Backroom deal causes tension as Oregon House Democrats jockey to replace Speaker Tina Kotek
State Rep. Janelle Bynum says Kotek agreed to back her as she pursues the speakership. Kotek says that's not the case.
As Tina Kotek pursues the governorship next year, the longest-tenured House speaker in Oregon history will soon have to give up her gavel. Now, one of the people hoping to take the powerful position says Kotek is backing out of a deal to help her become the successor.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Happy Valley Democrat who nearly challenged Kotek for the speakership in 2021, says she’ll once again seek the role when Kotek steps down to focus on her gubernatorial ambitions. And this time, Bynum says she’s supposed to have some influential help.
In a deal reflected in emails and confirmed by one witness, Bynum says she secured an agreement from Kotek and House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner late last year that they would back her bid for speaker if she pursued the job in the future. Kotek and Smith Warner acknowledge a deal but insist it is not what Bynum recalls.
In any case, the deal came with a big upside for Kotek. Assurances of future support for Bynum helped the speaker dodge a more-immediate challenge for the House’s top job, avoiding a potentially ugly spectacle on the House floor.
Bynum says Kotek is not living up to her end of the bargain.
“I talked with her about a month ago,” Bynum said last week. “The feeling I walked away with was she was not willing to honor that in the spirit in which it was agreed upon.”
The agreement Bynum touts has caused consternation in the ranks of House Democrats, who are just beginning to grapple with who might be elected to the speakership once Kotek leaves. After OPB sent out inquiries to Kotek and Smith Warner about the deal, six Democratic representatives or their offices proactively contacted a reporter to push back on the notion that Bynum is the heir apparent.
“My vote is not part of anybody’s grand chess game,” said one of those lawmakers, state Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth. “I’m voting for who I believe will be a good speaker. I haven’t ruled myself out for potentially running.”
An endorsement, or not?
There are plenty of reasons why members might be anxious about who next holds the job. The House speaker is among the most powerful jobs in the Oregon government, with huge influence over what bills pass, which lawmakers preside over committees and what to prioritize with the state’s limited tax dollars.
For their part, both Kotek and Smith Warner maintain they had agreed only to “support” Bynum in a more general sense, not with an explicit endorsement.
“The Speaker has told all of her caucus colleagues that she will provide mentorship and guidance to anyone who wants to be the next speaker, including Rep. Bynum,” Danny Moran, Kotek’s communications director, said in an email on Monday. “She has also been clear that she will not be endorsing any candidate because she believes that choice should be determined by the lawmakers who will serve in the Legislature with the next Speaker.”
What is undisputed: The agreement between Kotek, Smith Warner and Bynum was hashed out in a Dec. 29 video conference call that included all three women, along with then-state Rep. Akasha Lawrence Spence.
For more than a month, Bynum had been phoning her Democratic colleagues, asking for their support if she decided to challenge Kotek for the House gavel. Bynum, who is Black, said she was motivated by a lack of people of color in senior leadership, and complained about a system she said has long treated lawmakers of color as not prepared to hold such positions.
“If communities of color want to be at the decision-making table, we have to build a bench and those of us in power have to carry ourselves in a way that inspires, challenges, and moves the needle,” Bynum said last fall as she prepared to mount a challenge. “Those holding on to power also have to be intentional about changing things. They have to walk the talk. I’m asking them to do that.”
Bynum’s plan was atypical. Rather than seeking the nomination of her Democratic colleagues, she indicated she would directly challenge Kotek when the full House took a floor vote for speaker in January, forcing into the open what would have otherwise been a showdown in a closed meeting.
But in the Dec. 29 video chat, Kotek and Smith Warner convinced Bynum to hold off.
According to an email Bynum sent to Smith Warner recounting the discussion, Kotek asked Bynum to step aside. The speaker touted her long leadership experience and the dire threats posed by COVID-19, Bynum wrote.
In the email, Bynum told Smith Warner she was concerned that “once again POC leadership was being asked to ‘wait their turn,’” but she laid out the agreement the parties had reached.
As OPB has previously reported, that deal included concrete assurances that members of the Legislature’s BIPOC caucus would get increased support, and a dedicated spot in House Democratic leadership, steps that have since occurred. But Bynum’s email included a piece of the agreement that wasn’t made public at the time.
“If I agreed to suspend my campaign, both of you agreed to engage in open support for any future public service position that I might be called to serve in,” Bynum wrote. “Confirmation of this conversation and agreement is vitally important to the proceedings of the House floor on voting day and to help with closing the trust gap created by a contentious campaign.”
Smith Warner responded in writing: “Yes, this is my understanding of our 12/29/20 conversation as well.”
Lawrence Spence, who Bynum included on the call to serve as a witness, told OPB last week her memory of the deal matched Bynum’s.
“There was a promise to support Rep. Bynum in her run for speaker,” said Lawrence Spence, a Portland Democrat who is pursuing a temporary appointment to the state Senate. She said Bynum’s argument in the call “was more or less, ‘We need equitable representation in leadership, in the Legislature, and this is the pathway to getting there’... It was like, ‘Yes, we understand that and we support that, and we’re committed to it.’”
Asked whether she expected Kotek to back Bynum’s candidacy for speaker based on the conversation, Lawrence Spence said: “Absolutely.”
A potentially crowded field
But both Kotek and Smith Warner this week said they had not agreed to endorse Bynum for speaker. The two Portland Democrats said their agreement to “engage in open support” of Bynum did not mean they would specifically push her as a candidate for speaker.
“We’re both committed to providing her with support,” Smith Warner said in a written statement to OPB. “There wasn’t an agreement that we would endorse her for Speaker; that’s a decision that will ultimately be made by the House as a whole. I’ve been happy to provide Rep. Bynum with support, advice, and consultation as she prepares her next steps, and I’ll continue to mentor House Democratic caucus members in reaching their future goals.”
Bynum’s insistence that Kotek is not living up to her agreement is not the only time the speaker has been accused recently of backing out of a deal after securing political gain. In September, Kotek pulled out of a deal granting House Republicans parity on political redistricting, after the GOP had agreed to stop delaying bills in this year’s legislative session. House Republicans were apoplectic, and Kotek’s decision to renege could have lingering impacts in a chamber already frequently fractured along partisan lines.
Having Kotek’s endorsement as the next speaker would likely be helpful for Bynum, but Democratic representatives say it is not a guarantee of victory. The current speaker enjoys broad power and has made allies during her 14 years in the Legislature, but her direct influence on lawmakers’ day-to-day lives disappears once she steps down, and there’s no indication she could single-handedly sway a vote Bynum’s way.
“No one member can anoint our next speaker,” said state Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, who himself has considered running for the job. “It’s not Bynum’s any more than it’s anyone else’s.”
Bynum said last week that she is not counting on being coronated. She knows she’ll have to win over a majority of the House’s 60 lawmakers on her own, regardless of Kotek’s stance.
“I have always been a person who plays the hand that I’m dealt and I’ve never expected anyone to hand me anything,” she said. “At the end of the day, I get the work done.”
It’s not currently clear what opposition Bynum will face if she proceeds with her bid. One lawmaker who had been frequently mentioned to take over as speaker, state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, is departing the House to make a run at Oregon’s new congressional seat. The two senior Democrats directly below Kotek, Smith Warner and Speaker Pro-Tem Paul Holvey, have so far expressed little desire for the job.
One name that often gets mentioned as a likely candidate for speaker: state Rep. Dan Rayfield, who serves as a co-chair on the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee. Having familiarity with the budget is key for any speaker, and may be one reason why Bynum joined the committee beginning earlier this year. Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat, has not announced a bid for the speakership, though some lawmakers believe he is positioning himself for a run.
Also unclear is just when a vote for a new House leader might take place.
Electing a new speaker requires a vote of the full House, meaning lawmakers must be in session in order to make their choice. Kotek is currently planning to stay in the job through 2022, her office said Monday. That’s a somewhat ungainly arrangement, since Kotek is typically a powerful fundraising draw for House Democrats during campaign season, but could instead be focused on a hugely expensive governor’s race.
If Kotek sticks to her plan, Democrats are likely to hold nominations for a new speaker shortly after the November 2022 election, and the House would hold a vote to formally choose a leader when it convenes in early 2023.
Another possibility: Kotek could opt to step down as speaker shortly before the end of session, allowing the House to select a new leader heading into the “interim” period between their regular meetings. Or, Kotek could wait until the session is adjourned to step down. That would put Holvey, the speaker pro-tem, nominally in charge of the House until lawmakers could reconvene to elect a new leader.
“I think the burden rests on her to have a responsible and safe transition of power,” Bynum said. “If you bungle the transition of power, the state loses.”