Democrats face incremental test in race for Oregon governor
For a record nine years, Tina Kotek sat at the front of the Oregon House of Representatives, wielding the speaker’s gavel as the Democratic Party increased its power in the Legislature.
Now the staunch liberal seeks the highest position in the state – the governor’s seat.
While the May 17 primary will determine whether Kotek will be the Democrats’ standard bearer for governor, it’s also another American test of which wing of the Democratic Party is ascendant — progressives or moderates. During the last election cycle, progressives in some of the nation’s most liberal cities, including Seattle and New York, stumbled as frustrated voters opted for more moderate candidates.
In most election years, Kotek’s leadership experience, accomplishments and political allies could guarantee him a victory. But with many Oregonians upset by some of the toughest and longest-lasting COVID-19 restrictions in the country, the homelessness crisis, the lack of affordable housing, the record number of homicides in Portland, school closures , the racial injustice protests that made national headlines and months of deferred unemployment and housing assistance checks, the former lawmaker faces the challenge of convincing people she can make the state better. while dodging blame for where he is today.
Kotek’s critics say she is hyper-partisan, with a progressive agenda that will mostly benefit Democrats and whose broken deals have left her with many enemies. But her supporters, including a third of the Oregon legislature, say her determination and ability to “get things done” – sometimes, seemingly by any means necessary – makes her the candidate to improve the whole of State.
“What I think voters really want is someone who can see a problem, bring people together and solve it,” Kotek told The Associated Press recently. “They want to see action.”
Kotek’s path to political prominence in Oregon was far less direct than taking Interstate 5 from Portland to the Statehouse in Salem. The daughter of a middle-class family whose parents are first-generation Americans after her grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe, Kotek grew up in York, Pennsylvania, a conservative county seat in two hours west of Philadelphia.
Kotek moved to Beaver State in 1987 and earned a degree in religious studies from the University of Oregon. In the quirky college town, Kotek was “free” to be herself, and she came out as a lesbian. If elected, Kotek, 55, would be the country’s first openly lesbian governor.
As a graduate student at the University of Washington, Kotek’s request to live in married student housing with her then-partner was denied. At the time, same-sex marriage was illegal in the state. Kotek helped force the school to change its policy and was introduced to activism.
“It was my first aha moment like ‘You can change the world,'” Kotek said.
Kotek worked in nonprofits before he was elected to the House, representing North Portland, in 2006. In 2012, his colleagues elected his House Speaker.
While Kotek’s sexual orientation and political views produce backlash, one of the biggest hurdles she’s faced is sexism, describing the legislature as “a bit of an old boys’ network.”
“What I’ve noticed for myself and my female colleagues is that we all, I think, feel that we need to work harder and be at the top of our game all the time,” she said. declared. “Because we are trying to prove something.”
If elected, she would be the third female governor in Oregon history. Though she’s been endorsed by nationally recognized women politicians, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, she doesn’t have a coveted nod from the first woman to lead the state. , Barbara Roberts, who was elected in the early ’90s. Roberts endorsed Kotek’s biggest Democratic challenger, Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read.
“Oregon needs a governor with a statewide record to tackle tough issues, deliver results, and fight for Oregonians living in every corner of this great state,” said Roberts said in a statement released as part of Read’s campaign.
Before stepping down from the Legislative Assembly this year to run for governor, Kotek led and passed ambitious progressive agendas made possible by Democratic supermajorities, including the first statewide rent control, gun storage laws, criminal justice reform, paid family leave and requiring metro counties to switch to clean diesel engines by 2025.
“Tina doesn’t just talk about the issues affecting our communities, she gets to work,” Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio said.
Making deals and whipping the vote helped Kotek pass laws. In 2019, a pension cost cap bill failed before Kotek stepped in to get two more votes in favor, The Oregonian reported.
But Kotek’s aggressiveness in delivering results has also left a trail of mistrust and political enemies.
In September, Kotek infuriated Republicans by canceling a power-sharing deal. The deal essentially gave House Republicans a veto over redrawn political maps if the minority party stopped blocking bills and halting sessions. In recent years, the GOP has walked out or failed to show up for work in protest. After a strike in 2019 to block a vote on a historic, economy-wide climate plan, Governor Kate Brown deployed state police to try to round up Republican lawmakers who fled the Capitol.
But Kotek rescinded the deal on the first day of the special session, saying Republicans were not engaging constructively. The Democrats’ maps included a new sixth congressional district and were upheld in court.
While Kotek said she made a tough decision in order to finish the maps in time, Republicans said they were tricked, leading to another GOP walkout and sparking further tensions between the parties.
“She lied and broke her promise not only to us but to the people of Oregon,” said former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, another gubernatorial candidate.
But perhaps one of Kotek’s biggest challenges is whether she can unite an increasingly divided state. Several rural counties have discussed breaking away from Oregon and joining Idaho, where their conservative values align better. Political pundits describe the state as purple, with conservative rural areas and more unaffiliated voters than Democrats. Some say moderate, unaffiliated gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson will be more successful.
Kotek was also thought to be too similar to Brown. Opponents have dubbed Kotek “Kate Brown 2.0,” perhaps hoping to smear her with the current governor’s historically low approval ratings.
Both are liberal women who have represented Portland, identify as LGBTQ, and held power as Oregon descended into disarray.
But the Democrat has a simple message: “I am Tina Kotek. I am not Kate Brown.
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