Tina Kotek is a housing champion, a friend to labor and a foe to Phil Knight
With nearly a decade as one of the state’s most powerful politicians, the former House speaker was always considered the frontrunner in a Democratic primary that included state Treasurer Tobias Read and — for a brief time — New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Her handy win in that race only bolstered her credentials as this year’s candidate to beat.
But Kotek’s surefire position at the front of the pack has seemed less certain lately. Polling shows Republican Christine Drazan running even with, or maybe ahead of, the Democrat. Oregon’s race is poised to be perhaps the country’s closest gubernatorial contest this year for two central reasons: Voters are angry at the status quo under Democrats, and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson has scrambled the state’s political math with her well-funded play for the electoral middle.
Despite all that, it’s been 40 years since Oregon put a Republican in the governor’s mansion. Betting against Kotek, who could become the first open Lesbian governor in the nation if she wins, still might be a shaky move.
She’s a transplant
Kotek was raised in York, Pennsylvania, the seat of a conservative county about two hours west of Philadelphia. She excelled in school, layering plenty of sports and extracurriculars on top of academics, and gained acceptance to the prestigious Georgetown University.
“She was not a troublemaker,” Kotek’s older sister, Susan Sprague, told OPB earlier this year. “Tina doesn’t settle for second very well, and she can usually be first, both academically and athletically.”
But Georgetown wasn’t a good fit. Kotek followed friends west to Eugene and the University of Oregon, where she majored in religious studies. With the exception of a few years in Seattle to attend grad school, she’s been in Oregon ever since.
Kotek won her first race for the state House of Representatives in 2006, following jobs at the Oregon Food Bank and Children First of Oregon.
She’s all about housing and has been for years
No lawmaker in recent history has done more on housing. If elected, Kotek promises to do more.
Under her leadership, Oregon became the first to have a statewide rent control bill, preventing landlords from raising rents beyond a certain percentage each year. She pushed through a measure to allow cities with a population of more than 10,000 people to build duplexes and triplexes to increase housing stock, despite neighborhood zoning restrictions. More recently, she helped secure $75 million of state funds to turn motels into emergency shelter bedsto increase the state’s supply of beds for people experiencing homelessness by 20%.
“We simply have to get more serious about building a lot more housing,” Kotek wrote in response to questions from OPB. “The goal will be to build enough housing to meet the need for people currently experiencing homelessness, address the current shortage of housing, and keep pace with future housing demand over the next decade.”
Kotek also promised to reduce the racial homeownership gap by 20% by 2027.
Oregon has a history of discriminatory and racist practices, such as banks denying loans, hiking interest rates and not renting or selling homes to people of color. Kotek said she would help increase down payment assistance programs, crack down on discriminatory practices and partner with culturally specific organizations to reach BIPOC households across the state to close the gap.
She broke the record — and made some enemies
Kotek became House speaker in 2013, after helping Democrats win back a majority in the chamber. She didn’t relinquish the position until early this year when she stepped down to run for governor.
The nine-year stint marked the longest tenure of any speaker in state history — and Kotek got plenty done in that time. With Democrats steadily expanding their majority in the chamber, she helped pass major bills for funding schools, increasing the minimum wage, expanding paid leave for workers, creating new gun regulations, protecting access to abortion and more.
Kotek’s supporters say she’s a principled and driven leader who works hard to master the subject matter of a given political debate, and can wear down reluctant parties.
But not everyone is a fan. Toward the end of her time as speaker, Kotek saw increasing criticisms from Republicans and moderate Democrats that she had grown too rigid, and would look to achieve success at all costs.
One example stands out: Last year, Kotek convinced House Republicans to stop using delay tactics by granting them an equal say in the once-a-decade task of drawing new political maps. The deal meant the GOP would have veto power over any map they thought was biased in the Democrats’ favor.
But when it became clear that the Republicans, led by Drazan, would do just that, Kotek hastily broke the deal. Democrats passed their favored maps despite Republican concerns.
Kotek’s opponents suggest it’s a sign she would not be a trustworthy negotiator if elected governor.
She’s critical of the outgoing governor
At least, she is now.
When Kotek first launched her gubernatorial campaign she was extremely reluctant to knock outgoing Gov. Kate Brown, with whom she’d worked closely as speaker.
“I’m not gonna Monday morning quarterback what the governor’s been through,” Kotek said in January. “I mean, it’s been a lot.”
But Kotek had a problem: Polling suggests Brown is the least popular governor in the nation. And with many Oregonians plainly dispirited by rising homelessness, crime, and a state government that repeatedly bungled major initiatives, Kotek has increasingly seen a need to more forcefully push back on accusations she is “Kate Brown 2.0.″
“Oregon can do great things,” Kotek told the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board recently. “We have not had the leadership in our governor’s office over the last several years to make that happen and I am tired of it.”
Kotek’s campaign has always been based partly on a premise that Brown was not a capable administrator of state government. Her central pledge to Oregonians is that she would bring a steady hand and rigorous oversight to the many agencies under her authority as governor.
Labor loves her
Kotek has remained competitive in the most-expensive race in state history with the help of labor unions, progressive advocacy groups and national Democrats. The Democratic Governors Association is her largest donor, with nearly $6 million in contributions as of Oct. 18.
That amount of national interest in an Oregon race is notable and has been mirrored by the Republican Governors Association’s support for Drazan. But Kotek has alsogarnered unprecedented backing from one of her longtime allies: the Service Employees International Union.
The state’s largest labor group, the SEIU has long been a major supporter of Democratic candidates, including outgoing Gov. Kate Brown. But with nearly $2 million spent backing Kotek so far, the union has never been quite as invested in an Oregon candidate.
Kotek often pitches herself as a friend to working families and has said that her values align with SEIU, the Oregon Education Association, and other left-leaning labor groups. Critics charge that she is too beholden to unions, a common critique of Democratic politicians in Oregon.
Kotek has a more personal connection to the union, too. Her wife, Aimee, was once an SEIU employee.
Phil Knight does not
Billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight has donated to Oregon political candidates for years, but lately, his giving has taken a turn.
While Knight used to give relatively modest amounts to both Democrats and Republicans, he’s lately expressed his displeasure with the status quo by giving huge sums to Republicans.
This year, Knight’s favored candidate is anybody but Kotek.
Early in the race, he spent big on Johnson, bolstering her unaffiliated candidacy with $3.75 million. That’s the most a single individual has given to an Oregon candidate in state history.
But now Knight has changed tactics. With Johnson’s poll numbers stubbornly low, he recently gave $1 million to Drazan, the Republican candidate. He’s also donated $250,000 to the Republican Governors Association, Drazan’s largest donor this year.
Knight’s office has not responded to OPB’s inquiries about his political giving this year. But he did respond to The New York Times, telling the paperin a recent interview that he considers himself “an anti-Tina person.”
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