As Kate Brown takes office as Oregon's governor, she'll have little time to consider the whirlwind events that elevated her from her former job as secretary of state.

Her first big political test is already taking shape: How will Brown, a Portland liberal, cut a path away from scandal-plagued ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber without harming her shot at the Democratic nomination for governor in 2016?

One way to do that has already become clear. Democrats are pushing for an extension of the state's low-carbon fuel standard—rules that encourage oil producers and importers to offer fuels with lower carbon emissions.

The bill, which has become increasingly controversial, is working its way through the Legislature right now. And the issue offers Brown her first big chance to assert her independence. 

Despite winning two statewide elections, many voters don't know Brown well, says John Horvick, political director of pollsters DHM Research.

"The stories have been written, fair or unfair, that she is a more dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and liberal," Horvick says. "Given the strength the Democrats have [in the Legislature], she has some strong ability to satisfy their desires and needs. Does she use the next legislative session to do that? Or does she try to position herself more as a statewide candidate, representative of the whole of the state?"

Brown spokesman Tony Green, interviewed before Brown's swearing-in Feb. 18, says Brown will address her position as governor on legislative issues after she takes office.

The low-carbon fuel standard sounds incredibly wonky. But it has a pretty straightforward goal: to combat global warming. It's controversial to start with because producers and importers who don't comply with the standard would be forced to buy credits from producers of cleaner products. 

That cost would be passed on to customers at the pump, leading some critics to call the standard a back-door tax. 

House and Senate Republicans have opposed the standard since it first emerged as a goal in 2009 under then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Since then, the state has been working on writing a standard, but the law that authorizes it expires this year. An effort to renew the standard died in the 2013 session when state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) sided with all 14 Senate Republicans to oppose renewal.

But it's even more controversial now because of its association with Kitzhaber and former first lady Cylvia Hayes, who signed contracts to represent advocates who want a low-carbon fuel standard. Those contracts have been swept up in the criminal investigation that helped force Kitzhaber from office Feb. 18.

Rep. Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte) and others have called on Democratic leaders to suspend consideration of the low-carbon fuel standard, Senate Bill 324, saying the controversy around Hayes has meant the standard could “no longer be evaluated on merit alone.” 

Supporters of the bill say Hayes never touched it. 

"Cylvia Hayes has never been involved in the clean fuels program," says Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, one of the standard's chief backers. "It's been a priority for the environmental community for the past three years."

In many ways, Brown is a natural ally to the environmental cause. Moore says he expects Brown would be supportive of the fuel standard.

But support for the bill could work against the new governor, who faces a special election next year to decide who will serve out the last two years of Kitzhaber's term.

The 2015 Legislature is separately looking at a major transportation funding bill that would include a gas tax increase that cities such as Portland want desperately for roadway improvements. 

Brown doesn't get to vote on the fuel standard or the transportation package. But she does have veto power. Allowing two measures that raise fuel prices to go into law could give other would-be governors a hammer to use against Brown.

Longtime political consultant and lobbyist Len Bergstein says the fuel standard issue marks Brown's shift from policy proponent to governor. 

"Her role all of a sudden is not just to advocate," Bergstein says. "People will expect that she'll have values and that she'll apply them to her decisions. But her job is to make sure she creates a safe place where people can hash this stuff out and feel like they've had a chance to make their case.

"Obviously," he adds, "the end result is that if somebody feels they didn't like the process, they can take it to the voters."


Also in this week's paper:


Correction: Due to a miscommunication, a quote from a DHM Research pollster was misattributed. The statement was made by John Horvick.