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After leading Oregon through nonstop crises, Gov. Kate Brown leaves office with a complicated legacy

Kate Brown-OPB.jpeg
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, in her office at the state capitol, Feb. 3, 2022 following her final state of the state address. Brown acknowledged the turmoil the state has face during her pandemic, as well as noting Oregon’s economy is strong, and unemployment is low.

By the end, even her fellow Democrats were criticizing her work as governor. But a closer look reveals a longer list of accomplishments than conventional wisdom suggests.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is likable.

Before COVID-19 shuttered the state Capitol, she was known for cruising the hallways, making friendly conversation with lobbyists, Republicans and reporters as she went. She would compliment someone’s new glasses. She would take the time to write a handwritten note of congratulations for the birth of a baby. She’s affable; a people person who sometimes spiced up her talk of legislative agenda with quirky colloquialisms — like warning people to wear their “metal underpants” when times get tough and promising her constituents she’ll “GSD” – Brown-speak for “get stuff done.”

And Brown did get stuff done.

Under her tenure, Democrats passed legislation they had been struggling with; they raised the minimum wage, mandated paid sick leave and protected access to reproductive health care. For years, Democratic lawmakers failed in efforts to create a new funding source for public schools. Brown signed one into law, a tax on businesses that sent an additional $1 billion a year to the state’s school system.

So, as she prepares to leave office next week, why does everybody seem to hate Kate Brown?

Brown was propelled into office in 2015 by a political crisis. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber was forced to resign amid an ethics scandal, and Brown was next in line for the role. But she is not an accidental governor. She’s been in politics so long, it was her bill that made breastfeeding in public in Oregon legal in the late 1990s. She was the state’s first female Senate majority leader and served as secretary of state, a role often seen as a stepping stone for governor and next in line if something happened to the governor.

Brown enjoyed a brief honeymoon period when she first took over from Kitzhaber in 2015. Her friendly demeanor was a welcome change compared to Kitzhaber’s aloofness. But consensus quickly pivoted. She was criticized for not having a clear vision and for not being a strong leader.

And then, crisis struck. Again and again. A mass shooting. A fiery oil train derailment. An armed takeover. Devastating and unprecedented wildfires led to hundreds of thousands of people being forced to abandon their homes. A deadly heat dome, a racial justice reckoning that made the state’s biggest city the target of a U.S. president, and of course, a global pandemic that killed millions.

Brown had to make decisions quickly. She closed the state’s schools to try to stem the spread of COVID-19. She recruited firefighters from other states and transformed the state hospital to house the hundreds of thousands of people who had to evacuate. She called up then-Vice President Mike Pence, her political opposite, and used their shared Midwestern roots as a connecting point to negotiate the removal of federal officers from downtown Portland.

Brian Hayes
Statesman Journal, pool
Governor Kate Brown receives a booster shot of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at Salem Health Edgewater Clinic in Salem, Ore. on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.

Brown’s supporters believe history will judge her kindly; that she’ll be remembered for offering a steady hand during a time of crisis. Someone who could collaborate and listen, a person that didn’t obsess about who would get the credit. The majority of Oregonians agree with Brown’s politics — they just elected a person whose values most closely align with Brown as our next governor.

But with the outgoing incumbent, perception and reality have not always aligned. Even when people seemingly agreed with Brown’s policies, her approval ratings tanked.

People are unhappy; mad about lockdowns that put restaurants out of business, school closures that resulted in learning loss and a massive housing crisis.

Under Brown’s leadership, there were also high-profile failures, most notably when it came to state agencies. The state’s Employment Department failed spectacularly to get checks to thousands of workers during the pandemic. The rollout for rental assistance from the state’s housing agency in the midst of the pandemic was slow and rocky. And the Oregon Health Authority continues to struggle to create addiction treatment services as part of Oregon’s drug decriminalization effort.

And maybe that’s why Brown is one of the least popular governors in the nation. Or perhaps it’s because she’s a woman. Or maybe because she never managed to carve out a political identity for herself as successfully or clearly as past governors.

Recently retired state Sen. Peter Courtney, the state’s longest-serving lawmaker, worked closely with Brown. He said she led during impossible times.

“Kate Brown will not be judged objectively for a while,” he said. “A long while.”

COVID-19, the defining moment

People’s current perception of the governor is largely shaped by her response to the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Gov. Kate Brown thanks workers drawing up COVID-19 vaccines as she tours a drive-thru vaccination clinic at Portland International Airport, April 9, 2021. The clinic is a joint operation hosted by Oregon Health & Science University, the Port of Portland and the American Red Cross.

Early in the pandemic, when not much was known about the deadly virus, Brown made two statements and then quickly reversed course. It left the impression she was waffling on decisions that heavily impacted everyday Oregonians’ lives.

On March 12th, 2020, she told the public she was not going to close public schools. At 10 p.m. that night, roughly 12 hours later, she announced she was closing them — but just for a week.

On March 23, 2020, days after she said she wouldn’t order most Oregonians to stay home, she did just that, issuing an executive order telling Oregonians to stay home “to the maximum extent possible.”

People complained of whiplash. Republicans said she acted as if the executive branch of government was the only branch. Others criticized her for not moving swiftly enough and for not being decisive enough.

Around this time, a narrative emerged that Brown simply followed in her West Coast counterparts’ footsteps. When Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington or Gavin Newsom of California made a decision, Brown followed.

“That’s ironic,” Brown said when asked about it.

“I was the one that texted Newsom and said, ‘Let’s work together as a region.”

Under Brown, schools were closed for an extended period of time, (after closing them in March of 2020, she ordered them to go back to full-time or hybrid in March of 2021) she prioritized vaccinating teachers over the elderly (or at least those not living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities) and she took a while to lift the mask mandate.

By many metrics — the number of people who died, how stressed hospitals were and vaccination rates — Oregon fared well compared to other states.

But her polling numbers continued to drop; in April of 2022 Morning Consult listed her as the least popular governor in the nation.

“We made decisions based on science and data, not polling numbers,” Brown said.

Dirk VanderHart
Michael Cross, leader of the "Flush Down Kate Brown" campaign, collects signatures for a recall petition on Aug. 7, 2019.

Brown is Oregon’s second female governor. She said she believes women are judged differently than their male counterparts, but declined to say whether she felt sexism fueled her unpopularity.

But Gov. Barbara Roberts, the state’s first female governor, happily gave her opinion.

In state history, Roberts said, only two governors faced recall efforts: herself … and Kate Brown.

“The thing we have in common is fairly obvious,” Roberts said. “... I think some people have trouble seeing women as leaders, and they don’t want women telling them what to do.”

A remade judiciary

With time, it’s possible that Brown’s legacy becomes much less about COVID-19 and more about how she overhauled the state’s judiciary, effectively ended capital punishment and reduced the prison population.

When Brown graduated from Lewis & Clark College’s law school in 1985, just one woman served on the Oregon Supreme Court. Until Brown became governor, there were never more than two female justices on the seven-person court.

“When I became governor, I changed that immediately,” Brown said.

In her final weeks as governor, Brown also commuted the sentences of everyone left on death row and ordered the execution chamber dismantled. She also appointed two new justices to the Oregon Supreme Court; every justice on the state’s highest court is now a Brown appointee.

Since taking office in 2015, she has appointed 56 judges who are women, 55 who are men and one who is non-binary. She has also appointed 27 judges who identify as people of color, two of whom are Native American, and eight judges who openly identify as LGBTQ+.

Bryan M. Vance
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, the state's first bi-sexual governor, participated in the Portland Pride Festival Sunday, June 19, 2016. She stopped to thank members of the crowd for their support of the LGBT community.

It’s not unusual for governors to use their commutation powers in their second term, but Brown has used hers more expansively.

The governor said the murder of George Floyd was a wake-up call for her, helping crystallize what she wanted to accomplish before leaving office.

Oregon, which was founded as a white-only state, has a long, racist past. Brown said those roots were evident looking at the prison population.

“This lens of racial justice is embedded into everything, everything we examine,” she said, noting the state disproportionately incarcerates people of color.

Over seven years in office, Brown granted commutations or pardons to more than 48,390 people. (Kitzhaber granted eight commutations and two pardons total and former Gov. Ted Kulongoski granted 20 pardons and 53 commutations.)

“For me, these tools, this power is about mercy,” Brown said. “It is about correcting injustices.”

Even those who disagree with Brown’s commutations and pardons believe they will likely be her legacy.

“Prison reform is part of the progressive national agenda, and it’s clear she wants to be at the forefront of that failed policy,” Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp said. “When you don’t hold people accountable, that’s failure … The justice system isn’t designed to be compassionate toward criminals. The justice system is designed to bring justice for victims and their families.”

Do not disturb

On election night in November, Democrats gathered at the Hyatt Regency at the Oregon Convention Center.

Because the election was so close, Democratic nominee and eventual winner Tina Kotek didn’t take the stage until nearly 11 p.m.

Democrat after Democrat took the stage to fill the void. First came the big names: U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden. As the night dragged on, and the results continued to be close, lesser-known Democrats jumped up on the stage and filibustered.

Brown was at the event, but did not speak and stayed mostly out of view; giving the impression she was a political pariah within her own party.

Much of the 2022 campaign for governor was a campaign against Brown.

Republicans tried to paint Kotek as “Brown 2.0″ saying she would continue the failed policies that have resulted in the housing crisis and a public school system that is consistently ranked one of the lowest in the nation.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Kotek tried to distance herself from her political ally.

“Almost three years ago I called for a homelessness state of emergency,” Kotek said in one late ad. “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.”

Now that she’s almost done, Brown sounds indifferent about the criticisms.

“I’m a big girl,” she said recently. “I’m well aware that things may have been said during the campaign that folks felt needed to be said.”

Brown said she worked closely with Kotek on housing when the governor-elect was in the Legislature and said her administration invested more in affordable housing than all the previous governors combined.

Joni Land
Gov. Kate Brown eats pancakes at the Cowboy Breakfast in Pendleton on Sept. 16, 2022. Nearby, Democratic candidate Tina Kotek speaks to voters.

Brown isn’t saying what’s next for her; despite the string of crises that defined her tenure she said she’ll miss the job.

She does have one plan for the immediate future.

Ever since 2020, she said, any call to her gubernatorial cell phone put her on edge.

After Kotek takes over Monday, Brown plans to take a vacation — and she might even put her phone on “do not disturb.”

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting