House Speaker Tina Kotek's calls this spring for Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-East Portland) to resign have caused a rupture in the Democratic caucus, opening a door to a challenge of Kotek's leadership by Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas).
Bynum is seeking to unseat Kotek (D-Portland), the longest-serving speaker in the history of the Oregon Legislature. The key role the investigation of Hernandez plays in the legislative power struggle was confirmed to WW by a supporter of Kotek and a supporter of Bynum.
Hernandez is under investigation for sexual harassment, an inquiry that has now dragged on for months. WW reported in March on a restraining order filed against him by his former girlfriend, which was later withdrawn. Afterward, complaints against Hernandez from multiple women were reported to the Legislature for investigation.
Kotek called for Hernandez's resignation in May.
The speaker's condemnation of Hernandez had an impact on some Democrats' loyalty to Kotek—particularly in the BIPOC Caucus, of which Bynum is a member.
Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland), who supports Kotek for speaker, says the Hernandez investigation is an unspoken subject of the Democratic caucus revolt.
He would like the investigative report released as soon as possible, so it is resolved going into a House speaker floor vote in January. The fate of the election could turn on the report being released before the vote.
"I think whatever happens with the conduct committee it would be nice if that report would get out sooner than later," says Nosse. "People are trying to act like this has nothing to do with this. It has plenty to do with this. It will just be a shoe that needs to drop. It's part of the drama that needs to play out."
Rep. Mark Meek (D-Oregon City) says he too would like the investigation wrapped up more speedily.
"As a person of color, it seems…our caucus and some of our caucus members tried Diego in the court of public opinion and [did] not necessarily let the process go through," he says. "I've let Diego know: My support is for the process, not in defending him. I have no idea what he did or didn't do. But we are waiting to hear."
Meek says he was not happy about Kotek's calls for Hernandez's resignation.
"I do think it eroded some of her support," says Meek. "It didn't so much make it a factor of why Janelle ran. My undying commitment and support [for Kotek] was eroded by how she handled several of these cases in the House."
Meek says ultimately his support for Bynum isn't about that, though.
"I have nothing against Speaker Kotek," Meek says, "but change is always good."
Kotek did not have a majority of House votes lined up in a caucus vote for speaker nominee on Nov. 16, though she technically ran unopposed. That will require her in January to win the support of more of her Democratic colleagues (or some Republicans).
Another possibility: Bynum, who is considered more moderate than Kotek, could gain the support of the Republican caucus in her takeover bid. She would need just seven Democrats to join her if she can line up the full Republican caucus to topple Kotek.