September is typically when candidates begin ramping up for Election Day. It's not when an incumbent governor cruising toward victory is supposed to fire her campaign manager.
But after Gov. Kate Brown took center stage at the Sept. 5 Labor Day picnic, her campaign manager, Michael Kolenc, was summoned back to campaign headquarters—where Brown's top campaign adviser, Kevin Looper, fired him.
"I was dumbfounded," Kolenc says. "To be fired nine weeks out from Election Day would suggest we were tanking in the polls or I'd done something personally to embarrass the campaign—neither of which was the case."
Kolenc, 36, says the move was particularly surprising because Brown had said nothing to him about his performance in the three previous days, when they'd spent considerable time together.
"I really wish the governor had told me there was a problem," Kolenc says.
But Looper says Kolenc failed to budget properly, misrepresented Brown's reason for skipping a July debate, and lost the trust of Brown and campaign staff.
"The last thing you would want to do in the middle of an election is get rid of a key campaign staff member," Looper says, "but my job is to ensure the campaign succeeds."
Kolenc disagrees with Looper's assertions.
In Brown's low-profile campaign, neither Kolenc's May hiring nor his firing was ever publicly announced.
Kolenc's dismissal raises questions about Brown's willingness to confront personnel conflicts and divisive issues. Kolenc says he was fired after clashing with Brown's staff over his desire that the governor be more proactive on major issues facing the state—including the proposed $3 billion corporate tax increase known as Measure 97.
And while polls show Brown with a comfortable lead over GOP challenger Dr. Bud Pierce, the staffing turmoil is significant because she's already preparing for more formidable challenges in 2018.
Kolenc, a veteran of candidate races and ballot measure contests across the country, says Brown recruited him from Chicago with an $11,000-a-month salary and the opportunity to do something rare in the itinerant world of political consultants—run a campaign for three years.
That's because Brown, who took office when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned Feb. 18, 2015, is now running for the remaining two years of Kitzhaber's term. If she beats Pierce this November, she'll run again in 2018, when she could face a primary challenge from a strong Democrat, such as House Speaker Tina Kotek, and a more formidable Republican, such as state Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend).
Kolenc says after meeting with Brown in February, he he gave up an excellent job in Chicago to help Brown win a mandate in November that would lead to a strong legislative showing in 2017 and set the stage for 2018.
He saw that as a mutual three-year commitment.
Looper disagrees. "There was never a contract," Looper says. "If he were good at the job, he'd still have it, and he might have been able to keep it through 2018—but there were no guarantees."
As he tried to prepare for the November election, Kolenc clashed with Brown's chief of staff, Kristen Leonard. He says Brown's reluctance to take a position on Measure 97 was also a big issue.
"Her not taking a stance through the summer made my conversations with the unions difficult," Kolenc says. "When we'd talk about contributions or strategy or how we could work together in the campaign, it made those conversations hard."
The measure, which would charge companies 2.5 percent of their Oregon sales over $25 million, is contentious, pitting the public employee unions, which are Brown's traditional base of support, against the business community.
Brown initially said she wouldn't take a position until the measure qualified for the ballot. When it did qualify, on June 6, she remained mum. Not until Aug. 4, nearly two months later, did Brown announce she'd support it.
Brown appears to have trouble telling people bad news. In addition to foot-dragging on Measure 97, she ordered staff to fire agency directors at the Oregon Lottery and Employment departments without having met them individually.
Campaign spokesman Chris Pair rejects such criticism. "It was extremely important to Gov. Brown that she do what's best for Oregon, and make the right call, not the quickest," Pair says of Measure 97. Nor does she shy away from tough personnel decisions, Pair adds: "[She] shows no qualms in holding leaders accountable."