Tina Kotek has been dominant in Oregon politics for the last decade. That might be a problem.
She is 40 minutes into a tour of a new homeless shelter, when a thought seems to occur to Tina Kotek.
Kotek has watched this shelter in a former Rite-Aid since it opened months before. She stopped by with a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, and, from her perch as one of Oregon’s most influential politicians, personally found $5 million that will soon transform the building into a more fitting space for her city’s rapidly growing homeless population.
Today, a warm January morning, it still looks like a gutted pharmacy. Kotek scans a scuffed floor dotted with cots, passes stained sofas, and tours a pantry passing out coffee and bagels through the same window where pharmacists once dispensed pills.
Still, the scene seems to excite her.
“Yessss!” Kotek exclaims after an employee points to one resident, sleeping on a nearby cot, who will soon move into an apartment after 15 years on the street. “Amazing,” she remarks of the shelter’s largely supportive neighbors. A small dog, not so different from Kotek’s own, wanders past, and she cannot resist addressing it in the high pitch reserved for pets or babies. “Oh, look at you! Hi!”
She is most excited about what recently sprang up in the parking lot: a dozen tidy, single-bed sleeping pods — mobile bedrooms that offer their occupants a measure of precious privacy. Kotek confides to a staffer she had to pressure Multnomah County officials for these. “I was like, ‘buy the pods,’” she says. “The county was losing their mind.”
When the tour is complete, Kotek gets down to business. What else does the shelter need, she wants to know. Storage containers would help stretch cramped conditions. There is money for more pods. She is the longest-tenured speaker of the House in Oregon history, a housing obsessive and just the woman this Portland facility would want on its side.
But before she can set a plan into motion, something dawns on Kotek.
“I’m only a state rep for one more day,” she tells the shelter manager, catching herself before making pledges of action that have become second nature. “Yeah, tomorrow’s my last day.”
When tomorrow arrives, Kotek will wheel the final items out of a Capitol office she’s occupied for nearly a decade (she jokes about the expired bottles of aspirin that have piled up). She will step down as both a state representative and House speaker in order to focus on a new challenge: becoming Oregon’s next governor.
It’s a race she should be well positioned to dominate.
In nine years, almost no one has guided the trundling pioneer wagon of Oregon governance as powerfully as Kotek. She has collected progressive victories like pelts, showing a flair for muscling through bold bills and cobbling together unlikely coalitions.
Her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, state Treasurer Tobias Read, brings his own strengths to the race. He also might find a potent new funding base now that donors who backed former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof find themselves without a candidate. Both men position themselves as moderate outsiders who are more inclined to compromise than Kotek.
But no one running to replace Gov. Kate Brown — Democrat, Republican, or otherwise — can credibly claim to have as much experience at the highest levels of state government as the former speaker.
In most election years, that record and the allies that come with it would all but guarantee Kotek the keys to the governor’s mansion. In 2022, they could be her undoing.
For many Oregonians, that wagon of government Kotek has helped steer seems stuck in the mud, with a broken axle and a pair of sickly oxen. Recent polling conducted for OPB suggests less than 20% of voters think the state is headed in the right direction, and nearly three quarters feel it’s veering off course. In Portland, Kotek’s home city and the state’s Democratic stronghold, separate polling has shown a rock-bottom 8% of voters are happy with the status quo.
Finding the reasons for this disaffection is as simple, in many parts of the state, as stepping outside: Two years of state-enforced COVID restrictions, an explosion in visible homelessness, tardy unemployment and rental assistance checks, increases in crime, trash, school closures, gas prices. Kotek might care deeply about the people sleeping in that old Rite-Aid. The problem is that the Rite-Aid was needed in the first place.
So the state’s longest-ever House speaker faces a challenge. She needs to convince voters she’s the person to lead the state out of the current quagmire, while dodging blame for putting it there.
“What I’m selling to people is a track record of listening to people, understanding the problems, defining solutions and actually getting the solutions passed,” she said in a recent interview.
The question, for the May primary and beyond, is whether Oregonians think she still belongs in the driver’s seat.
Until recently, there was a go-to anecdote for people asked about Kotek’s leadership style.
In May 2019, Democrats had just passed a watershed business tax to pour billions of dollars into the state’s chronically underfunded and underperforming K-12 schools. But to guarantee the law was not challenged at the ballot, they had to pass another bill that would broach what for many has become untouchable: public employee pensions.
The proposal up for consideration in the House that evening made relatively modest changes. But for the public-sector workers who often give decisive support to Democrats, they amounted to a violation. The state’s big unions warned that anyone voting for the bill would meet disfavor in future elections.
Kotek pressed on anyway, but what had been a sure hand over the course of six years as speaker looked at first like it might slip. When she called the question, the pension bill was on the precipice of failing by two votes — unheard of in a chamber where results are often well choreographed beforehand.
So Kotek went to work. She summoned two Democrats who’d voted no — Reps. Mitch Greenlick and Andrea Salinas — into her office just behind the chamber rostrum.
The speaker’s intensity surrounding the bill was already well known in the building. Another lawmaker, former state Rep. Diego Hernandez, has claimed that Kotek at one point explicitly threatened to end his political career if he voted no. Hernandez, who did vote against the legislation, wound up later resigning under pressure from Kotek and other Democrats after a number of women brought forward harassment allegations.
Precisely what Kotek said to Greenlick and Salinas in her office that evening is unclear. But when they emerged, Salinas had been crying and both lawmakers changed their votes. The bill passed.
The scene quickly became a Rorschach test of sorts.
Kotek had already been cast by critical lawmakers in both parties as a bully who’d grown increasingly comfortable wielding her broad power. To some, the pension vote was the perfect crystallization of that idea, complete with tears.
Or, you could view the moment as Kotek’s friends do: A principled leader insisting her members take a politically unpalatable vote in service of the greater good. Salinas, a former union lobbyist currently running for Congress, now suggests Kotek’s closed-door pitch was less severe than it might have appeared.
“I’ve told folks: That is what she has to do. She has to try to influence and keep her caucus together,” Salinas said. “She did her job. I voted for the bill.”
Whatever the angle, the vote was another victory for a speaker who had grown adept at moving boundary-pushing legislation through her chamber.
When Kotek announced in early January that she would step down to run for governor, a list of “select accomplishments” released by her office included bills that expanded health care coverage to undocumented Oregonians; mandated use of lower-polluting auto fuels; greened up the state’s electricity grid; increased the minimum wage; allowed greater housing density in residential neighborhoods; poured record money into housing and homelessness initiatives; restricted how local governments can enforce camping bans; expanded gun controls; codified legal abortion; and more.
The list ran 11 pages.
“Tina has been able to use her position to help drive change, when sometimes a path to that change wasn’t always clear,” says Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, a close political ally and Kotek’s replacement as House speaker.
More often than not, the passage of the bills Kotek touts looked nothing like the spectacle of the 2019 pension vote. As speaker, Kotek was most active behind the scenes. Allies say she could be a relentless force who loved to steer political conversations toward policy, then wear down would-be opponents with her mastery of the subject matter.
She was not above rewarding compliant lawmakers with budget goodies for their districts. She would sometimes shout.
“Tina basically passes bills and then gets into really confrontational conversations with [Senate President] Peter Courtney to make sure what the House wants gets delivered,” says Doug Moore, executive director the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. A longtime Kotek ally, Moore says the former speaker has been more firm than any other Democratic leader on pushing pro-environment policy.
(Courtney, the moderate Democratic foil to Kotek’s hard-charging progressivism, declined to talk about Kotek and her tenure. In a short statement in January he called her “a historic figure,” “excellent with budgets” and “an advocate in many ways before anything else.”)
“She’s very hard to debate,” says Susan Sprague, Kotek’s older sister, who lives in Pennsylvania and describes herself as a staunch conservative. “She’s almost persuaded me to do some of the stuff she wants to do out there. She’s very good at what she does.”
But on the House dais, in public, Kotek was typically calm and measured, responding to even pointed attacks by thanking lawmakers for their input and ushering the proceedings sleepily forward. It’s an all-business style that sometimes inspired comparisons between Kotek and Spock, the cold and hyperlogical Vulcan officer from Star Trek.
“I have this odd reputation of being emotionless,” says Kotek, a fan of the franchise. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m warm. I have a good sense of humor, but I am very focused. When I am doing work, I don’t want drama.”
It’s true that people who work closely with her say Kotek is far from unfeeling. Rayfield recalls her becoming emotional after passing expanded health care coverage for poor Oregonians. Political foes talk of her growing blotchy-faced with anger.
But Kotek also struggles at times to break free of the wonkery that has been an asset in her legislative life, a fact that some allies see as a potential liability.
In November, she sat down with PCUN, a union that represents Oregon farmworkers, to seek the group’s endorsement. The meeting was something of a formality. Kotek has worked with the group for years, and its members have found her dependable and earnest about their concerns. Executive Director Reyna Lopez said recently farmworkers are “never going to forget” Kotek’s advocacy around a 2019 bill granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, for instance.
But in the interview, PCUN members were looking for more than policy talk, Lopez said. They wanted a sense of Kotek as a person. Instead, she launched, unbidden, into a spiel about housing.
“We were kind of cracking up,” Lopez says. “She was talking about the policy and the results and getting into the weeds. Folks just kind of wanted to know about her as a human.”
Kotek’s opponents sometimes call her a zealot, someone so caught up in her focus on the least fortunate that compromise can be difficult.
“If Tina Kotek could spend the entire state budget on the homeless problem, she would,” says Shaun Jillions, a business lobbyist and executive director of industry group Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce.
Kotek’s fans are more charitable in the framing.
“For me, everything that drives Tina is about: How can we make people’s lives better,” says Moore, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters director.
However you look at them, the values Kotek brings to her politics are a source of strength, allies say, and so potent that it can be hard to go against her on a matter she cares about.
“It’s dangerous to do this work if you do not have a North Star,” Kotek says. “For me, that true north is public service to make things better for people.”
Kotek was raised in York, Pennsylvania, the seat of a conservative county two hours west of Philadelphia. Her father, Jerry, worked at a company that built air conditioners, concerning himself with the minutiae of supply and inventory. Her mother, Florence, stayed at home, from which she launched the occasional crusade. Florence Kotek, the story goes, once badgered her local state senator so thoroughly that she convinced the state of Pennsylvania, in 2000, to repeal the sales tax on sewing patterns like those she’d used to make clothes for her kids.
“She kept on it, kept on it,” said Sprague, Kotek’s sister. “When my mom passed away, this same state senator came to the funeral and recounted that.”
Kotek would become an amalgamation of her parents: a policy geek plunging neck-deep into details, and an advocate known for grinding down opponents.
She grew up alongside her twin brother and older sister, obsessing over Captain America and Batman, playing superhero in the basement, and generally excelling. At Dallastown Area High School she broke track records in the long jump and triple jump, and played point guard on the varsity basketball team. Sprague says she was serious and bookish, graduating near the top of her class, layering on extracurriculars like student government and newspaper, and ultimately getting accepted into prestigious Georgetown University.
“She was not a troublemaker,” Sprague said. “Tina doesn’t settle for second very well, and she can usually be first, both academically and athletically.”
Things got more complicated in her early 20s. Kotek chose to tell friends and family she was gay at a time when that fact was a potential source of scandal, especially in her conservative hometown. By then, though, Kotek was a long way from Pennsylvania. She had dropped out of Georgetown after less than two years and headed west at the urging of friends. She told the Oregonian in 2013 that she “didn’t fit in” at Georgetown. “Everybody wanted to be a lawyer.”
Raised Catholic and now a practicing Episcopal, Kotek was more interested in trials of faith.
She earned a degree in religious studies from the University of Oregon, then attended grad school at the University of Washington, where she focused on international studies and comparative religion.
Kotek soon found that, even in the liberal Northwest, she’d have to fight for her identity. While she was at UW, administrators denied family housing to Kotek and her then-partner because they were a same-sex couple. Kotek, by 1997 a high-ranking member of the student government, helped force the school to change its policy.
“It was at that moment where I’m like, ’I have to give back,’” Kotek says. “I can help make change.”
She opted to pursue that change through work at nonprofits. At the Oregon Food Bank, Kotek heard first-hand from families on the verge of hunger. At Children First of Oregon, where she was policy director, Kotek stalked the halls of the state Capitol to lobby for bills that would help underprivileged kids and honed a knack for policy discussion.
“I always say everything I know about policy, I learned from Tina Kotek,” says Robin Christian, Kotek’s boss at Children First. “She’s a doer.”
But by 2004, merely asking lawmakers for their votes was no longer enough for Kotek. She wanted to be the one voting. She ran for an open House seat in Northeast Portland, losing in the primary but meeting Aimee Wilson, a union lobbyist who would later become her wife.
Two years later, another House seat opened up but there was a problem: Kotek didn’t live in the North Portland district it represented. So she moved.
Kotek insists the move was not a sign that she craved power. “I am laser-focused on doing things and getting things done,” she says. “I don’t classify that as political ambition.” She cleared a contested primary, then easily won in the November general election. She has not faced a truly competitive race since.
Once elected, Kotek’s ascent in the House was swift. Lawmaker Greg Smith noted early on in her career she had a knack for hard work and whipping votes.
“I watched Tina visit with every one of her members to make sure they cast an ‘aye’ vote,” Smith, a Republican from eastern Oregon, said of one early Kotek bill. “I’m telling you she worked it. She worked it passionately. That’s really the first time I ever paid attention to her.”
A shot at leadership came when Kotek’s party suffered a serious setback.
In the 2010 Tea Party wave, Democrats exchanged a sizeable majority in the House for a 30-30 split chamber. The turn of events set Democrats against their leader at the time, Dave Hunt, and Kotek convinced the caucus she was just the person to guide them back into power as the Democratic leader
In 2012, she did just that, marshaling a strategy that put Democrats in charge and ensuring she would become the nation’s first openly lesbian House speaker just six years after she took office.
Kotek’s first act: giving every representative a book called “Toward One Oregon,” a collection of essays that explored how the state could ease geographic and cultural fractures between urban and rural Oregonians.
It was a nod to a hopeful theory Kotek brought to the office: That by crafting policies that respected different viewpoints throughout the state, she could help heal Oregon’s deepening divisions.
But in the nine years since, just the opposite has happened.
Recently, another anecdote about Kotek has begun to crowd out the story of the dramatic 2019 pension vote.
Last April, she cut a deal to convince minority Republicans to give up delay tactics that had thrown sludge over Oregon’s legislative gears. The agreement freed up Democrats to pass some ambitious bills, but at a price: Kotek committed to granting Republicans an equal say when lawmakers redrew political maps — including a brand new congressional district that both parties were salivating over.
With equal numbers on a committee drawing those maps, Republicans had veto power that could ensure their notions of fairness were not overlooked. And they pressed that power, suggesting in September they would block a Democratic proposal for congressional districts and force the matter to the courts.
Then Kotek broke her end of the bargain.
Insisting Republicans were obstructing the process, she rejiggered committees to ensure Democrats could get their way. Over howls of outrage from Republicans, Kotek’s party passed new maps that could ensure five of Oregon’s six congressional seats are held by Democrats next year.
Kotek had managed respectful, even friendly relationships with Republican leaders during her time as speaker, but lately her pull with the opposition party had been more and more tenuous, In 2020, House Republicans walked away from the Capitol to block a climate change bill, claiming Kotek had negotiated in bad faith. Her redistricting maneuver the following year gave that antipathy a furious new energy.
“When she chooses to break an agreement made in good faith, she is harming the institution, creating greater division and impacting our ability to work together,” said then-House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, in a bold and hopeless attempt to have Kotek formally censured on the House floor. (Drazan is also running for governor.)
While Kotek’s decision was cheered by some Democrats as a sign that she was willing to play hardball over redistricting in a style similar to what Republicans have used in GOP-dominated states, it also angered some members of her own party. Moderate Democrats for years had complained of a leadership style they said included threats and broken trust.
“Toward the end it was, ‘My way or the highway,’” said former state Rep. Jeff Barker, an Aloha Democrat who left the Legislature in 2020 after he says Kotek double-crossed him, allowing a bill to gut the state’s death penalty to pass when she’d first said the matter should be decided by voters. “Her truthfulness in the end was pretty lacking.”
Hernandez, the former lawmaker who resigned after allegations of harassment surfaced, formally accused Kotek of violating workplace rules. His complaint, filed in mid-2021, remains under investigation.
The shattered redistricting deal was also perhaps not a one-off. As OPB reported in November, State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, has said that she and Kotek reached an agreement in early 2021 that proved politically expedient for the speaker, only to have Kotek back out.
Under the arrangement — recounted by Bynum and a third-party witness, and reflected in a subsequent email — Kotek agreed to support Bynum in a later bid to be speaker, if Bynum would abandon a plan to challenge Kotek for the job in the near term.
Bynum did her part, but Kotek has since said she did not pledge her endorsement to anyone. In a recent bid for speaker, and without Kotek’s explicit backing, Bynum lost to Rayfield.
Kotek has tried to dodge criticisms that she’s a deal breaker, insisting she abided by her agreement with Bynum and that Republicans forced her hand on redistricting. But for critics the indication she might not keep her word has become a new political weapon — one that’s likely to be sharpened as campaign season intensifies.
Still, there’s another, more obvious, factor standing in Kotek’s way: Her long and productive alliance with Gov. Kate Brown, the person whose path to the governor’s mansion she is in many ways following,
Term-limited from running again, Brown has seen her popularity plummet over the course of her seven years in office, a span of time in which she has had to grapple with a murderers’ row of crises.
There’s the COVID pandemic, in which the governor’s stern restrictions on business and school operations saved lives, but made her despised in some corners of the state. Then there were historic wildfires and heatwaves, some of the nation’s most convulsive protests for racial justice, an explosion in visible homelessness, a botched rollout of federal unemployment and renter relief, and more.
At the end of it all — and despite some achievements equally as notable as the challenges she’s faced — recent polling suggested Brown was the least popular governor in the nation. Maybe more telling, polls of Oregon residents have suggested that former President Donald Trump might have higher favorability numbers than Brown.
It’s no surprise, then, that any theory about Kotek’s political vulnerability rests on her similarities to Brown.
Both women are Portland progressives who have broken boundaries. Brown, who is bisexual, was the first openly LGBT person to be elected governor in the country’s history. Kotek could become the nation’s first openly lesbian governor.
Both women have also leaned on the same central slate of labor organizations and advocacy groups that have long been power players in Oregon. Service Employees International Union Local 503, the state’s largest union, announced its endorsement of Kotek in January. The Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union and another major political player, followed a month later. The national group EMILY’s List has also signed on for Kotek, as have trades unions and other advocacy groups that have helped her raise more than $1.75 million for her primary race.
Kotek has not been able to court all of her party’s prominent members. Former Gov. Barbara Roberts endorsed Read in March, as did former Gov. John Kitzhaber. Both ex-executives cited their belief that the moderate Read is uniquely suited to unite Oregon’s politically fragmented populace. The unspoken suggestion: That Kotek’s unabashedly progressive politics would further stoke acrimony.
Two of the state’s largest labor interests, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75 and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, are not currently endorsing any candidate, though that might well change after the primary.
Maybe more simply than their shared political support, Kotek and Brown have worked seemingly in lockstep over the past seven years, and critics say the former House speaker owns the state’s current crises just as much as its outgoing governor.
Kotek has been accused of taking an overly lenient view of the tent camping that has become omnipresent — in her city and around the state — and is the most visible sign of Oregon’s housing crisis. Pressured by Read to take a firm stance on the issue, Kotek says she would favor requiring people camping in public to move to shelters, if enough shelter exists.
At the same time, Kotek brushes aside the increasingly common “Kate Brown 2.0″ label. “Voters will figure out the difference between me and Kate Brown,” she says. “She’s Kate Brown. I’m Tina Kotek. We’re two different people.”
Those differences are pronounced, people who’ve worked with the two women say. Brown tends to be cautious and consensus-driven, seeking input and agreement before making a decision. Kotek is more apt to follow her own instincts.
But nuances are hard to convey on the campaign trail, and it’s perhaps no surprise Kotek walks a careful line where the governor is concerned. She has shied away from saying she would seek Brown’s endorsement in the primary (Brown says she will not make one), but has also often been unwilling to explicitly criticize the governor.
“I don’t know the inner workings of how she does her day to-day-business,” Kotek said in January. “I’m not gonna Monday morning quarterback what the governor’s been through. I mean, it’s been a lot.”
Still, there’s long been an implication to Kotek’s sales pitch that not all is running smoothly in the executive branch. And as she’s honed her political messaging, the criticism of Brown has come into focus. Asked recently what the biggest failure of Brown’s administration has been, Kotek called out the excruciating delays in getting unemployment payments to Oregonians at the outset of the pandemic.
“If I had been governor in 2020, there would have been a change in agency leadership sooner and a more hands-on approach to that crisis,” Kotek said.
While it’s true that Kotek is known for running a tight ship, anyone watching how the Legislature has handled harassment issues might take exception to her claims of bringing systems to account.
Kotek was among Democratic leaders hammered by the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries in 2019, wheninvestigators concluded that pervasive harassment had created a hostile workplace within the Legislature. The Legislature wound up settling with victims for more than $1 million, though that largely concerned harassment that occurred in the state Senate.
And while Kotek was a leader in helping the Legislature create new, stronger policies for dealing with harassment in recent years, those policies have often floundered. A new office created to handle harassment complaints sits empty, and its former director hasraised alarming claims that reports of harassment were ignored by a previous staffer. In the face of those accusations, Kotek largely sought to deflect blame, saying that responsibility for the largely confidential office sits with a legislative committee and not the speaker’s office.
Even if Kotek is as accountability-minded as she says, though, her opponents believe voters disheartened by the state of their state aren’t likely to be moved by theories of agency administration.
“She’s passed a lot of bills,” says Carol Butler, a political consultant who ran Nick Kristof’s now-defunct gubernatorial campaign. “There’s a disconnect between what she’s saying she’s done and what people are seeing and feeling in their lives.”
In August 2017, a solar eclipse sent people scrambling to some of Oregon’s most rural places. They were heading for the “path of totality,” the narrow silhouette slashing across Oregon where the moon would completely blot out the sun.
Kotek was among the pilgrims, traveling with her wife 250 miles east to tiny Long Creek, where a friend’s parents had retired to a remote plot of land. It was a multi-day trip, and members of the group soon planned an excursion to nearby John Day, where there was cell service.
“What’s funny is that Tina is like, ‘Nope. I’ll stay,’” says Rachel Novick, the friend who’d invited Kotek out to the property owned by her mother and stepdad. “She’s like, ‘No I don’t want to check my email. My staff knows I’m off the grid.’”
When Novick returned hours later, she found Kotek deep in conversation with her stepdad — a retired mechanic and Trump voter, and the sort of person who might be skeptical of an ultra-lefty Portlander making decisions that will impact his life.
They were talking, intensely, about chainsaws.
“He’s explaining why his Husqvarna, whatever, whatever,” says Novick, who did not bother to track the conversation. “He had no idea she was speaker of the House, but goddamn if my stepdad didn’t just absolutely love Tina.”
This is the Kotek that supporters hope shines through to voters this year. You have to get beyond her addiction to policy talk, they say, to understand her as the person who brings pie to the neighborhood shelter in her modest Honda, who is still obsessed with superhero movies at 55, and who is perfectly happy whiling away a high-desert afternoon chatting chainsaws.
It’s a side of Kotek that some of her most bitter political rivals have come to appreciate. Daniel Bonham, a Republican representative from The Dalles, once lodged a complaint against the former speaker because he says she coarsely ordered him out of her office. He’s one of Kotek’s louder Republican critics, but he’s also been won over at times.
“Behind the scenes, I find her to be engaging,” he says. “She can be charismatic. She’s a nerd. We share a faith.”
But voters likely know none of this. Polling has suggested roughly half the state has no opinion about Kotek, regardless of the many ways she’s impacted their lives. That’s potentially a huge chink in her seemingly formidable armor, an opportunity for critics to fill the void with their own narrative.
Kotek’s job for the next month — and, if things go well, the six months after that — is to make a convincing introduction.
“It’s true that as a legislative leader people don’t know me as well,” Kotek says. “They will know me. They will know what I’ve been able to do.”
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