measure automatically registering residents with driver's license records to vote will be one of her top priorities. The Senate passed the bill Thursday, and it now heads to Brown's desk.

"Jeanne Atkins has stood for elective office, she has worked in concert with elected officials and advocacy groups, and helped craft and implement public policies," Brown said in a statement. "She is ideally qualified to be Oregon's next secretary of state."

Under state law, Brown, a Democrat, was required to choose a Democrat to succeed herself. House GOP Spokeswoman Kara Walker said she didn't think Brown "could've picked an individual with more partisan credentials."

The appointment drew praise from Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, who was considered a contender for the spot.

"I want to congratulate Jeanne Atkins, a friend of over 15 years, and a great choice for Oregon's new secretary of state," Rosenbaum said in a statement.

A Portland resident, Atkins earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Washington and her law degree from the University of Oregon School of Law.

Jeanne Atkins, seen here in Portland on Friday, will be sworn in as Oregon's 25th secretary of state on March 11. Atkins is a former top aide to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and a longtime Salem insider. Photo from Office of Oregon Governor Kate Brown