by Jeremy Diamond
WASHINGTON — Kate Brown will make history on Wednesday when she is sworn in as Oregon’s next governor and becomes the first openly bisexual governor in the country.
Her swearing-in will be the culmination of a political scandal that mushroomed over the last two-and-a-half weeks and forced Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, out of office.
But for Brown, who is married to a man and has served as Oregon’s secretary of state since 2009, it will be the culmination of a week that went from weird to wondrous and lands her in the governor’s seat after nearly a quarter-century in Oregon politics. It’s a job the 54-year-old Democrat didn’t anticipate taking on anytime soon — though she was considered a top contender for the governor’s race in 2018, when Kitzhaber was slated to wrap up his tenure.
“This is a sad day for Oregon. But I am confident that legislators are ready to come together to move Oregon forward,” Brown, said in a statement after Kitzhaber announced his resignation on Friday. “As you can imagine, there is a lot of work to be done between now and Wednesday.”
Though Brown has a long-career in Oregon politics, this will by far be her highest-profile role. She has six years as Oregon’s secretary of state under her belt and another 18 serving in the state Legislature, where she made her mark on issues like campaign finance reform and LGBT rights.
Brown first joined Oregon’s State House as a lawmaker in 1991. She was elected to the state Senate in 1997, serving an urban district that represented part of Portland, and rose to become the body’s Democratic leader shortly after. She eventually become the state’s first female majority leader in 2004.
In 2008, Brown left the state Senate and won her first term as secretary of state, starting out her role as overseer of elections, audits, archives and business registrations. During her tenure, Brown touted her work in helping small businesses cut through red tape and clearing election barriers.
But Brown still has much to prove to the political class and Oregon public. Brown was roughed up in her 2012 re-election, surviving a bruising, unexpected battle against Republican Knute Buehler, a state legislator, in the deep-blue Oregon.
Brown lost the endorsement of nearly every major paper in the state to Buehler — who on his website claims to have won 13 out of 15 major newspaper endorsements.
The editorial board of the state’s biggest newspaper, The Oregonian, pointed to an unremarkable term in office in its endorsement of her opponent, calling her tenure neither “memorable” nor immune to “high-profile blunders.”
When she won re-election, she swiftly pledged more transparency and better communication from her office.
Those blunders included a last-minute announcement that candidates for a statewide office would actually have to stand for election in November instead of the following May.
Most recently, Brown came under fire in January for endorsing Comcast’s bid to take over Time Warner, urging the Federal Communications Commissioner to approve the merger in a letter modeled after one drafted by Comcast lobbyists, The Verge reported. Since 2008, Brown received $9,500 in campaign contributions from Comcast, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Brown, a Minnesotan by birth who moved to Oregon for law school, will now have almost two years to make her mark as governor before voters head to the polls for a special election in 2016 to decide whether to allow Brown to serve out the remainder of Kitzhaber’s term.
It’s possible she’ll face challenges from inside her party, like Tina Kotek, Oregon’s openly gay House speaker.
And if she survives 2016, she’ll have to again go through the gauntlet again in 2018 if she wants to earn a full four-year term.