Two decades ago, Kate Brown looked forward to shaping legislation and budgets as the would-be president of the Oregon Senate.
A few Republicans objected to the ascension of Brown, then the Democratic leader, as presiding officer of an evenly divided Senate in 2003. So she lost the job to fellow Democrat Peter Courtney of Salem, who had not expected to get it. He kept it for 20 years.
But after six more years in the Senate, and then six years as Oregon secretary of state, Brown was thrust into the governorship as next in line in February 2015 when Democrat John Kitzhaber resigned under pressure amid an ethics scandal.
Now, after eight years — minus the 38 days that Kitzhaber served in his fourth term — Brown completed her tenure as Oregon’s 38th governor after having dealt with multiple crises, the coronavirus pandemic chief among them.
“I’m really grateful to have served in this role and served Oregonians in these incredibly challenging times,” she said in an exit interview.
“Challenging” is an understatement. During 2020 — before coronavirus vaccines were widely available — Brown also had to deal with racial justice protests and civil unrest in Portland and other cities, wildfires that swept western Oregon, and the highest one-month jump in unemployment as a result of business closures and curtailments stemming from the pandemic lockdowns.
Her personal popularity is at an ebb — as has been true with most recent second-term Oregon governors toward the end of their tenures — and at one point she was considered the nation’s least popular governor.
But Brown, 62, said she has accomplished much — some things on her own, others with help from legislators and allies — that will yield results long afterward, much like Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh’s initiatives in the 1980s to open Oregon’s economy to high technology and international trade bore fruit years afterward.
The list runs from public schools, health care and criminal justice to the economy, carbon-free energy and Oregon’s forests.
Legacy includes judges
In addition, Brown has appointed 112 of Oregon’s nearly 200 judges – 56 women, 55 men, and one nonbinary — including all seven justices of the Oregon Supreme Court. At one point, the high court shifted from six men and one woman when she took office to five women and two men. Her latest appointments leave the court with four men and three women, although one of the women is a U.S. Senate vote away from a federal judgeship.
Of her appointees, 27 were people of color.
“They will have a profound impact on the law for decades,” said Brown, whose law degree is from Lewis & Clark College and who practiced juvenile and family law. “If we want to center justice toward equity, I believe my appointments will move us toward that center.”
And Brown was succeeded as governor by Tina Kotek, also a Democrat from Portland. Kotek is a different personality. Kotek publicly criticized Brown during the campaign for not moving to declare a state of emergency to deal with unhoused people back in 2019. But Kotek also worked with Brown during seven of her record nine years as Oregon House speaker on advancing their shared priorities.
When her successor acknowledged her 30-plus years of service, Brown did draw applause from the audience in the House chamber of the Capitol in Salem.
Oregon is only the third state where a woman succeeds another woman as governor. The others were Arizona in 2009 and New Mexico in 2019. Unlike them, Oregon is the first state where both women are of the same party.
Unlike other two-term Oregon governors going back to World War II, Brown has benefited from her party holding legislative majorities in both chambers during her entire tenure. She herself spent 17 years in the Legislature, including almost nine in the Senate as party leader of a minority, an even split and a majority.
“I know I was criticized for being too collaborative and consensus-oriented,” she said. “But being caucus leader taught me that.”
Though Brown would have preferred the Senate presidency, she defeated two Senate colleagues in the Democratic primary en route to her 2008 election as secretary of state. Of its 10 occupants between 1956 and 2020, excluding two short-term appointees who did not seek full terms, four eventually became governor and four more ran for governor.
Brown also faced back-to-back elections in 2016 — when she was up for the two years remaining in Kitzhaber’s term, the first such midterm election in Oregon since 1956 — and in 2018. She defeated Republicans William “Bud” Pierce, a Salem physician, and Rep. Knute Buehler, a Bend orthopedic surgeon, both by bare majorities of all votes cast.
Pandemic changed everything
Not having to face Oregon voters again — the Oregon Constitution limits governors to two consecutive terms — Brown acted quickly in March 2020 to declare a state of emergency at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. It was the first of many such orders; opponents sought to overturn them a few months later, but the Oregon Supreme Court upheld her legal authority to do so.
“The entire country was not prepared for a pandemic,” Brown said. “We did not have a national stockpile to meet the states’ needs. We were building an airplane while in the air.”
Brown drew criticism from both sides in early 2021, when she ordered that teachers get priority over seniors for coronavirus vaccinations in an attempt to reopen public schools. But vaccines became readily available to the public that spring.
Five official recall attempts were filed against Brown in 2019 and 2020, but none got enough signatures to force a statewide vote, despite support from the Oregon Republican Party for a couple of them. Something similar happened to Democrat Barbara Roberts, who Brown has mentioned as a political role model, when she was governor between 1991 and 1995.
“In talking with Gov. Roberts, I know people blamed me for not putting out the wildfires,” Brown said half jokingly, although the state Republican Party abandoned its 2020 attempt just before the Labor Day wildfires that swept western Oregon.
Brown said she could have done more to boost her personal poll numbers, even though she was ineligible for re-election.
“I had resources in my political action committee, and I could have continued to raise money and done ads or used other tools to increase my popularity,” she said. “I chose not to do that. I made a conscientious decision to invest in other candidates and races. That was more important to me than increasing my poll numbers.”
Brown said other numbers were important to her, such as the estimated 5,000 lives saved by Oregon’s strict pandemic measures. Despite around 9,000 deaths, Oregon is among the states with the nation’s lowest per-capita death rates from the coronavirus based on 100,000 population. Federal and state aid also enabled Oregon to pay $500 million in rental assistance to keep 65,000 families housed.
Oregon’s budget got $2.6 billion in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021 that enabled Brown to support a variety of policy initiatives, including the Future Ready plan for job training aimed at underserved communities and populations.
Meanwhile, Oregon’s economy in fall 2022 regained all of the jobs it shed at the onset of the pandemic, although some sectors are still lagging. Oregon’s unemployment rate also dropped back to a record low 3.5% — where it had been for the four months preceding the pandemic in later 2019 and early 2020 — before it started inching up again in recent months.
Brown said that after a vacation, she plans to continue to be active in the public arena, though she has disclaimed any intentions of seeking public office again. Most recent Oregon governors have not — though Republican Mark Hatfield was only 44 in 1966, when he won the first of his five terms in the U.S. Senate, and Republican Tom McCall and Democrat John Kitzhaber did attempt it. McCall lost the 1978 GOP primary; Kitzhaber is the only one to win again, in 2010 and 2014, after eight years out of office.
Roberts was appointed to a two-year vacancy on the Metro Council in 2011, but did not run for a full term.
“We have continued to be a role model for the nation,” Brown said of her record as governor. “When you have a Congress you cannot rely on and a Supreme Court you cannot trust, it’s going to be up to the states to protect our fundamental rights. Oregon is truly showing how it ought to be done.”
Position: Oregon Governor, Feb. 18, 2015-Jan. 9. 2023
Education: Bachelor’s degree in environmental conservation and certificate in women’s studies, 1981, University of Colorado; law degree, Lewis & Clark College, 1985.
Public office: Oregon House, 1991-97; Oregon Senate, 1997-2009, Democratic leader, 1998-2007; secretary of state, 2009-15. (She had been a lobbyist for the Women’s Rights Coalition prior to her appointment to the House.)
Family: Husband, Dan Little, retired Forest Service employee, married 1997; a son and daughter from his prior marriage.
A partial list of significant legislation and other actions under Gov. Kate Brown’s tenure, by date (some are listed under category):
2015: New motor-voter law (HB 2177), a bill she sponsored as secretary of state and one of the first she signed as governor, to make voter registration automatic upon changes in driver records.
2016: A three-tiered minimum wage by region (SB 1532), instead of a single statewide standard.
2017: A $5.3 billion transportation financing plan (HB 2017) that shifts to a more balanced approach and is less focused on highway construction.
2017: Cover All Kids (SB 558), which extended health insurance coverage to all under age 19, regardless of immigration status.
2019: Student Success Act (HB 3427), which creates a corporate activity tax to raise up to $1 billion annually for targeted school improvements and expanded early childhood education. Its origins stemmed from a failed 2016 ballot measure Brown endorsed. Brown said it was the first significant infusion of new money to schools since Oregon voters approved statewide limits on property taxes in 1990.
2019: Reproductive Health Equity Act (HB 3391), anticipating a 2022 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal constitutional right to abortion. The law requires private insurance coverage of such care and support for people regardless of income or immigration status. (Oregon has used state funds for abortions for low-income women since 1977.)
2019: Paid family and medical leave (HB 2005), which offers up to 12 weeks of benefits starting in September 2023, and fully implements Oregon’s 1991 law that Brown worked for as a lobbyist.
2019, criminal justice: One bill (SB 1008) allows juveniles new hearings by the state Parole Board once they have completed 15 years of their sentences for specified violent crimes under 1994’s Measure 11; Brown extended it by executive order in 2021 to 73 juveniles convicted before the 2019 law took effect.
Another bill in 2019 (SB 1013) narrowed the list of crimes defined as “aggravated murder,” eligible for the death penalty under Oregon law. The Supreme Court applied the more restrictive definition to some of the 25 inmates facing the penalty – although critics said they understood it would not be retroactive — and Brown acted on Dec. 13 to commute the remaining sentences to life imprisonment without parole.
2021: Climate action plan, which she ordered the Environmental Quality Commission to do after Republican walkouts thwarted legislative action in 2019 and 2020. The plan faces lawsuits in the Court of Appeals. She also signed bills for low-carbon fuels (HB 2186 in 2015) and carbon-free power by Oregon’s largest utilities by 2040 (HB 2021 in 2021).
2022: Future Ready (SB 1545), a $200 million program for job training proposed by her Racial Justice Council: “We have laid an incredible foundation for the future of our workforce readiness. What is different about it … is that we are focused on serving historically underserved communities,” such as people of color, low-income families, rural residents, military veterans and released inmates. “Racism cannot be deconstructed overnight. It will be deconstructed the same way it was built – brick by brick.”
2022, forestry: One bill (SB 1546) converts the Elliott State Forest on Oregon’s south coast into a research forest, but is no longer obligated to guarantee timber sales for the Common School Fund. Another bill (SB 1501) directs the Board of Forestry to develop a habitat conservation plan for Oregon’s private forest lands and ratifies a 2021 accord her staff mediated between timber and environmental interests.
In 2021, Brown signed SB 762, which requires mapping of high-risk wildfire zones and steps to lessen the severity of forest fires. “It is a $5 billion problem” that will require federal aid beyond the state’s initial $220 million. “But the framework is there.”