The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oregon’s new governor helped usher Kitzhaber out

Oregon Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown celebrates at the podium Nov. 6, 2012, after winning her race at Democratic headquarters in Portland, Ore. (Don Ryan/AP)

Update: A special election to fill the remainder of Kitzhaber’s term will be held in 2016, not 2018.

Kate Brown’s path to political power almost stalled in its infancy. Appointed to the legislature in 1991, she had to run against her predecessor the following year. Outspent and with few public endorsements, Brown doggedly knocked on as many doors in her district as she could.

She won, after a recount, by seven votes.

Now, more than two decades later, Brown will move into Mahonia Hall, Oregon’s governor’s mansion, after John Kitzhaber (D) resigned amid ethics scandals. She will be the state’s 38th governor, its second female governor and the first openly bisexual governor in U.S. history.

Brown is not a native Oregonian: She was born in Spain and grew up in Minnesota before attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. She moved to Oregon to attend law school, at Lewis and Clark, and never left Portland. She is a horse aficionado; she keeps her Lipizzan, Tazo, at a stable in Ridgefield, Wash., according to Willamette Week.

After three terms in the state House, she moved to the Senate, where she became the Democratic leader in 1998. Six years later, when Democrats reclaimed control of the chamber, she became the first woman to serve as Senate majority leader.

In a state where sharp elbows are rare in politics, Brown showed an edge as she moved up the ladder. As the top fundraiser for Senate Democrats, she enjoyed close relationships with powerful labor unions who helped her party take back the majority. But she angered some of her fellow members by whipping votes in favor of cuts to the public employee pension system — which she then opposed herself.

The move reinforced her close ties to the party’s labor base, but it infuriated members who had stuck their necks out on an unpopular vote. The next year, labor unions targeted several Democrats who voted for the pension cuts in primary elections. Four years later, the unions who had her back helped Brown beat three other Senate Democrats to become secretary of state.

Brown demonstrated her instincts again this week, when Kitzhaber wavered over whether or not to resign. Brown released a devastating statement after a meeting with Kitzhaber, in which he said he wouldn’t quit, calling the situation “bizarre and unprecedented.”

The statement helped convince some Democrats it was time for Kitzhaber to go. On Thursday, state Senate President Peter Courtney (D) and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) both told Kitzhaber to quit, as did state Treasurer Ted Wheeler (D). Brown opened the door and pushed Kitzhaber through.

Brown will have almost two years to govern before facing voters for the right to fill out the rest of Kitzhaber’s term, but Republicans are already critical of her record and stumbles during her first term as secretary of state. She angered Republicans when she scheduled an election for state Labor Commissioner in November 2012, rather than in May.

Republicans said the decision was an overtly political act aimed at saving the Democratic nominee, Brad Avakian, who won. She fired several employees, including her chief of staff and the head of the state’s elections division, amid the criticism. Most major papers in the state endorsed her Republican opponent in 2012, though she won reelection in a favorable Democratic year.

Brown also took fire for a letter she sent to the Federal Communications Commission in support of Comcast’s bid to take over Time Warner. The tech Web site The Verge reported that Brown’s letter was drafted by a Comcast lobbyist after the company contributed nearly $10,000 to her secretary of state campaigns. Brown has refused to answer questions about the letter.