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November 28th, 2012 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

Bridge Builder

The next speaker of the Oregon House—Portland Democrat Tina Kotek—will face immediate tests of her leadership.

news_tinakotek_3904STAYING POWER: Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland)—the incoming Oregon House speaker—at the state Democrats’ election-night party. “Tina’ll work a bill to the end, and she won’t ever give up,” says Rep. Vicki Berger (R-Salem). - IMAGE: Natalye Anne St. Lucia
Hundreds of raucous Democrats, crowded into the cavernous downtown Hilton Hotel ballroom for their election-night victory bash, roared when a woman with closely cropped dark hair and black-rimmed glasses took the stage. 

She waved to the crowd but didn’t shake her fist or cry out as other politicians had done—even though she had plenty of reason to sound off.

Rep. Tina Kotek (D-North Portland) had orchestrated a Democratic near sweep of Oregon House seats that were up for grabs in the Nov. 6 election, giving the Dems a 34-26 majority and Kotek a path to become Oregon’s new House speaker.

But rather than feed the frenzy, Kotek, 46, stood silently, waiting for the crowd to fall quiet.

“I’m one of those people,” Kotek said, “who wants to see the numbers before calling the game.”

That’s her personality, say longtime associates—careful, prepared and restrained. 

“She’s detail-oriented, focused and a quick study,” says Kim Thomas, who worked with Kotek at the Oregon Food Bank a decade ago. “We worked together in the heyday of welfare reform. Tina was pivotal in getting board members and others to transform our program.”

Kotek is the Democratic caucus leader—and that means she will be speaker of the House when the Legislature convenes in February. She’ll become the first female Democrat to lead the House since 1990, when Vera Katz last wielded the gavel.  

When Kotek takes the House Democratic caucus for a three-day retreat to the Salishan resort this weekend, she’s likely to be presented with more wish lists than Santa Claus. 

They will include competing demands and priorities—chief among them Gov. John Kitzhaber’s desire to slash pension costs, no small feat given how much Democrats generally (and Kotek in particular) have relied on campaign contributions from public-employee unions.

Many Democrats also hope to trim the state’s corrections spending—an idea that has allowed Republicans in the past to label them as soft on crime.

But the heaviest lift will be the Columbia River Crossing, the troubled $3.5 billion bridge and freeway project Kitzhaber wants lawmakers to help pay for next year, probably with higher gasoline taxes.

Backers of the CRC couldn’t have asked for a better ally in the speaker: The project falls in Kotek’s district, and she’s been its tireless champion despite criticism the crossing is bloated and poorly designed, and its finances don’t pencil out.

“We have safety, congestion and health issues that can be resolved by the project,” Kotek told WW in a September endorsement interview. “I think the project has gotten better.”

Kotek declined to be interviewed for this story. Colleagues say despite Kotek’s strengths, neither the CRC nor other top priorities will be an easy sell among Democrats, let alone the House as a whole. 

“The biggest challenge that she’ll face is not battling Republicans but trying to get consensus in her own caucus,” says Rep. Vicki Berger (R-Salem), a five-term incumbent. “When you have a big majority, the battles are within the party.”

Kotek’s colleagues have often been fractious. In 2010, Democrat infighting triggered the overthrow of the caucus leaders—then-Speaker Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone) and Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland)—neither of whom ran for re-election this year.

Kotek, who was a bystander in the battle between Hunt and Nolan, won election as caucus leader after the 2011 session, when the House split 30-30.

When the Democrats’ co-House Speaker, Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay), decided to run for the Senate, Kotek’s path was clear to ascend to the top spot for 2013.

Kotek is a native of York, Pa., who held her high school’s record in the long jump. She dropped out of Georgetown University and moved to the Northwest in 1987, where she earned degrees at the University of Oregon in religious studies in 1990 and at the University of Washington in international studies in 1998.

After that she took a job at the Oregon Food Bank as a public-policy advocate. “She was a remarkable young woman who had a way of listening and following up with questions and working with people to seek solutions,” says Ellen Lowe, a longtime social-services lobbyist. “She wasn’t just there to give away food.”

In 2003, she became the policy director for Children First for Oregon, a social-services advocacy group. 

A year later, Kotek made her first bid for the Oregon Legislature, losing in a primary race to Chip Shields for an open seat in House District 43 in North and Northeast Portland. After that, Kotek moved into neighboring House District 44 so she could make another run—and this time she won.

Kotek showed steel in her freshman term.

In 2007, lawmakers debated a bill to give gay couples the right to register as domestic partners, and the measure also outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was the first chance Democrats had seen after 16 years of GOP rule in the House to bring such a bill to a vote.

One foe, Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point), said he opposed the bill and equated homosexuality with self-destructive habits such as smoking and drinking.

Kotek, who is a lesbian, shot back at Richardson. “I experience my life as a second-class citizen almost every day,” Kotek said, telling Richardson to stop attacking “my personal character.”

In the 2013 session, Kitzhaber says he hopes to reform the Public Employee Retirement System, in part by curbing cost-of-living increases for some retirees. 

The governor’s plans—which could shave as much as $1 billion from the next state budget—have already angered public employees, who say Kitzhaber’s proposals undermine their rights. 

So far, Kotek’s public comments about Kitzhaber’s push to reduce PERS costs have been at best equivocal—which could be because she doesn’t want to alienate her party’s labor-union base, or because she’s a shrewd negotiator who’s in no hurry to show her hand. 

“If anybody can deal with the public-employee unions, it’s going to be her,” says Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), who has worked closely with Kotek on health-care legislation. “It’s going to be a very fine walk to balance between employee demands and what we need to do. She’s trusted by the unions, but she’s tough.”

Kotek must also handle a perennial vulnerability for Democrats—the desire to hold back corrections costs while not appearing to be going easy on criminals. 

During the past year, a sentencing commission put together by Kitzhaber has looked at ways to slow the cost of imprisoning Oregonians. At a minimum, Democrats will attempt to head off new prison construction, but they will also probably try to give judges more sentencing discretion and look for other ways to reduce prison time. 

Such reforms risk the wrath of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents prison guards. It could also give Republicans a powerful club with which to attack Democrats. 

Rep. Val Hoyle (D-Eugene), the newly elected House majority leader, says Kotek has the skills to juggle competing demands.

“She’s methodical, open and doesn’t engage in drama,” Hoyle says.

Even with a 34-26 Democratic majority, Kotek may still need Republican support. Rep. Andy Olson (R-Albany), a former state trooper who co-chaired the House Rules Committee with Kotek in 2011, says she’s earned a solid reputation for bipartisan dealings.

“She’s always willing to listen to ideas that might be different from hers,” Olson says. 

Kotek’s control of her caucus and her political skills will be put to an early test in 2013 by the Columbia River Crossing project.

Kitzhaber and other backers—including trade unions and business interests—want speedy approval of the state’s $450 million contribution to the project. In the House, that job got a bit easier, given that two leading critics of the CRC, Reps. Katie Eyre (R-Hillsboro) and Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland), aren’t returning in 2013.

But it’s still a big challenge: Key Democrats, such as Reps. Jules Bailey of Portland and Chris Garrett of Lake Oswego, have been skeptical of the project.

And while some House GOP members whose districts abut the Columbia River may be supportive, downstate Republicans have little reason to back an expenditure that many see as primarily benefitting Portland—especially if it means hiking gas taxes or vehicle fees to pay for it.

All of the funding options CRC backers offered lawmakers this fall require some combination of a higher gas tax and a fee increase. That means Kotek will have to summon a three-fifths super-majority—36 votes in the 60-seat House—to get the CRC funding through.

From a political perspective, getting Republican votes for a tax increase is always challenging. And Democrats will be placed in the unenviable position of having to tell supporters of education and human services there’s no new money for their constituencies—while trying to justify a tax for a project that has been mired in controversy.

For starters, CRC officials ignored warnings from the U.S. Coast Guard and have designed the bridge at least 30 feet too low for anticipated river traffic. CRC officials have shown little desire to back away from the flawed design.

Meanwhile, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler has said the current funding plan won’t cover debts Oregon must incur to build the project. And Kitzhaber and other CRC backers will be pushing for a vote on the project long before a thorough financial analysis of the existing financing plan is ready.

Eyre—a Republican whose opposition to the CRC cost her business support in her November loss—says Kotek faces a difficult combination: a tax increase early in the session and uncertainty over the Coast Guard’s height concerns.

“As long as the Coast Guard has not signed off,” Eyre says, “it’s going to be a very difficult task to get it through the House.” 

 
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