Kotek may become the nation’s first lesbian governor in true-blue Oregon, but it won’t be easy | news
Tina Kotek is trying to make political history – again.
If elected in November, she will become America’s first lesbian governor, this, after becoming the nation’s first lesbian speaker of a state House of Representatives in 2013, a job she held longer than anyone in Oregon history.
The 55-year-old Kotek also seeks to keep one of the country’s longest streaks by electing a Democrat to a state’s highest office.
Not since incumbent Gov. Victor Atiyeh crushed Ted Kulongoski in a landslide 40 years ago has the Republican Party won the governorship in Oregon. That’s 10 gubernatorial elections ago.
Utah is tied with the Beaver State, having also chosen a governor from the same party – albeit the GOP – since 1982.
In an interview last week [June 8] at a picnic table in northeast Portland’s Columbia Park, not far from the home she shares with her wife Aimee Kotek Wilson, Kotek said, “I am running because I want things to work in Oregon.”
A public advocate for the Oregon Food Bank before being elected to the state House, Kotek went on, “None of us are outsiders. We’ve all worked for a long time in Oregon politics, but the question is, ‘Who has style and the persistence to get things done?’
She added: “Housing and homelessness are by far the biggest concerns Oregonians have,” and will likely be the driving force – particularly finding solutions to building affordable housing, as well s workforce housing in the heavy tourist-driven areas of the state – when the campaigns move into high gear after Labor Day.
Kotek, gets high praise for her legislative know-how. Under her leadership, Democrats were able to pass a school funding increase they had been looking to do for 30 years.
Born and raised in York, Pennsylvania, Kotek headed west in 1987, attending the University of Oregon, where she earned her degree in religious studies.
Asked how being a lesbian might influence her governing if elected, Kotek said, “I know what it feels like to be left out, and I want to send a message to our young people that you can do anything. I want every child in this state to feel like they can celebrate their authentic selves.”
Democrat Governor Candidate Tina Kotek.
Kotek realizes that Portland and her deep ties to the embattled city will be on the ballot. Recent polling for Oregon Public Broadcasting says less than 20 percent of voters think the state is headed in the right direction.
Having left office in April to concentrate fulltime on the governor’s race, Kotek knows she’ll face stiff headwinds in her quest to replace term-limited and hugely unpopular Kate Brown.
In addition to a challenging national environment, Kotek is confronted by many voters, mainly rural ones, who pillorize their Portland homebase as a mismanaged eyesore.
Worsening matters is independent Betsy Johnson’s credible candidacy, which has opened up a lane for Republican Christine Drazan to break the Democrat’s long hold on the governor’s office.
A poll of likely Oregon voters conducted at the end of May showed Drazan in a virtual tie with Kotek – almost 30 percent for Drazan to nearly 28 percent for Kotek – with the unaffiliated Johnson drawing more than 19 percent support. Almost a quarter of Oregon voters remain undecided.
“It’s the most interesting governor’s race in the country this year. You have three women representing the full ideological spectrum—Kotek, the progressive, Johnson, playing the middle, and Drazan, the conservative,” observed Marc Johnson, who, from his home on the north Oregon coast, writes an influential political and history blog entitled “Many Things Considered.”
“Tina needs to be concerned about being labeled Kate Brown 2.0,” Johnson added. “Betsy’s problem is that she’s held elected office [since winning a seat in the state House in 2000], and until six months ago, was a Democrat. And Drazan’s biggest problem is that if she comes off as too moderate, it will offend the Trumpian wing of the party.”
Betsy Johnson has another problem, too – her hardline stance on guns. Unlike many of her former Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate, she has opposed most gun control measures in Oregon. In 2018, she received an A rating from the NRA.
During an unannounced TEDxPortland interview with Johnson at the Moda Center on May 28 – four days after 18-year-old Salvador Ramos used an AR-15 rifle to kill 19 students and 2 teachers at an Uvalde, Texas elementary school — the so- called political maverick was booed when she blamed the onslaught of mass shootings on a “shitty mental health care system.”
At one point, Johnson said, “People in this country are going to have guns. The style of the gun doesn’t dictate the lethality.”
Johnson was born in Bend and grew up in Redmond, Oregon, but has lived more than two decades in the Columbia County city of Scappoose (pop. 6,592), 22 miles southeast of Vancouver, Washington.
“I worry about both of them (Johnson and Drazan),” said Kotek. “When it comes to climate change and guns, I have big differences. The number one job of being governor is to keep Oregonians safe.”
The Oregon electorate, according to Salem-based pollster John Horvick, is 35 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican, and almost the remaining 40 percent are independent or unaffiliated.
In handicapping the contest, pollster Horvick said Kotek is associated with the status quo, but held the Democratic base, garnering almost 58 percent of the Democratic vote in the primary over state Treasurer Tobias Read’s 32.4 percent, as of June 8.
Drazan, meanwhile, collected just 23 percent of the GOP vote, though in an extremely crowded field.
As for Betsy Johnson, who ran a helicopter company in Oregon for 20 years, Horvick mused, “Look at the website and you’ll find nothing from her on issues. She’s just the feisty lady on TV who is playing to the frustrated.”
Christine Drazan is a former House minority leader and lives in Canby, Oregon, in Clackamas County, a bellwether county southeast of Portland.
“She’s no RINO: Drazan is pro-life and opposed climate legislation. She also returned a level of savvy and fundraising skills to House Republicans,” wrote Willamette Week when it endorsed Kotek and Drazan for their respective party nominations.
“Drazan faces criticism from the right for failing to obstruct every piece of legislation unpopular with conservatives that came before the House. Firearms activists, for instance, blame her for letting Democrats pass a pretty innocuous gun safety bill last year.
“They wanted her to order her caucus to deny Democrats a quorum and are now blasting her for that. Drazan stuck around, perhaps because she knows walkouts are unpopular with the electorate.”
The race for governor of Oregon could well be the most expensive one in the state’s history.
Betsy Johnson has already raised close to $9 million and has proven she can get big checks from major Republican donors, including Nike co-founder Phil Knight. She has about $5 million on hand.
Drazan spent $2.7 million during the primary while Kotek spent $2.5 million.
Said political blogger Marc Johnson: “I don’t see that any of the candidates are talking substance. They are still introducing themselves because none of them are well-known to most Oregonians.”
In the endorsement front, Kotek managed to get the backing of Yamhill’s Nick Kristof, whose brief gubernatorial campaign was mainly spent railing against entrenched Oregon Democrats, like Tina Kotek. He endorsed her two days after she won her party’s nomination.
Earlier this year, the well-known former New York Times columnist was considered a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, but was forced out for failing to meet the state’s three-year residency requirement for governor.
Betsy Johnson, meanwhile, is ringing up endorsements from the old guard. Two high-profile endorsements came shortly after the primary when former Republican US Senator Gordon Smith and former Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski announced their support in a joint statement.
Ahead of the primary, Kotek and Drazan each secured endorsements from a large number of current and former lawmakers as well as county and local officials.
It’s anyone’s guess as to who will win in November.
As Marc Johnson put it: “It’s a real crapshoot.”