Brown, a Portland Democrat, is Oregon's secretary of state, an elected post that oversees elections, audits and the office where businesses register.
The state constitution says the secretary of state automatically takes over Oregon's highest office if for any reason the sitting governor leaves before his or her term ends. All of a sudden, it seems like that could happen.
Gov. John Kitzhaber is watching his political career implode in an influence-peddling scandal stemming from his actions and those of first lady Cylvia Hayes.
The Oregonian has demanded his resignation, a call that has sent ripples across the state. Kitzhaber has said he won't quit. But he's increasingly isolated in Salem. Last week, legislative leaders asked him not to testify on bills key to his political agenda.
This all puts Brown—elected as secretary of state in 2008 and re-elected in 2012—in a tricky position.
She needs to be ready to take over as the state's chief executive at a moment's notice, yet she cannot appear eager for Kitzhaber's demise.
Brown declined to be interviewed for this story. "Gov. Kitzhaber has indicated that he has no plans to resign," says Tony Green, Brown's spokesman. "So Kate respectfully declines to discuss any speculative what-ifs."
Yet Brown has been quietly seeking advice on what she should do and how she should handle this moment.
Brown, an equestrienne (she stables her Lipizzan, Tazo, in Ridgefield, Wash.) and former competitive diver, knows a thing or two about maintaining her balance in challenging situations. She climbed nearly to the pinnacle of Oregon Democratic politics through a combination of hard work, fundraising prowess and an ability to promote her party's interests and her own at the same time.
"She's got a great feel for people and a great sense of what Oregon needs as a leader," says former Gov. Barbara Roberts. "She's prepared and ready to step into the governorship on the first day."
Critics worry that she's too close to the public employee unions that have funded her climb. Kitzhaber—for all his current troubles—had a reputation for standing up to interest groups that backed him. The same can't always be said of Brown.
Green says Brown has known since she first took office in 2009 that she needed to be ready to become governor in a pinch. "We have had a succession plan," Green says. "We regularly update the plan."
Preparation characterizes Brown's political career. Born in Spain, raised in Minnesota and educated as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Brown came to Portland for law school at Lewis & Clark College and never left.
She combined a legal practice specializing in family law and juvenile rights with a growing interest in politics. In the 1991 legislative session, she lobbied in Salem for the Oregon Women's Rights Coalition.
Alan Tresidder, a Salem lobbyist, says Brown was an effective advocate because she was bright, did her homework and worked both sides of the aisle effectively.
In 1991, Brown got her chance to jump directly into the Legislature when then-Rep. Judy Shiprack (now a Multnomah County commissioner) resigned to take a new job. Brown won appointment to the seat—only to see Shiprack lose her job and decide she wanted her House seat back.
Shiprack seemed to have the campaign funding and endorsements to defeat Brown in the 1992 Democratic primary. "Kate didn't have money, so all she did was walk the district and knock on doors," Tresidder says. "She must have hit every door in that district three times."
The race went to a recount. Brown won by seven votes.
That election set the early narrative for Brown's career: a scrappy outsider whose victory defined grassroots politics. Soon after entering the House, Brown also publicly identified herself as bisexual, a bold step in the early 1990s. But it was Brown's dramatic win over Shiprack that defined her.
"That situation showed her tenacity," says Maura Roche, a nonprofit consultant who for many years was Planned Parenthood's Salem lobbyist.
Republicans owned the Oregon Legislature in the 1990s. Brown labored for two terms in the House minority before moving up to the Senate in 1996. There, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2-to-1.
Brown sought to change that. She became her caucus's top fundraiser, drawing on public employee unions and trial lawyers. By 2003, Democrats, thanks in large part to Brown's work, had drawn even with Republicans 15-15, and Brown established herself as a rising star.
But it didn't win her the top Senate leadership job at the time. With a divided chamber, senators from both parties compromised to elect Peter Courtney (D-Salem) to be Senate president. Brown won the position of caucus leader, which made her responsible for counting votes—and ensuring the passage of Democratic priorities.
As caucus leader, Brown showed an aggressive ambition that separated her from other senators who aspired to statewide office.
In 2003, Oregon's economy was then mired in recession, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski pushed for deep cuts to the Public Employees Retirement System. Few Democrats wanted to vote for the bill because that meant crossing their biggest source of financial support: organized labor.
Despite fierce opposition from unions, Brown twisted arms to secure the votes necessary to cut PERS. Then, when fellow Democrats risked their careers to vote for the bill, Brown voted against it.
It was a maneuver that preserved her union ties but infuriated colleagues, especially when unions later successfully crushed Democrats who supported the measure.
"She totally undercut people," says former Sen. Charlie Ringo (D-Beaverton).
While Democrats built an enduring majority in the past decade, Brown authored major ethics legislation, secured the state matching funding for TriMet's new light-rail bridge and pushed for the ORESTAR campaign finance reporting system, considered one of the nation's best at providing government transparency.
In 2008, Brown wanted to move up to statewide office. She faced three Democratic Senate colleagues—Brad Avakian (D-Beaverton), Rick Metsger (D-Welches) and Vicki Walker (D-Eugene)—in the primary for the open secretary of state office.
With Brown's union backing, it was no contest.
Brown's new job is more bureaucratic and less political than lawmaking—the kind of position in which you generally get noticed only when things go wrong.
Things did go wrong in 2012, when Brown's office botched the scheduling of the state labor commissioner's race. Both Avakian, the incumbent, and his opponent, then-Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro), had been told by Brown's office they would face off in May.
That would have given Starr a better chance to win—Avakian had just been battered in an unsuccessful race for Congress, and the small primary turnout would have favored the more conservative Starr.
But at the last minute, Brown claimed she had made a scheduling mistake and pushed the race to November—a move that helped Avakian, the eventual winner.
The foul-up could be attributed to partisanship or incompetence—either way, it hurt Brown. Nearly every newspaper in the state (including WW) endorsed her 2012 opponent, Dr. Knute Buehler, a Bend Republican. Brown beat Buehler easily. Once elected, she responded to criticism of her performance by getting rid of her elections director, chief of staff and spokesperson.
She got into trouble again in January, when it was revealed she had sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission endorsing the merger of cable giant Comcast and Time Warner. News website the Verge revealed that Brown's 2014 letter had been cut and pasted from one written by a Comcast lobbyist, and that Comcast had given Brown $10,000 in campaign contributions since 2008.
Despite that controversy, Brown is poised for perhaps her biggest legislative victory: persuading lawmakers to approve the "motor voter" bill that would register Oregonians to vote when they get or renew a driver's license.
Brown's union allies love the bill because unregistered voters skew toward Democrats. Many Republicans don't like the bill, in part because they are concerned about the DMV's ability to verify identities. "There may be people who are allowed to vote who should not be able to vote," says state Sen. Brian Boquist (R-Dallas).
Brown, whose term ends after next year, can't seek re-election. She was already a leading candidate for governor in 2018, and has been meeting with supporters and slowly raising money, even before Kitzhaber's troubles grew dire.
Now, she waits, wondering like the rest of Oregon whether Kitzhaber will survive.