Kate Brown 'ready' to replace John Kitzhaber as Oregon governor – OregonLive.com
Secretary of State Kate Brown, who would become Oregon’s 37th governor if John Kitzhaber steps down, came out swinging Thursday just as calls for Kitzhaber’s resignation intensified.
“I am ready, and my staff will be ready, should he resign,” Brown said in a 150-word statement, her only public comment on the Kitzhaber controversy. “Right now, I am focused on doing my job for the people of Oregon.”
Brown’s possible ascension would follow a tumultuous two weeks in which Kitzhaber decided to resign but then changed his mind after talking to his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, and his attorney. Thursday, Oregon’s top leaders called on him to step down.
If he does, Brown, 54, would become Oregon’s second woman governor and perhaps the first U.S. governor who has previously identified herself as bisexual.
Brown has long been considered a contender for the governorship in 2018. An early departure by Kitzhaber, who won election in November to a historic fourth term, would give her the gift of incumbency for a 2016 election to fill the rest of Kitzhaber’s term.
Brown has a reputation as a collaborator who can muster bipartisan support.
“She handles tough situations with a smile on her face,” said Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury, the Democratic House minority leader when Brown was Senate majority leader in the mid-2000s. “She’s strong, but she comes across as also being able to listen. And she’s very personable.”
Her possible rise to the governorship would follow a relatively nondescript six years as secretary of state, a position that often goes unheralded unless something goes wrong.
As secretary of state, Brown oversees elections, audits, archives and business registrations. She’s championed small business initiatives and promoted efforts to expand voter registration. She has come under fire for her handling of the 2012 statewide labor commissioner race and her endorsement of Comcast’s $45 billion effort to expand its media stronghold.
A Minnesota native who grew up in a Republican household, Brown studied environmental conservation at the University of Colorado Boulder. She moved to Portland in the early 1980s, earned a law degree from Lewis & Clark College and specialized in family law.
Brown began publicly identifying herself as bisexual in the 1990s. She has been married for about 15 years to Dan Little, and the couple have two adult children from Little’s earlier marriage. They live in Portland’s Woodstock neighborhood.
Brown’s political career began in 1991 when the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners appointed her to a vacant Oregon House seat. A lobbyist for the Women’s Rights Coalition, the 31-year-old Brown described herself as a bridge-builder seeking common ground.
“I seek solutions,” she said at the time, “not battles.”
But a year later, the politician that Brown replaced – current Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack, then known as Judy Bauman – gave Brown a battle.
Shiprack, trying to win her seat back, had more connections and more money. But Brown went on a grass-roots, door-knocking crusade, winning the 1992 primary election by just seven votes.
Then-Secretary of State Phil Keisling said Thursday that he was one of the voters who helped put Brown over the top.
“I literally just met her on the doorstep,” Keisling said, recalling her tenacity. “Kate just walked and walked and walked.”
Four years later, Brown won a seat in the Oregon Senate and quickly was named its Democratic caucus leader.
Portland Commissioner Steve Novick, who worked as chief of staff to Senate Democrats in the late 1990s, recalled Brown as a hard worker with a knack for remembering the bill number for legislation from years’ past.
At the close of the 1997 session, Novick remembered, lawmakers performed a play called “The Wizard of DAS,” a reference to Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services.
Brown’s character went through the land of DAS in search of money. Brown ended up memorizing about half of all the lines in the play.
“She works like a dog and is fun to have around — a good combination,” Novick said in a series of text messages sent Thursday during a City Council hearing.
Connie Seeley spent nearly five years working with Brown as legislative director for the Senate Democratic Leadership Office, and came away describing Brown as a dedicated public servant who puts the state’s interests first.
“Her door is always open, and she works tirelessly to build consensus and bipartisan solutions,” Seeley said Thursday in an email.
In her leadership role, Brown led efforts to remake the state’s antiquated public campaign finance reporting system and to spotlight the role of lobbyists.
In 2005, Brown spearheaded legislation to create ORESTAR, the state’s highly regarded online database for campaign transactions. In 2007, she pushed an ethics law capping lobbyist gifts to lawmakers at $50.
In both instances, Brown’s legislation mirrored her political rhetoric about government transparency. But she also proved savvy, striking while both topics were hot – Rep. Dan Doyle, R-Salem, resigned in 2005 over a campaign finance scandal, and lawmakers came under fire in 2006 for lobbyist-funded trips to Hawaii.
“I think it’s fair to say that she has a long history in transparency,” said Janice Thompson, former executive director of Common Cause Oregon. “It demonstrates some willingness to ruffle feathers.”
Since handily winning her 2008 race for secretary of state, Brown promoted a statewide electronic management system. She’s now pushing a bill to automatically register Oregonians to vote when they get or renew a driver’s license.
Brown, re-elected in 2012, has also had a few missteps.
In 2012, she delayed the election for labor commissioner from May to November, a move widely perceived as benefiting the Democratic candidate and eventual winner, Brad Avakian.
In January 2014, hackers cracked into the secretary of state’s website, and the breach went unnoticed for two weeks. The hack eventually shut down the state’s business registry and a campaign database for about three weeks.
Most recently, Brown came under fire in January for allowing a Comcast lobbyist in 2014 to ghostwrite a letter from Brown in support of Comcast’s $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Brown, who received $9,500 in campaign contributions from Comcast from 2008 to 2012, rewrote only portions of the letter.
Brown remained silent on the Comcast issue, similar to her response in recent weeks to the growing Kitzhaber scandal.
But Brown, who declined an interview request Thursday, came out rocking Thursday just before other state officials and lawmakers called for Kitzhaber to resign.
Brown did not call for Kitzhaber to resign, but each word of her statement added heat.
Brown said Kitzhaber called her Tuesday and asked her to immediately return from a conference in Washington, D.C., so the two could speak privately. Upon her arrival Wednesday, Brown said she met with Kitzhaber – and the governor asked her why she came back.
Brown described their exchange as “strange.”
“This,” the would-be governor said, “is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation.”
— Brad Schmidt