Oct. 21–As Oregon’sKate Brown slogs through a high-stakes governor’s race — a must-win as far as national Democrats are concerned — she is casting herself as a bold leader willing to push back against the Trump administration.
She has condemned President Donald Trump’s proposal to allow offshore drilling in the Pacific Northwest and vowed to protect reproductive rights in a state where abortion has been legal since before Roe v. Wade. Next year, she plans to introduce a bill that will copy pre-Trump federal air and water rules into state law.
But after a quarter century in Oregon government, Brown is also a fixture of the political establishment. That could partly explain why polls show voters in one of the nation’s most anti-Trump states — at least according to The Washington Post — are ambivalent about Brown just weeks before Election Day.
Brown, 58, hasn’t been able to shake criticism that she has failed to outline a vision for Oregon or use the power of her office to tackle its most intractable problems: The $22 billion public pension liability and mediocre public education system. To address the former, she championed the creation of two relatively small pots of money this year to help schools and local governments with rising pension costs. To address the latter, she’s zeroed in on fully funding career and technical education — a mandate voters passed two years ago — but won’t say until after the Nov. 6 election where she would get the money.
Her most urgent policy move in 3 1/2 years as governor was calling lawmakers back to Salem in May for a special session to expand a business tax break that other Democrats have questioned.
As secretary of state, Brown drew national attention for passing the nation’s first automatic voter registration system at a time other states were restricting voting rights. Her achievements as governor include the 2017 transportation funding bill that she helped muscle through the Legislature after it stalled. But Brown also has shown a coziness with unions and lobbyists, capturing headlines in January 2015 for a letter she submitted to the Federal Communications Commission in support of Comcast’s bid to take over Time Warner Cable.
Weeks later, the news had faded by the time an influence-peddling scandal forced Gov. John Kitzhaber to resign and ushered Brown into the state’s highest office. Comcast, meanwhile, remains a major presence; as governor, Brown had the final say on its $155 million property tax settlement earlier this year. And records reviewed recently by The Oregonian/OregonLive show Brown’s relationship with the cable television giant and its lobbyist was greater than previously reported. Those records also reveal the access Brown granted some of her top political supporters, public employees and trade unions.
Union members are an important part of Brown’s political base and this year, she’s appealing to them with promises to protect their pensions and boost unrestricted K-12 spending. Her GOP rival Rep. Knute Buehler wants to transition public employees to a 401(k) retirement plan, and though he also promises to increase education spending, he would tie it to student outcomes.
Barbara Roberts, Oregon’s first woman governor and a mentor to Brown, describes the Democratic incumbent as a transparent leader.
“There is never any question about where she stands on any public issue,” Roberts, said last week. “I know that I can trust Kate Brown.”
But Brown won’t say whether the state needs to raise taxes, even though that question will likely dominate the 2019 legislative session. And despite creating a “Carbon Policy Office” and hiring a carbon policy adviser at a six-figure salary, Brown has declined to weigh in on the proposed Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas terminal in southern Oregon, which a study found would result in significant greenhouse gas emissions. After The Oregonian/OregonLive reported, citing public records, that Brown’s advisers were discussing changes to the state’s property tax system, she took the unusual step of telling reporters it wasn’t true.
“To make it very, very clear my office is not developing a policy,” Brown said in early September. “It’s my understanding there are legislators working on this, but my office is not.”
The governor did not explain why she wanted to stay out of that work.
Oregon hasn’t had a Republican governor for 30 years, although some GOP candidates have come close. Polls and national political observers suggest the odds of victory are in Brown’s favor, and with Democrats holding just 16 governorships nationwide, the party, public employee unions and environmentalists are highly motivated to help Brown win.
Political spending in the race has reached record-breaking levels: Brown’s campaign raised roughly $13 million, while state records show Buehler’s fundraising recently hit $14.7 million.
A new poll released by Oregon Public Broadcasting last week showed Brown with a narrow lead — 40 percent to Buehler’s 35 percent — and a large portion of voters still undecided. The governor held a similar lead in a poll earlier this month that was commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive and KGW(8).
Yet in a sign of how close the race remains, Brown spent Friday morning at a campaign event in Tualatin with gun control advocates, including Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was severely injured in a mass shooting in 2011. Brown abruptly canceled a Friday engagement to speak before the Portland Business Alliance, but her campaign spokesman Christian Gaston said the cancellation was unrelated.
MIDDLE-CLASS IN MINNESOTA
Brown grew up in a lakeside suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, the oldest of four children. Her father was an eye doctor and her mother a homemaker, she told OPB over the summer. Both Republicans, they often discussed politics with their children over dinner, and Brown initially stuck with the party.
Her personal views were starting to take shape by 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion on a 7-2 vote in Roe v. Wade. Brown says it was around this time that she persuaded her mother to become pro-choice, getting an early jump on the reproductive rights advocacy that’s shaped her career.
Brown’s father wasn’t the only family member in the medical field: her paternal grandfather, two uncles and an aunt were doctors, while her paternal grandmother and other aunts were nurses, she’s said in speeches and interviews. But that field wasn’t for Brown, who served in student government and was interested in civic engagement; she’s told various interviewers that she knew by third grade that she wanted to be president or a lawyer.
Still, as a young woman Brown struggled to find her path in life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental conservation with a minor in women’s studies from the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she also met her future husband Dan Little. Then it was on to Oregon, where she enrolled in Lewis & Clark College’s environmental law program. Though she realized partway through her studies that environmental law wasn’t for her, she completed the degree.
“I intuitively knew that going to law school would give me the skills to be an advocate to work on public policy issues,” Brown said in an interview last week. “But it was really my passion for women’s reproductive choice issues that was sort of … the leading force in my life at that time.”
Her dream job would have been working at the Portland Feminist Women’s Health Center, where as a volunteer she’d shepherded women and their partners past anti-abortion protesters. There wasn’t a paying position, so Brown took a job as a law clerk and ultimately became a family law attorney working on divorces, child custody and child support cases, as well as representing children and parents involved in the foster care system.
Brown’s mother Sally, sister Juli Smith, a teacher, and brother Tim, a ski and yoga instructor, still live in the Twin Cities area, she said. Her sister Molly Brown lives on a cattle ranch in southeastern Montana.
FROM LOBBYIST TO LOBBIED
Brown was pulling double duty in 1991, lobbying for the Women’s Rights Coalition in and working as an attorney, when she was appointed to a vacant Oregon House seat representing Southeast Portland. For the governor, “lobbyist” doesn’t carry the negative connotation it does for constituents worried about deep-pocketed interests spending to influence government.
“I see lobbyists as advocates, and I see them as educators,” Brown told Oregon Public Broadcasting in an interview aired in August.
The House appointment proved pivotal for Brown, who has said she wasn’t thinking about political office and, like many women, had to be asked to run by someone else: then-state Sen. Shirley Gold. “I knew exactly — yes — that I wanted to do that,” she said last week.
Long before she made headlines in 2015 as the nation’s first bisexual governor, Brown was open in the Legislature about having had a relationship with a woman. During a 1993 hearing on legislation aimed at protecting LGBTQ Oregonians from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, Brown cited her own experience in advocating for the bills.
“To be afraid the whole time you will lose your job because of the person you love is pure hell,” Brown told the crowd of around 300 in Portland’s City Council Chambers, according to The Oregonian’s coverage of the hearing.
But she hadn’t come out to her family and Brown says it was an article in The Oregonian a year later that forced her to do so. It focused on a growing number of openly gay or lesbian elected leaders and candidates in Oregon and it described Brown as bisexual.
“At that point, I had to come out to my family,” Brown said last week. “And I was probably ready to do it at the time, but it was certainly not on my own timing.”
Brown has said she worried how her legislative colleagues would react to the article, so she was relieved when Rep. Bill Markham, whom she described as “over 70 years old, extremely conservative, and a legislator for more than 20 years” approached her during lunch one day in the House lounge.
“Over lunch [Markham] looks up to say, ‘Read in the Oregonian a few months ago you were bisexual. Guess that means I still have a chance?!'” Brown wrote in a photographic essay collection about LGBT elected officials called “Out and Elected in the USA.
A couple years later, Brown reconnected with Dan Little. She’d called to ask whether he’d consider donating to her campaign, as she was exploring a run for attorney general. He was living in Enterprise at the time and working for the U.S. Forest Service.
“He said, “If you don’t run for statewide office, give me a call and come out and we’ll go skiing,'” Brown told OPB. Brown decided against the AG’s job after Hardy Myers signaled his interest, and instead got herself elected to the state Senate. She and Little married in 1997, and they have two adult children from his previous marriage. Little is now retired from the Forest Service, where he handled data.
As Brown rose through the ranks, she changed from a feminist “who pushed a raft of bills dealing with women’s issues so hard that few passed” to a more moderate Democrat focused on bipartisan compromises, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported in 1999. Her colleagues tapped her to lead their caucus, and when Democrats took control of the Senate in 2004, she became the chamber’s first woman majority leader.
Four years later, Brown further elevated her profile by winning her first race for secretary of state. Comcast, the dominant cable provider in Oregon and Washington, offered its assistance.
During her two terms as secretary of state, Brown accepted free video production and possible airtime for interviews on CNN Headline News as part of Comcast’s “Newsmakers” program, which focused on interviewing public officials and community groups. Brown’s previously unreported calendar entries show she scheduled Comcast interviews in 2010, 2011 and 2014 with Comcast lobbyists Doug Cooley and Andrea Sargeant personally involved in setting up or attending at least two of the recordings. Cooley drafted the letter Brown sent to the FCC after she and her staff made some edits.
The videos would have benefitted Brown by giving her free exposure as she prepared for her 2012 re-election campaign, as well as a rumored gubernatorial run after Kitzhaber’s last term. The clips appear to have had less value for Comcast, which asked schools and nonprofits that participated in Newsmakers to supply their federal tax identification numbers so the company could claim the videos as a charitable donations. Comcast had no qualms with Brown posting one of the videos on YouTube.
Brown explained in an interview last week that she accepted Comcast’s offer because “one of the challenges in this day in age, with not a lot of people — no offense — reading the newspapers … we have to really force ourselves as elected officials to get our message out and for me that means communicating with voters around the state.”
Did the free video production and possible airtime influence her? “No,” she said.
Brown’s 2010 Comcast interview covered a potpourri of topics, from how the secretary of state’s corporation division “makes it really easy to start a new business and create jobs in Oregon” to how hard she worked “to crackdown on fraud and abuse in the signature gathering process in Oregon’s initiative process.”
The effort to combat fraud and abuse included a pilot project that relied on “overt and covert” surveillance of signature-gathering campaigns, according to a state report on the project obtained by Dan Meek, a lawyer and advocate for campaign contribution limits. He believes such activities contributed to a decline in the number of ballot initiatives in Oregon.
Meek also says Brown’s failure to push through campaign finance reforms she publicly supported as a lawmaker, secretary of state and then governor is coming back to haunt her, as Nike co-founder Phil Knight has dumped $2.5 million into her Republican opponent’s campaign and another $1 million into a national group that’s supporting him.
THE GSD GOVERNOR
Brown rejects the idea that not stating a position on key issues such as tax policy shows a lack of leadership or a strategy of relying on legislative leaders to plow their political capital into the project of adequately funding schools.
“If you don’t’ care who gets the credit, you can get a hell of a lot of stuff done,” Brown said in an August interview. “It’s really important that you GSD, that you ‘get stuff done’ … My ability to work across the aisle and work in a way that we call the Oregon Way has really enabled us to GSD, get stuff done.”
— Hillary Borrud
(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.