POLITICS
11/02/2016 12:11 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2017

Kate Brown Became Governor With 5 Days' Notice. She's Been On Fire Ever Since.

With a minimum wage hike, gun control and phasing out coal, Oregon is soaring to new progressive heights on her watch.
This is the face of a very successful progressive politician.
Steve Dipaola / Reuters
This is the face of a very successful progressive politician.

SALEM, Ore. ― One day in 2008, when Kate Brown was running for Oregon secretary of state, she met with the leaders of a Democratic group ready to endorse her. The organization’s president joked about why the secretary of state was an important post.

“The governor could resign at some point,” he said. “She could become governor.”

Everyone had a good laugh.

Seven years later, Brown was in Washington, D.C., for a conference when the governor of Oregon called. He asked her to fly home immediately.

Brown, who by then was serving a second term as secretary of state, ditched the meeting and raced home. It was February 2015, and a scandal was breaking. Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber’s fiancee was under federal criminal investigation for improperly using her position to advance her business. Kitzhaber resigned days later, and because Oregon doesn’t have a lieutenant governor, Brown was next in line. She was sworn in the following week.

“Usually, you’re running for election,” Brown told The Huffington Post in a recent interview. “You’re thinking about your team. I literally had five days. I had to be on the ground, ready to rock and roll immediately.”

It was a painful time for Oregon Democrats, who regarded Kitzhaber — the longest-serving governor in the state’s history — as one of their best. Further complicating matters, the Democratic-controlled legislature was in the middle of its regular session, which convenes for just six months every two years. If Brown wanted to have an impact, she had to move quickly.

So, she got to work. If Brown was thrown by her abrupt ascent to the governorship, it didn’t show. In the 20 months since, she’s pushed through the kind of agenda that most progressives can only dream about. She oversaw the state’s historic minimum wage increase. She enacted one of the nation’s strongest mandatory paid sick leave laws. She signed bills requiring background checks on private gun sales, phasing out coal-fired power plants and instating a first-in-the-nation law that automatically registers residents to vote when they get or renew a driver’s license. She also signed a “ban the box” law, barring employers from asking job applicants about criminal records, and helped create a first-of-its-kind LGBT veterans coordinator. Already a Democratic stronghold, Oregon has exploded into a progressive’s paradise on Brown’s watch.

For some context on her productivity: California, like Oregon, has a Democratic governor and a Democratic-led legislature, but its is bigger and meets all year. California’s governor signed 808 bills into law in 2015. Brown, who fell into the governor’s role during a six-month legislative session, signed 846.

Brown was sworn in as governor on Feb. 18, 2015. It wasn't an ideal situation: She had five days' notice, and her p
Steve Dipaola/Reuters
Brown was sworn in as governor on Feb. 18, 2015. It wasn't an ideal situation: She had five days' notice, and her predecessor had just resigned in disgrace. Oy.

Brown, 56, can’t take credit for everything, of course. She had the good fortune of becoming governor at a time when Democrats firmly control the legislature. But with those victories notched, she is heading for a smooth election on Nov. 8. In a country where more and more states are entirely controlled by a single party, her strategy — moving forward with a unified progressive coalition and not fretting when others don’t agree with her priorities — could provide a road map for how to pass an ambitious legislative agenda.

“We’re all on the same page in terms of what the agenda is,” she said. “I think that’s a really important lesson for other states.”

*****

I met Brown in the governor’s mansion on a rainy Saturday. We sat in her kitchen, and she insisted on making me a cup of hot chocolate.

A few things immediately stand out about Brown. She’s small, maybe even smaller than I am. (I’m 5 feet 3 inches.) She is also utterly disarming. I sat on a barstool at her kitchen table while she explained why she still eats meat and rifled through a cabinet of mismatched mugs. It was easy to forget I didn’t actually know her. But that was something I heard from people while I was in the state: Brown is just plain likable, regardless of whether you agree with her politics.

“You look like you live here,” she told me, handing me an Oregon-branded mug. “Especially because you’re having cocoa on a rainy day.”

As personable as she may be, she’s got an agenda. Soon after taking office, Brown and Democrats in the legislature pushed through a gun control bill that infuriated Republicans and gun enthusiasts across the state. The law, which requires criminal background checks for private sales and transfers of guns, drew a handful of Democratic “no” votes and barely cleared both chambers. Subsequent gun safety bills failed this year, due partly to the time constraints of a legislature that meets for only one month in off-years. But Democrats still pulled off the nearly impossible task of passing a background check bill in May 2015 in the face of a powerful, and well-financed, gun lobby.

They had help from Everytown for Gun Safety, a group funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg that helped elect two new Democratic state senators in 2014 and financed an extensive lobbying campaign for the background check bill.

But Brown’s 17 years as a legislator was perhaps the most important factor. She was a family law attorney before becoming a state representative in 1991. She ran for state Senate five years later and won, and went on to become majority leader ― the first woman to hold that post in Oregon. If anyone knows the ins and outs of passing bills, and who the players are, it’s she.

“What I didn’t have for 14 of the 17 years I was in the legislature was progressive control of both houses,” Brown said, sipping her hot chocolate. “That makes an incredibly huge difference.”

Here's Brown in 2007, then a state senator, celebrating the governor signing two bills into law protecting LGBT rights.
Craig Mitchelldyer via Getty Images
Here's Brown in 2007, then a state senator, celebrating the governor signing two bills into law protecting LGBT rights.

She seems mostly at home in the quiet of the governor’s mansion, even though her regular home is an hour away in Portland. The mansion is 10,000 square feet and has big gates all around it, but otherwise is just another house nestled in a suburban neighborhood. She showed me the tiny sunroom where she likes to read the newspaper. In the foyer, there’s a framed photo of her with President Barack Obama. The living room is a bit sterile. She said nobody hangs out in there. There’s a grand piano, but she doesn’t know how to play.

“One of life’s regrets,” she sighs. “I used to play drums.”

Downstairs, there’s a wine cellar stocked with dozens of bottles, compliments of the Oregon Winegrowers Association. The basement is completely barren, practically begging for a party with all that wine. But the governor is saving it for work.

“We’ll go through most of this wine during the legislative session.”

*****

Colleagues say it’s Brown’s enthusiasm and pragmatism that have enabled her to do so much, so quickly. In 1995, she spearheaded an unlikely coalition to pass a minimum wage increase. Republicans controlled the legislature at the time, and Democrats had just failed to move a bill on the issue. Instead of waiting to try again in the next legislative session, Brown pulled labor and business leaders into a room to see if they could come up with ballot language.

“She came to me after the legislative session and said, ‘I don’t really think we should just sit around and wait for better legislation,’” recalled Diane Rosenbaum, who served in the state legislature with Brown in the ‘90s and is now the Democratic leader in the Senate.

Brown led meetings and launched a grassroots campaign to get a measure on the ballot for the following year. They settled on a proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage to $6.50 over three years ― a significant increase over the federal minimum wage, which was then $5.15. The workaround worked. The measure passed by 57 percent.

Rosenbaum, who’s known Brown for 25 years, said that victory was emblematic of “the kind of organizing, energetic Kate that she’s always been.”

In a way, Brown the legislator cleared the way for Brown the governor. She spent eight years working to make the Senate more progressive, between grooming candidates and fundraising for them. It wasn’t until her final three years as a legislator that both chambers had a Democratic majority. That’s when, as Senate majority leader, she helped pass legislation making Oregon one of the first states to let parents stay home with their sick kids without fear of losing their jobs. She also fought to make insurers cover 12-month supplies of birth control versus 30- or 90-day supplies ― a measure she later signed into law as governor.

“To me, that is a perfect illustration of why it’s so important to have women’s voices at the leadership table,” Brown said. “I fought for 17 years … in the Capitol to require insurance companies to cover contraceptives. If insurers were covering what a healthy female needed, contraceptives and abortion would be part of that, right? Absolutely.”

State Rep. Bill Post (R) spent many of those years trashing Brown. Before he ran for the legislature in 2014, he hosted a conservative radio show and regularly tore into her policies. He braced for a run-in with her after he was elected. That moment came in July 2015, at the end of the session, when he saw Brown heading right for him in a crowd of people. He wasn’t expecting what happened next.

“I’m like, uh oh. Crap,” Post said. “She passed by people she’s known for years, she came straight up to me, hugs me, and whispered in my ear, ‘You are a great legislator.’”

He attributes her praise to him being one of few Republicans to overwhelmingly pass a bill in 2015, an innocuous measure relating to food in cigar shops. Post has gotten to know Brown a bit better over the last year because his parking space is two spots down from hers in the Capitol garage. He’s grown to enjoy the days they roll in at the same time.

“She’s a tiny little lady. She comes out of her big SUV with all her Secret Service guys almost every morning, and she goes, ‘Oh! Rep. Post! How are you?’” Post said. “I disagree with Kate on almost everything, but you know what? I love her as a human being.”

Brown is the second female governor in Oregon’s history. Barbara Roberts, the first, has been a mentor to her, offering advice and lending an ear when Brown has had to respond to crises, like last year’s mass shooting at a community college and the armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in January 2016.

“She’s had those kinds of things on her plate, in addition to normal responsibilities. And she has handled the job, I think, without complaint, without whining, without pointing fingers,” Roberts said. “Some people thought she’d be a stand-in for Gov. Kitzhaber. This was not a stand-in person. This was a stand-up leader who really did the job with courage and professionalism.”

She said Brown might already be a better governor than she was.

“Some governors watch one another, and you tell yourself they never did a better job than you did,” Roberts said. “I would say yes, she has.”

But for all her accomplishments and progressive accolades, Brown is still best-known as the nation’s first openly bisexual governor.

I have people come up to me on a regular basis and say, ‘I’m bi, and thank you for being out.' There’s not a lot of us. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

It wasn’t a title she asked for. An Oregon newspaper outed her in the mid-’90s with a story about LGBT legislators. The story resulted in Brown’s parents flying in from Minnesota “to have a talk,” as she put it. “It would have been much easier for us if you were a lesbian,” they told her.

The Browns didn’t get the gay daughter they wanted. Brown married a man, Dan Little, in 1997, and raised two stepchildren with him. Yet her openness about her past relationship with a woman continues to bring her national attention.

“My family, after the fifth or sixth headline, they were like, ‘Really?’” Brown said. “It doesn’t bother me, though, because what I think is really important is that kids see role models. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Soon after becoming governor, she got a letter from a young, bisexual person in Indiana who told Brown she was the reason he or she ― the mailer didn’t state a gender ― was still alive. Brown wrote back to “try to provide hope,” but never got a response.

“I have people come up to me on a regular basis and say, ‘I’m bi, and thank you for being out,’” she said. “There’s not a lot of us.”

It’s also shaped her legislative priorities. She remembers being a young lawyer and feeling “horrified” at the prospect of losing her job if her co-workers found out she was living with her girlfriend. That experience drove her to help pass the Oregon Equality Act in 2007, which barred employment and housing discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.

“That was a real wake-up call about the work, from a legal perspective, that still needed to happen in this state,” Brown said. “I wasn’t going to leave the legislature until we got that done.”

She ran for secretary of state two months after the law was enacted.

*****

Once you leave progressive havens like Portland and Eugene, Oregon is a vast sea of red. The cultural divide couldn’t be more stark than it is on the issue of guns.

It’s legal to carry firearms openly in Oregon. In September, about 100 gun enthusiasts, some armed, came to the Capitol to lobby legislators. Before heading inside, they stood on the steps and hanged and burned an effigy of the governor. Video footage shows people cheering as her likeness smoldered.

Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, was among those there that day. His group had lobbied against the background check bill, calling it “an attack on the rights and privacy of all Oregonians,” and had encouraged pro-gun advocates to participate in the September event. He told HuffPost he didn’t know people would burn an effigy, but said attendees deserved credit for not getting violent.

“Protests are intended to be somewhat provocative,” Starrett said. “I can’t condemn somebody for doing something that is clearly a symbolic effort that hurt nobody, and they cleaned up afterward. They didn’t burn Kate Brown. They didn’t set her on fire.”

Starrett wouldn’t say whether his organization, which boasts 15,000 members, endorses that kind of tactic.

“No one was beaten,” he said. “It’s pretty low on the list of terrible things people can do. I don’t burn people in effigy because, frankly, I’d rather get her ass out of office.”

Gun rights advocates hang and burn an effigy of Brown on the steps of the Oregon Capitol in September. The man dangling the e
Mike Bivins via billpost.us
Gun rights advocates hang and burn an effigy of Brown on the steps of the Oregon Capitol in September. The man dangling the effigy is wearing a mask.

Brown said she wasn’t shaken by the incident. She was out of town when it happened, and she never watched video footage.

“These are extreme groups,” she said. “I am not going to back down from protecting Oregonians in ways that I see as common sense.”

But others fumed on her behalf, including prominent gun rights advocates like … Post.

“I went ballistic,” he said. “And I’m known as the gun guy. When any Democrat or Republican has a question about a firearm issue, they come to me.”

Post said he was heading into a Judiciary Committee meeting when he heard what happened, and was so mad he spent the entire time writing a blistering blog post about it.

“I have no idea what anybody said in that hearing, I was bashing away on my computer,” he said. “On my stationery, I wrote an apologetic note to Kate, on behalf of gun owners everywhere, saying these are not my people. A kook group did this stupid behavior.”

The gun lobby would love to see Brown lose in November. They’re supporting her Republican challenger, Bud Pierce, whom they gave an A rating. (She has an F rating in their book.) But Brown is expected to coast to victory for several reasons: She’s a Democrat in a Democratic-leaning state, she’s an incumbent and she has consistently polled well.

Still, the biggest problem for Pierce, an oncologist with no political background, may be that nobody knows who he is ― not even people in his own party. I searched all over Portland for Pierce supporters ahead of a gubernatorial debate there. A few people marching outside the venue with hand-drawn Pierce signs appeared to fit the bill. This wasn’t the case.

“I’m homeless, and this guy told me he’d pay me $10 an hour to hold a sign,” said one of the sign-holders, Steve, who declined to provide a last name. The other protesters scattered when they saw I had a camera.

Steve said he didn’t know anything about the governor’s race. He wasn’t even sure who Pierce was. “If you find out anything good, let me know,” he told me as I headed into the debate.

Here are some people in Portland who were paid to carry signs for Bud Pierce, Oregon's GOP candidate for governor.
Jennifer Bendery/The Huffington Post
Here are some people in Portland who were paid to carry signs for Bud Pierce, Oregon's GOP candidate for governor. The man in the front threatened a knuckle sandwich if his picture was taken.

Pierce did an excellent job boosting his name recognition during the debate, just not in the way he might have liked. His claim that women with good jobs are not susceptible to domestic violence ended up getting him national headlines.

There were audible gasps in the room. Brown turned around and faced the back of the stage in disgust. She paused for a long time before speaking. Moments earlier, she had dropped the bombshell that she was a survivor of domestic abuse in a previous relationship. When she finally responded, she said that despite her history of good jobs, she had been paid less as a lawyer ― “substantially less” ― than her male colleagues were.

Pierce stumbled through the rest of his comments. He apologized the next day, but by then most voters knew him by that incident.

“I had no clue how to respond,” Brown told HuffPost after the debate. “Like, does he not live in the real world? Does he not have a clue about women’s lives?”

*****

Even if Brown wins and Democrats control the state levers for the next two years, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Oregon is facing a deficit of more than $1 billion in its next budget. There’s a controversial ballot measure that, if passed in November, would impose a massive new tax on corporations that critics say could mean added costs on consumers. A major transportation package failed last year. The state’s high school graduation rate is in the toilet. There are disputes over natural resources, energy and affordable housing in Portland.

But Brown is excited about the legislative possibilities.

“At the state and local level, we are the petri dishes of progressive public policy, because the feds are so stymied,” she said. “My thinking is we continue to push, we continue to be aggressive around a progressive agenda that helps families.”

She doesn’t have a problem with policy fights. She’s bringing some of them on. If she wins in November, she wants to try again to pass gun safety bills that failed to move this year. That includes legislation to ban future sales of high-capacity gun magazines; expand the types of relationships that qualify under “domestic violence” charges to include certain people convicted of domestic abuse and stalking; and prevent a gun sale from going through if state police can’t determine that person’s eligibility within three days.

Brown doesn't look like a traditional governor. "She's not a 6'2" guy with a belt buckle," says former Gov. Barbara Robe
Jennifer Bendery/The Huffington Post
Brown doesn't look like a traditional governor. "She's not a 6'2" guy with a belt buckle," says former Gov. Barbara Roberts. "A lot of people are not comfortable that anybody who looks like that can be a leader." Here she is knocking on people's doors in Salem and saying hi.

Brown is ready to take the heat that comes with that. I spent a rainy afternoon in Salem watching her canvass with a pair of Democratic candidates for the state legislature. They were strategically visiting houses where people had previously voted Democratic. But as they walked, a man came out of a house who was not on their list. They decided to give him their pitch.

“Can we count on your vote in November?” asked Teresa Alonso Leon, who is running for a state House seat representing Salem.

The man was wearing a pro-gun pin on his shirt. He turned to the governor and said flatly, “If you get rid of your gun control.”

Without missing a beat, Brown motioned to Alonso Leon. “Well, vote for her.”

Clarification: Language has been amended to reflect that Rosenbaum and Brown did not serve in the same house of the state legislature at the same time.

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