Image for Kotek Goes for Governor; Other Democrats Likely to Follow

With Labor Day just around the corner, major figures are declaring their gubernatorial intentions, starting with House Speaker Tina Kotek who entered the race today. State Treasurer Tobias Read and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum may not be far behind. Three Republicans have declared their candidacies. Governor Brown is term-limited from running again.

Kotek will base her campaign on issues she championed as Speaker – housing, health care, addiction treatment and climate change.  “We must get past the politics of division and focus on making real, meaningful progress for families across our state,” she said in a prepared statement.

As Speaker since 2013, Kotek can point to significant achievements under her watch including expanded sick leave and Medicaid eligibility, banning racial profiling, a major transportation measure, raising the minimum wage, statewide rent control and a major increase in K-12 school funding.

So far, Kotek’s only declared Democratic primary opponents are Casey Kullla, a farmer and Yamhill County commissioner, and disability advocate Michael Trimble. Read has been actively seeking counsel for influential Democrats and may be close to announcing. Rosenblum continues to say she is seriously considering a run. Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury also has expressed interest in seeking the state’s top job. Some politicos have suggested State Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, may run, possibly as an independent.

Voter registration gains and anticipated lower voter turnout in 2022 are likely to impel candidates from both major parties to court political independents, even though they can’t vote in partisan primary races.

And then there is Nicholas Kristof, the prize-winning columnist for The New York Times who grew up in Yamhill County and is living on his family’s farm. Kristof, who has told reporters is “close to a decision” on whether to run, would be the “outsider” candidate who hasn’t held public office and therefore doesn’t have a record to tout or defend.

Other Democratic candidates have hesitated declaring their candidacies until Kotek made her move. There was some political chatter that Kotek might eye a race for Oregon’s new congressional seat.

Dr. Bud Pierce, who ran a credible race against Brown in 2016, is running again. Jessica Gomez, a Medford businesswoman, and Bridget Barton, a West Linn political consultant and magazine founder, have jumped in. Most observers expect Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, who has been a vocal critic of Brown’s pandemic policies, to enter the race, too.

No other Democratic or Republican lawmakers have made noises about joining the race. However, Kotek’s announcement will trigger a battle to replace her as Speaker, maybe before the 2022 legislative session. Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, challenged Kotek before the 2021 session and presumably would be interested in trying again. House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, is another potential replacement. Bynum played a key role in negotiating a series of bipartisan policing reforms last session, while Warner championed the major school funding bill in the 2019 session.

Any Democrat, but especially Kotek, will have to run in the contrails of Brown’s tenure. Both are Portland liberals, women and part of the LBGTQ community. Brown’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including business closures and mask mandates, is not popular in non-urban parts of Oregon. Rioting and increased gun violence in Portland also may cause some Democratic voters to look for a candidate from somewhere else in the state.

Progressives have chipped at Kotek for leading the charge for a major transportation bill. Some Democrats were incensed she cut a deal with House GOP Leader Christine Drazan to end floor vote delay tactics in return for equal political representation on the House Redistricting Committee.

Brown won in 2016 with 985,027 votes, which was just a nudge over 50 percent of total votes cast. Brown captured fewer votes in her successful 2018 re-election bid against Knute Buehler in a non-presidential election year with lower voter turnout. 

There are currently 1.043 million Democratic registered voters compared with 750,718 registered Republicans. Non-affiliated voters total 938,643. Voter registration gains and anticipated lower voter turnout in 2022 are likely to impel candidates from both major parties to court political independents, even though they can’t vote in partisan primary races.