Oregon governor scandal puts spotlight on secretary of state


Of the Associated Press

PORTLAND — The abrupt collapse of political support for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has thrown a spotlight on the next in line to succeed him: the 54-year-old secretary of state who has long been thought to have her eye on Oregon's top elected position.

Kate Brown is widely considered to be to the left of the embattled Democratic governor, who is under mounting pressure to leave office because of an influence-peddling scandal involving his fiancee. If Kitzhaber resigns, the former legislative leader would also become the first openly bisexual governor in the nation.

Unlike most states, Oregon has no lieutenant governor. Under the state constitution, the secretary of state takes over if a governor steps down or dies. That has happened eight times since statehood, according to the Blue Book, the state government almanac.

Until recent weeks, the assumption about Brown's career was that she would make a bid for governor when Kitzhaber's term ends in 2018.

On Thursday, she reported having a strange talk with Kitzhaber after he summoned her back from a conference in Washington, D.C., a move that stirred speculation that a resignation was imminent. But when she arrived in Oregon, he asked her why she had come back.

Then, she said, Kitzhaber told her he was not resigning and proceeded to talk about a succession process. Top Democratic officeholders in Salem soon called on Kitzhaber to quit.

Brown, a Minnesota native, came to Oregon to attend law school in Portland, the state's largest city, and established a family law practice before her first run for the Legislature.

If she becomes governor, she will immediately have to start running for election, said Ron Cease, a retired professor of political science and public administration at Portland State University who served in the Legislature with Brown.

Brown would not serve out Kitzhaber's full term, but would have to go on the ballot in the next general election in 2016.

“I would think the stress level is going to be enormous,” Cease said.

Her sexuality has never been a prominent issue in Oregon, where Portland recently had an openly gay mayor in Sam Adams and where the current speaker of the House, Tina Kotek, is a lesbian.

News accounts have long said Brown is married but considers herself bisexual, without saying more. Her Blue Book biography says she lives in Portland with her husband, Dan.

Asked about her on Thursday, spokesman Tony Green said that, so far as he knows, nothing about those descriptions has changed. He said he's put the question directly to Brown, but she has not responded.

Democrat Jim McGreevey of New Jersey has been the nation's only openly gay governor. He came out during a scandal-plagued term and resigned in 2004.

Mike Michaud, a Maine Democrat, lost a race last year that would have made him the first openly gay person elected governor.

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund endorsed Brown in her two campaigns for secretary of state, in 2008 and 2012. The fund's executive director, Denis Dison, said that she would be the first openly bisexual governor.

Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling vividly recalls Brown knocking on his door to ask for his vote during her first House primary, which she won by just seven votes.

“Kate Brown is really a hard worker,” said Keisling, now director of the Center for Public Service in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. “She cares a lot about public policy.”

Brown made improvements to the vote-by-mail system and has sought transparency in government, including instituting an online database for campaign finance, Keisling said.

She also fought to pass a bill to register nearly every Oregonian to vote by signing them up through driver license records.

She failed to get that through the Legislature two years ago, when she could not summon a united front among Democrats. Republicans solidly opposed it, fearing it would add to the registration advantage that has propelled the Democrats to dominance in statewide offices.

More Democratic legislative gains in 2014 make the prospects for her bill brighter in the session that began in earnest this month.

At her latest inauguration, Brown pledged to ensure effective audits of government agencies and to ask the Legislature for authority to create an office to help small businesses navigate regulations. She also said it was time for Oregon to limit contributions to political campaigns.

“I will put the strength of democracy before politics,” she said.

She was appointed to the Oregon House in 1991, when another Democrat left to take a new job, and was elected to two terms. She was then elected to the state Senate and in 2004 became the first woman to serve as majority leader.

At this stage, “it's fair to say people just don't know who she is,” said Cease, citing the lack of exposure for the secretary of state job.

But, he added, Brown “cares about people. And there's nothing mean about her.”

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