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Democrat Tina Kotek increasingly targets a former ally in tight governor’s race: Gov. Kate Brown

Tina Kotek
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Tina Kotek

The Democratic nominee for Oregon governor has been increasingly critical of Gov. Kate Brown as she tries to create distance.

As Gov. Kate Brown woos businesson a trade junket to Asia this week, she might notice her ears burning.

The outgoing governor, long an object of criticism from more conservative corners of the state, has lately become the focus of the one candidate for governor she might expect to defend her.

Democrat Tina Kotek has decided it’s time to let loose on Brown.

“Almost three years ago I called for a homelessness state of emergency,” Kotek says in an ad released on Oct. 14 that looks like it was shot on a cell phone. “Gov. Kate Brown did nothing…. On day one, I will do what Kate Brown wouldn’t. I will get people the help they need to move off the streets.”

The new spot represents perhaps Kotek’s strongest public denouncement of the current governor, with whom she worked closely as House speaker. It comes as Kotek works to lock up swing votes in the tightest governor’s race in more than a decade.

But the message isn’t unique.Another ad from Kotek’s camp shows a photo of Brown alongside Christine Drazan, the Republican candidate in the race, as a narrator intones bleakly: “Tina Kotek called for a homeless state of emergency nearly three years ago. Not Kate Brown. Not Christine Drazan.”

And Kotek recently denounced Brown’s policies on more than homelessness, telling the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board: “Oregon can do great things. We have not had the leadership in our governor’s office over the last several years to make that happen, and I am tired of it.”

The intensifying criticisms might be striking to those who saw Kotek and Brown cooperate at the highest levels of state government for much of the last seven years. While allies say Kotek had long-standing frustrations with the governor’s leadership style, there’s no question the pair collaborated on plenty of weighty legislation.

But Kotek has struggled to shake the image, promoted by Drazan and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, that she would merely be a sequel to the current governor. That could be a problem, since Brown has the lowest approval ratings of any governor in the nation, according to polling by Morning Consult.

Recent polls from DHM Research and progressive firm Data for Progress suggest more than 60% of Oregon voters have a negative impression of Brown. The governor — who assumed office when former Gov. John Kitzhaber stepped down in 2015, but twice won election to the position — has weathered crises that include COVID-19, historic racial justice protests in Portland and an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge.

Kotek didn’t have much appetite for criticizing Brown earlier this year, while running in a competitive Democratic primary against state Treasurer Tobias Read. She instead focused on educating voters about her background and accomplishments.

”I don’t know the inner workings of how [Brown] does her day to-day-business,” Kotek said in January. “I’m not gonna Monday morning quarterback what the governor’s been through. I mean, it’s been a lot.”

But now Kotek is in a tough general election fight that many view as an opportunity for the GOP to win the governor’s office for the first time in 40 years.

Voters are angry over a worsening homelessness crisis — particularly in the Democratic stronghold of Portland. Johnson and Drazan have both attemptedto saddle Kotek with the blame, often pointing toa bill she introduced that they say allowed unrestricted camping. The bill actually formalized constraints for clearing campsites handed down by a federal appeals court and did not put an end to campsite sweeps.

Drazan has also sought to tie Kotek to COVID-19 school closures mandated by Brown, reasoning that Kotek declined as speaker to take up legislation that could have cut the governor’s emergency authority short.

“Tina Kotek and Kate Brown have worked closely together for Tina’s entire term,” Drazan said during a debate in late July. “There is no separation there because they don’t want there to be any separation. They are aligned.”

The message might be landing with disaffected Democrats. Polls have repeatedly suggested that Johnson, a former Democratic lawmaker who pledges to act quickly to stifle camping, is attracting more support from voters who lean Democratic than those who lean Republican. If that dynamic holds through Election Day, it could create an opening for Drazan despite Democrats’ traditional dominance in Oregon. (Polls consistently show Johnson as a distant third in the race.)

Last week, Kotek’s campaign dismissed the notion that the candidate’s sharper messaging amounted to a strategic pivot to try to create distance between her and Brown.

“Tina’s opinion hasn’t changed, but most voters are just starting to tune into the race now, and all of our messages are more blunt than they were in June,” said Lindsey O’Brien, a campaign advisor.

Katie Wertheimer, the Kotek campaign’s spokeswoman, said in an email that “one of the main reasons Tina decided to run for Governor is because Kate Brown was absent on two of Oregon’s biggest problems: homelessness and addiction.”

Kotek first proposed declaring a homelessness state of emergency in early 2020, when she was House speaker. Kotek said such a move could allow the state to more easily cite shelters where they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed under code. The proposal fizzled when Republicans, led partly by Drazan, walked out over contentious climate change legislation, dooming that year’s short legislative session.

Drazan has lately made declaring a state of emergency a central plank of her campaign, sayingit would free her as governor to take meaningful steps to get houseless people off the streets.

While Kotek has suggested recently that Brown “wouldn’t” act to declare an emergency in 2020, the idea was almost certainly drowned out by the COVID-19 pandemic that would dominate much of the next two years.

Brown’s office said in January 2020 that the governor “shares Speaker Kotek’s view that the affordable housing crisis is a pressing challenge that impacts communities all across Oregon, and that will require urgent, concerted, and coordinated efforts at the local, state, and federal levels to address,” but did not say whether Brown supported an emergency declaration.

Brown’s office did not respond to requests for comment about Kotek’s increasingly critical tone. The governor has endorsed Kotek in the race to replace her.

And Kotek is doing far more to secure a win this year than tear down her longtime ally. The candidate has seen a surge in outside help from other prominent Democrats, including campaign appearances with President Joe Biden. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and a video endorsement from former President Barack Obama.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.