Tina Kotek is a housing champion, a friend of work and an enemy of Phil Knight
Editor’s Note: This is part of our series featuring the top three gubernatorial candidates, Republican Christine Drazan, Democrat Tina Kotek, and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson.
Since announcing her intention to run for governor last year, Tina Kotek has been in a strong position.
With nearly a decade as one of the most powerful politicians in the state, the former House speaker was consistently considered the frontrunner in a Democratic primary that included state treasurer Tobias Read and — for a brief period — New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Her practical win in that race only solidified her credentials as a contender to beat this year.
But Kotek’s surefire position at the front of the pack seems less certain lately. Polls show Republican Christine Drazan even with, or possibly ahead of, the Democrat. Oregon’s race is poised to be perhaps the nation’s closest gubernatorial contest this year for two main reasons: Voters are angry at the status quo under Democrats, and the unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson has muddled the political calculations of the state with her well-funded game for the electoral milieu.
Despite all that, it’s been 40 years since Oregon put a Republican in the governor’s mansion. Betting against Kotek, who could become the nation’s first open lesbian governor if she wins, could still be a shaky decision.
It’s a transplant
Kotek grew up in York, Pennsylvania, a conservative county seat about two hours west of Philadelphia. She excelled in school, layering in numerous sports and extracurricular activities in addition to academics, and was accepted into the prestigious Georgetown University.
“She was not a troublemaker,” Kotek’s older sister, Susan Sprague, told OPB earlier this year. “Tina doesn’t settle for second place very well, and she can usually be first, both academically and athletically.”
But Georgetown was not a good choice. Kotek followed friends west to Eugene and the University of Oregon, where she majored in religious studies. Except for a few years in Seattle for college, she’s been in Oregon ever since.
Kotek won his first race for the state House of Representatives in 2006, after jobs at the Oregon Food Bank and Children First of Oregon.
She is all about housing and has been for years
No legislator in recent history has done more on housing. If elected, Kotek promises to do more.
Under his leadership, Oregon became the first to have a statewide rent control bill, preventing landlords from raising rents above a certain percentage each year. She pushed through a measure allowing cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants to build duplexes and triplexes to increase the housing stock, despite neighborhood zoning restrictions. Most recently, she helped secure $75 million in public funds to turn motels into emergency shelter beds to increase the state’s bed supply for homeless people by 20%.
“We just need to take building a lot more housing more seriously,” Kotek wrote in response to questions from the OPB. “The aim will be to build enough housing to meet the needs of those currently homeless, to address the current housing shortage and to keep pace with future housing demand over the next decade.”
Kotek also pledged to close the racial homeownership gap by 20% by 2027.
Oregon has a history of discriminatory and racist practices, such as banks refusing loans, raising interest rates, and not renting or selling homes to people of color. Kotek said she would help increase installment assistance programs, crack down on discriminatory practices, and partner with culturally-specific organizations to reach BIPOC households across the state to close the gap.
She broke the record – and made enemies
Kotek became Speaker of the House in 2013, after helping Democrats win back a majority in the House. She did not give up the job until earlier this year, when she resigned to run for governor.
The nine-year stint marked the longest tenure of any speaker in state history — and Kotek did a lot during that time. As Democrats steadily widened their majority in the House, she helped pass major bills to fund schools, raise the minimum wage, expand paid vacations for workers, create new regulations on firearms, protection of access to abortion, etc.
Kotek’s supporters say she is a driven, driven leader who works hard to master the topic of any given political debate and can wear down reluctant parties.
But not everyone is a fan. Towards the end of her term as president, Kotek saw growing criticism from moderate Republicans and Democrats that she had become too rigid and would seek success at any cost.
One example stands out: Last year, Kotek convinced House Republicans to stop using delay tactics by giving them an equal voice in the task of drawing new political maps once a decade. The deal meant the GOP would have veto power over any map it deemed biased in favor of the Democrats.
But when it became clear that the Republicans, led by Drazan, would do just that, Kotek quickly broke the deal. Democrats adopted their favorite cards despite concerns from Republicans.
Kotek’s opponents suggest this is a sign that she would not be a trustworthy negotiator if elected governor.
She criticizes the outgoing governor
At least she is now.
When Kotek launched her first gubernatorial campaign, she was extremely reluctant to hit on incumbent Governor Kate Brown, with whom she had worked closely as a speaker.
“I won’t tell the quarterback Monday morning what the governor went through,” Kotek said in January. “I mean, that’s a lot.”
But Kotek had a problem: Polls suggest Brown is the least popular governor in the country. And with many Oregonians clearly discouraged by rising homelessness, crime, and a state government that has repeatedly bungled major initiatives, Kotek increasingly felt the need to more forcefully push back against accusations that she is “Kate Brown 2.0”.
“Oregon can do great things,” Kotek told the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board recently. “We haven’t had the leadership in our governor’s office over the past few years to make this happen and I’ve had enough.”
Kotek’s campaign was always based in part on the premise that Brown was not a competent administrator of state government. Her main commitment to the people of Oregon is that she would bring a firm hand and tight oversight to the many agencies under her authority as governor.
work loves it
Kotek stayed competitive in the most expensive race in state history with help from unions, progressive advocacy groups and National Democrats. The Democratic Governors Association is its largest donor, with nearly $6 million in contributions as of Oct. 18.
This national interest in a race in Oregon is notable and has been reflected in the Republican Governors Association’s support for Drazan. But Kotek has also won unprecedented support from one of its longtime allies: the Service Employees International Union.
The state’s largest labor group, the SEIU has long been a major supporter of Democratic candidates, including incumbent Governor Kate Brown. But with nearly $2 million spent supporting Kotek so far, the union has never been more invested in an Oregon candidate.
Kotek often presents herself as a friend of working families and said her values align with SEIU, the Oregon Education Association and other left-wing labor groups. Critics accuse him of being too beholden to unions, a common criticism of Democratic politicians in Oregon.
Kotek also has a more personal connection to the union. His wife, Aimee, was once an employee of SEIU.
Phil Knight did not
Billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight has donated to political candidates in Oregon for years, but lately his donations have taken a turn.
While Knight used to give relatively small amounts to Democrats and Republicans, he recently expressed his displeasure with the status quo by giving huge sums to Republicans.
This year, Knight’s favorite candidate is anyone but Kotek.
Early in the race, he spent big on Johnson, bolstering his unaffiliated bid with $3.75 million. This is the most an individual has given to an Oregon candidate in the state’s history.
But now Knight has changed tack. With Johnson’s polls stubbornly low, he recently donated $1 million to Drazan, the Republican nominee. It is also donated $250,000 to the Republican Governors Association, Drazan’s largest donor this year.
Knight’s office did not respond to inquiries from the OPB about his political donations this year. But he responded to The New York Times, telling the paper in a recent interview that he considers himself “an anti-Tina person.”
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To learn more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.