Kate Brown Unlikely to Upend Oregon Politics

After succeeding embattled Gov. John Kitzhaber Wednesday, Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown is expected to pursue policies in line with her predecessors.
by | February 18, 2015

Kate Brown is becoming governor of Oregon under dramatic circumstances, but her elevation does not signal any great change in policy direction for the state.

Brown, who has been serving as secretary of state, will be sworn in as governor on Wednesday. She succeeds fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, who is stepping down in the midst of an influence-peddling scandal. Oregon does not have a lieutenant governor.

Bucking national trends last November, Oregon voters not only re-elected Kitzhaber but gave Democrats larger majorities in the legislature. That will give Brown plenty of opportunity to push her agenda.

That's still coming into focus, but her record suggests she'll be attentive to progressive concerns, including climate change and criminal justice reform. Oregon may follow Portland's lead in mandating that employers offer paid sick leave to workers.

"Mental health is an issue that the incoming governor has focused on before and is a particular priority among cities," said Michael McCauley, executive director of the League of Oregon Cities. "We have a lack of resources, particularly in crisis situations."

The legislature might make a renewed effort to approve a form of driver's licenses for undocumented aliens, an idea rejected by Oregon voters last year. There is also talk about allowing cities such as Portland to pursue inclusionary zoning (requiring that a proportion of new housing units be set aside for low-income residents), which is currently blocked under state law.

proposal to register eligible citizens to vote automatically "was her highest priority as secretary of state," said Steve Novick, a Portland city commissioner who worked as a Brown aide in the legislature. "I suspect it will be one of her highest priorities as governor."

He noted that her office performed an audit of teacher preparation programs, which may send a signal that she'll be more interested in providing teachers with professional development opportunities than pushing policies that question their effectiveness.

"Kate Brown has always been a strong supporter of public education," said Hanna Vaandering, president of the Oregon Education Association, a union that offered financial backing to Brown's re-election bid as secretary of state. "She is a real collaborator, someone who will bring people together to resolve issues."

Brown is generally considered more liberal than Kitzhaber, who began his career in Timber County. Brown, a one-time lobbyist for the Women's Rights Coalition, is a product of Portland. As a state senator, she was a champion of ethics and campaign finance laws, as well as efforts to expand both family leave and breast cancer coverage.

"She's a lefty, which is consistent with her district when she was in the state Senate," said Bill Lunch, a retired political scientist at Oregon State University. "She represented one of the most liberal districts in the state."

Brown may hail from Portland, but her long career in state politics shows she's well aware of the needs of the rural eastern section of the state, said McCauley, the League of Oregon Cities director.

"She wouldn't have been a very successful force in the legislature as [Senate] majority leader and she wouldn't have had the collaborative impact she's had as secretary of state if she didn't have a sense of Oregon as a whole," he said.

As has been widely noted, Brown will make history as the first openly bisexual person to become governor in the United States. She has been married to a man since 1997.

Brown will not serve out Kitzhaber's full term. Assuming she opts to continue as governor, she will run in a special election next year.

Brown failed to receive the Portland Oregonian's endorsement for re-election in 2012, after some fumbles regarding the scheduling of an election for labor commissioner. Early last year, hackers broke into the secretary of state's website, a breach that went unnoticed for two weeks.

Nevertheless, Brown, who helped her party regain a majority in the state Senate, is widely regarded as not just competent but collaborative in her approach.

"I've always personally found her door to be open with a willingness to engage on issues, even when we don't agree," Republican state Rep. Julie Parrish wrote in an Oregonian oped column Tuesday.

Novick recalls Brown carrying a heavy load in a play performed at the end of the 1997 legislative session,  when she had half the lines and memorized them all.

"As a legislator, she was one of the most diligent people around," he said. "She's really hard-working and fun to be around."