Governor Earns Kudos for ‘Pragmatism Over Ideology’ But Her Polling Still Lags
At her one-year mark as Governor, Tina Kotek has been a surprise, especially to her detractors. As an OPB headline proclaimed, “Once considered one of the most progressive legislative leaders in the country, Kotek has spent the last year preaching pragmatism over ideology.”
Kotek says Oregonians shouldn’t be surprised. As she told reporters last month, “I think this is about: ‘Can you make stuff work?’ I am very progressive when it comes to public policy, but I am pragmatic and I’m tired of things not working.”
In an interview this week with OPB, Kotek said, “I’m going to continue to move the progressive needle if I can because that’s who I am as a person. But you also have to be able to get things done… It’s just I have a different set of tools as governor.”
Kotek has focused on homelessness, housing, behavioral health, early childhood literacy, revitalizing downtown Portland and promoting the semiconductor industry in Oregon.
Kotek Success Stories
Arguably, her most visible success has been to spur expansion of Oregon’s already sizable computer chip industry. There is a major expansion in Gresham by Microchip Technology and a significant commitment by Intel to continue expanding in Hillsboro. Oregon State University has been named a research hub for microfluidics technology in coordination with Hewlett-Packard and an advanced lithography center is envisioned in Hillsboro.
Kotek announced this week that her first-year homelessness goals exceeded her goals. As reported by the Portland Tribune, “1,036 new shelter beds created, up from a goal of 600; 1,293 households rehoused, up from 1,200, and 8,886 households that averted evictions, up from 8,750.“
Making a dent in Oregon’s chronic under-construction of new housing remains a goal in progress. Kotek failed in her 2023 legislative attempt to give cities more leeway in urban expansion into adjoining farmland. In conversations since then with city leaders, Kotek said she realizes expansion into undeveloped areas is expensive because of infrastructure costs to extend roads, water and sewer lines.
Frustrated by negative media coverage and seeming inaction, Kotek summoned business and community leaders to participate in a closed-door task force to identify ways to revitalize downtown Portland. Recommendations, which she has embraced, include a tougher stance on public drug use and a moratorium on new city taxes.
Meetings in Every County
Following in the political footsteps of Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Kotek said she would hold meetings in all 36 Oregon counties. She held her first one in Yamhill County before her inauguration and her 36th one in December in Lane County where she was given a tour of metal microshelters for the homeless.
“Having an opportunity to sit down with Oregonians in their home communities and hear about what’s going on is an experience neither of us will forget, and they will actually help me be a better governor over the next several years,” Kotek said after the Lane County visit. Along the way, she visited rural and Willamette Valley farms and hopped on a trolley with Rep, Paul Evans in Independence where they sang Happy Birthday to a rider.
Kotek received kudos from Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp for getting out of Salem to meet Oregonians where they live. “She was very public about wanting to be governor of all of Oregon, and she appears to be committed to trying to make that happen,” Knopp said, adding, “If you’re going to do that, it means you have to move toward the center and not toward the left.”
Jack Boone, assistant city manager in Cottage Grove, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle, “One of the standard complaints about every governor is that Portland drives the bus and we all kind of get dragged along by it. We have 261 cities in the state. Only one of them is Portland. The rest of them, a huge number of them, are in the roughly 10,000 range, but it’s hard to get our voices noticed because we’re small.”
Low Approval Rating Persists
Not everyone is impressed with Kotek. Her approval rating remains very low among governors nationwide. John Horvick of DHM Research says Kotek only had a 34 percent favorability rating when she took office. Now positive impressions of her have slipped to 29 percent. Horvick attributed her initial low poll numbers to sharp political divisions and as Kate Brown 2.0. He noted Kotel’s slumping poll numbers slightly contrast with the 34 percent of Oregonians who now feel the state is headed in the right direction.
Christine Drazan, who lost the 2022 gubernatorial race to Kotek by only 3 percentage points, says she thinks her former political opponent has underperformed in the job. “She had full rein, and unfortunately I’m looking around and I don’t see the progress that Oregonians should expect from a party that has no limitations on what they can achieve,” Drazan told OPB reporters. “I don’t believe that we have seen the kind of results that we deserve.”
Kevin Looper, a political consultant to third-party gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson in 2022, gave Kotek a mixed review. “She is taking us as a state this year from doing nothing to talking about doing something,” Looper told OPB. “That is both a critique and a compliment.” Looper said Kotek’s first year in office was “marked by the tactical triumph of marketing over product development. There’s nothing in evidence that she has moved the actual markers.”
Shaun Jillions, a lobbyist for real estate and manufacturing clients who has butted heads with Kotek as Speaker, gave her positive marks for her leadership on housing. Kotek hasn’t solved the housing shortage, Jillions told OPB, “but she sure as hell cares about it … and she’s willing to push her friends, which is something [former Gov.] Kate Brown was incapable of doing.”
Doug Moore, former director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, gave Kotek a sympathetic rating. “I know everyone wants to wave a magic wand and say. ‘You’ve got to fix everything right now.’ That’s not how public policy works.”
Transition from Speaker to Governor
Former Democratic legislative colleagues said Kotek went through a form of political withdrawal when she gave up the Speaker’s gavel that gave her vast power to shape outcomes. They described has relatively aloof during the 2023 session. When Kotek stepped in after Senate Republicans walked out, she gave up after only a week after failing to broker a truce.
However, by the end of the session, Kotek appeared to gain her footing. Senate President Rob Wagner said, “This is the right governor at the right time. She has her finger on the pulse of Oregonians in terms of the most dire needs facing the state, and has a vision to take the state forward.”
More Legislative Priorities
In addition to dogging her existing priorities, Kotek now has at least two more major issues to address – climate change and school funding.
Last month, the Oregon Court of Appeals invalidated the state’s three-year-old Climate Protection Program based on a technicality. The judges said the Environmental Quality Commission failed in 2021 to comply with disclosure requirements when it created emissions rules that exceed federal rules under the federal Clean Air Act. The program was a high priority for former Governor Kate Brown after Republican legislative walkouts blocked passage of cap-and-invest legislation. Kotek’s environmental backers will expect her to take action to restore the program.
The month-long Portland teacher strike prompted Kotek to endorse a legislative review of how school funding levels are determined. That review will consider whether the existing formula should be adjusted to account for inflation, declining enrollments, aging buildings, student mental health needs and programs to overcome learning loss resulting from pandemic school closures. Salem-Keizer Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district, is in negotiations with its teacher and classified staff unions. School funding will be a top issue in the 2025 legislative session.
There also could be a major transportation funding package in the 2025 legislative session, which includes more detail on the I-5 Columbia River Bridge replacement, resolution of highway tolling in the Portland area and how electric vehicles that don’t pay gas taxes should contribute to state roadway financing. Lawmakers also will be addressing the imbalance between trucker and motorist contributions to the state Highway Trust Fund.