House Speaker Tina Kotek Faces a Leadership Challenge From Rep. Janelle Bynum

Control of the Democratic leadership in the statehouse is up for grabs.

After an election in which Oregon Democrats lost at least one seat in the House of Representatives, the party's leader, current House Speaker Tina Kotek, is facing a leadership challenge from inside the Democratic caucus.

Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-East Portand) is calling fellow lawmakers, seeking to become the next House speaker, two legislators told WW today.

The reasons Democrats might support a challenger are various, ranging from second-guessing the leadership after the loss of the House seat to the desire to put a person of color in leadership after the Black Lives Matter protests that roiled the state for much of 2020.

Others make the case for keeping the current, experienced leadership, because of COVID-19, the complications of running a legislature during the pandemic, and the ongoing state budget crisis.

State Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland) confirmed that Bynum is mounting a challenge to Kotek but said he supported the current speaker.

"I don't think right now is the time to switch up our leadership," says Nosse. "Whatever ideas or new approaches that Rep. Bynum has, she could probably work with the current speaker to get that done."

Kotek was the first openly lesbian House speaker anywhere in the nation. And the bills passed under her leadership include a wide breadth of landmark legislation—including the school funding bill the Student Success Act last year, statewide tenant protections and an end to single-family zoning, a minimum wage increase and paid family leave.

But several sources noted there has been particular tension in the caucus about the approach Kotek has taken to lawmakers accused of wrongdoing, and her decision not to wait for the outcome of an investigation into allegations of misconduct against one lawmaker. Democrats say there was discussion at a caucus meeting last month of Kotek's call for the resignation of Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-East Portland) last spring before an investigation into sexual harassment charges against him was completed.

Bynum—along with other members of the Legislature's BIPOC Caucus, including Reps. Mark Meek (D-Oregon City), Andrea Salinas (D-Lake Oswego) and Teresa Alonso Leon (D-Woodburn)—made campaign contributions to Hernandez, who successfully ran for reelection. Rep. David Gomberg (D-Central Coast) and retiring Rep. Caddie McKeown (D-Coos Bay) also contributed. (Kotek may have called for Hernandez's resignation in the spring, but in the fall she did not support his opponent from the Working Families Party as Nosse and others did.)

(Besides the sexual harassment allegation, Hernandez was the subject of a restraining order by a longtime friend and girlfriend, though that was later rescinded. Hernandez has insisted on his innocence and blamed Kotek, in part, for seeking to end his political career after he voted against a public employee pension reform bill.)

Kotek says she still wants to keep her job.

"I'm asking my colleagues for their support to be speaker of the House again," Kotek says. "I never take that nomination for granted, and I look forward to earning my colleagues' support. Our state is facing multiple, major crises. We have a huge amount of work to do on behalf of Oregonians, and I am ready to bring my experience to bear and get things done."

"We are at a critical moment in our nation's and state's history,"  says Bynum in  a statement. "It compels us to reimagine the way we live our lives, conduct our business and the merits on which we select our leaders. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, racial strife, and climate disasters, this year has called into question whether we can continue with the status quo. More importantly, it is a chance to innovate and push the boundaries while casting aside systems and structures that are inequitable or no longer serve us best."

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.