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Tina Kotek, the Longest-Serving House Speaker in Oregon History, Makes Her Case for the State’s Top Job

Any gubernatorial wannabe must get by Kotek, who has long proven difficult to outmaneuver.

In what is likely to be Oregon’s most interesting and competitive gubernatorial election in at least a generation, the longtime speaker of the House, Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland), is running to replace a historically unpopular Democratic governor, Kate Brown.

The two have similar political profiles. Both are Portland Democrats who’ve broken down barriers in their rise to power. Brown is the first openly bisexual governor in U.S. history; Kotek is the first lesbian speaker of any state legislature. They both hail from the left wing of the Democratic party.

But where Brown’s indecision during the pandemic has defined her tenure, Kotek has earned a reputation among both friends and enemies for passing bills—with or without consensus. A talented vote-counter, she passed an array of progressive legislation in the past three sessions—notably a hike in the minimum wage, paid family leave, and tenant protections. In 2019, she made Oregon the first state to end single-family zoning, a major step toward building a greater housing supply by erecting apartments in Oregon’s neighborhoods.

“She’s strong, she’s effective, able to get things done that other people see as impossible,” says state Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, who served as majority leader under Kotek. “She knows how to use her power.”

It remains to be seen whether voters will see a distinction between Kotek and Brown. Kotek’s 15 years in the House, nine as speaker, mean she’s got a long record for opponents to parse—and plenty of enemies.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of strong women who are well skilled in the art of wielding power to move the state forward,” says Mary Nolan, now a Metro councilor and the House majority leader from 2008 to 2010. “That’s what she does.”

But Kotek has made enemies even within her own party, including on a sentencing reform bill in 2019 that the state Supreme Court interpreted this month to require, retroactively, resentencing anyone on death row for aggravated murder.

Former Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) says he has questions about Kotek’s “credibility” and “truthfulness” on that bill. “I think they flat out lied about that,” says Barker, referring to Kotek and then-Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland).

Kotek says the law was written to apply going forward and that she neither lied nor misunderstood the issue.

The House speaker faces notable opponents in the Democratic primary, including State Treasurer Tobias Read and, soon, former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Beyond that, a bevy of Republican hopefuls are itching for battle, and state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) last week announced she’ll enter the race as an independent.

But any gubernatorial wannabe must get by Kotek, who has long proven difficult to outmaneuver. This week, she sat down for a conversation with WW. It has been edited for length and clarity.

WW: Republicans have signaled they’re going to run against the Democratic nominee as Kate Brown 2.0. Are you Gov. Brown 2.0?

I think everybody who runs for governor in 2022 should be judged on their own merits. I have a strong track record of showing I can take values and implement them and actually improve people’s lives.

Are you seeking the governor’s endorsement for your campaign?

We honestly haven’t had a chance to talk about it, because I got in around that same time the Delta [variant] was surging. If she’s interested in making an endorsement, I would certainly talk to her about it.

You’ve been supportive of the governor’s approach to the pandemic. What did she get wrong?

In the benefit of hindsight, the way we didn’t prioritize seniors for vaccinations, in terms of the timeline early on.

What are your three top priorities if elected governor?

The No. 1 priority is the same thing it has been for me as speaker, which is to make sure that people’s lives are improving.

The biggest issues up there right now are housing, behavioral health, and making sure people have economic security when things have been so unpredictable. I would add to that climate. The climate crisis is the challenge we cannot ignore.

Behavioral health is a top priority for you. Yet Oregon regularly ranks among the bottom states in spending and resources devoted to it. Why is that?

I believe that with the support of the voters, we now have the marijuana dollars flowing out into communities as early as next year from Measure 110 [which allocates cannabis tax revenue to addiction treatment services]. We will move the needle on more recovery services. In terms of how we got here, it was [lack of] resources. Behavioral health services are always kind of the stepchild of the health care system.

One of the things we have been focusing on in the Legislature is the [treatment services] workforce. Do we have enough people who are culturally competent? It’ll be a priority for me as governor, because honestly this is not a resource issue anymore.

Our K-12 schools are often ranked alongside schools in the deep South that spend far less on education. Why are Oregon’s outcomes for K-12 students so poor?

Our numbers are improving. Prior to the pandemic, graduation rates were on the rise.

The key is increased accountability and transparency in how the new Student Success Act dollars are being spent. We were very specific. We want to make sure that the social, emotional well-being of students is better addressed through counselors and nurses and other folks who could be in the schools to help students be successful.

We also allocated $500,000 at the end of session so the Department of Education can analyze how our state school funding formula works, from an equity perspective. Is there something in our funding formula that does not help us achieve the equitable outcomes we want for all of our students?

What evidence would you offer us that you are willing to stand up to the teachers’ union?

One of my values has been to make sure there is strong retirement security for people who work in this state. And I wanted to make sure that the Public Employee Retirement System would be sustainable over time.

The vote we took [in 2019] to make the changes in the near term for PERS to be stable and sustainable are really important. It was a tough vote. I think that’s an example of saying we need to do this, and then we need to figure out how to work together going forward.

The Oregon Supreme Court recently determined that changes the 2019 Legislature made to the eliminate the death penalty in nearly all cases are retroactive. Did Democrats mislead the public at the time the bill passed, or did they not understand their own bill?

I don’t think we did anything intentionally misleading. The bill was drafted by Legislative Counsel to be forward-looking. People can challenge legislation and appeal to the court. In this case, the Supreme Court had a different take on the bill.

So it’s Legislative Counsel’s fault?

No, I think the bill was very clear. The courts can always interpret what to do with that legislation. The bill was drafted correctly.

Who do you consider your more formidable competition: Betsy Johnson or Nick Kristof?

My job is just to get out there and talk to voters and let them know who I am and what I can do. So I don’t even have an answer to that because I just don’t think about it that way.

Can you tell us what one of Betsy Johnson’s greatest strengths is?

Only if you ask her the same question.

We will.

I’ve served with Sen. Johnson a long time. Here’s what I will say: She is dogged when it comes to standing up for the constituents in her district, and it’s something I admire. I think it’s something we share.

On the opposite side, why should she not be the governor? What’s your strongest criticism of her?

Here’s what I would say: I think I am a stronger candidate for governor than everyone who is in the field because my public service is an example of doing things—not just talking about them—but doing things that actually improve people’s lives.

Particularly now, as we move into this new world post-pandemic, it’s not just enough to talk about stuff. You have to be able to do things.