Influential Women

Kate Brown: 'A Voice for Those That Don't Have One'

Oregon Governor Kate Brown looks on during an Oct. 2, 2015 press conference in Roseburg, Ore. Ten people were confirmed dead in a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College by a an unconfirmed gunman who used protective clothing and multiple weapons, all of which were purchased legally. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says she had long aspired to run for the office she now holds.  

She didn’t think her moment would come just a month after her predecessor, John Kitzhaber had been sworn into his fourth term.  

Kitzhaber, a Democrat, was forced to resign over an investigation into whether his fiancee used her influence as de facto first lady in consideration of outside consulting work. Brown, then secretary of state and next in line to become governor under Oregon’s constitution, had no time to prepare a legislative agenda as the legislature was in the middle of session. “The reality of someone coming into office like me ascending into the post is that I didn’t get elected so I didn’t have a mandate so to speak,” Brown said in an interview. “The challenge is sort of capturing the issues that Oregonians feel strongly about and moving forward on those.”  

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Brown is no stranger to the legislature, where she served for 17 years before being appointed secretary of state in 2008. One of Brown’s 2015 legislative successes was a bill that registers Oregon residents to vote when getting their driver's license or identification card. It’s a bill she had been working on as secretary of state since 2013. The law, according to the governor’s office, makes voter registration “more cost effective, more secure and more convenient.”  

Brown also signed a package of so-called “Fair Shot” bills that overhaul law enforcement and employment laws. The new laws require employers to implement paid sick time and requires police to provide profiling complaints to the governor’s Law Enforcement Contacts Policy and Data Review Committee. Another bill the governor also signed made Oregon the first state to allow women access to a year’s supply of contraceptives. Previously, women would have to visit a pharmacy once a month or their health insurance would only provide a three month’s supply at a time.  

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek says Brown’s collaborative style helped the legislature finish the 2015 session strong despite Kitzhaber’s departure.  

“I don’t think anyone can prepare for what happened earlier in the year but there’s no one better to step in,” Kotek says. “She came in with a real clear understanding that people needed to restore some confidence in our state government.”  

Her latest challenge came last month when an armed group protesting federal control over public lands in the West occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in the eastern Oregon town of Burns. One of the occupiers was killed and eight others were arrested by federal agents after a car chase on Jan. 27, but four holdouts were continuing to occupy the building.  

“My highest priority is the safety of all Oregonians and their communities,” Brown said in a Jan. 27 news release after the arrests. “I ask for patience as officials continue pursuit of a swift and peaceful resolution."  

In 2016, Brown has a short legislative session alongside a campaign to run. She’s up against three Republican candidates, one Democrat and an Independent.  

Her ascension to governor has also resonated with the LGBTQ community. Brown is the first governor in the U.S. who openly identifies as bisexual.  

Alison Gash, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon, says that the state’s tumultuous LGBTQ rights history makes Brown’s governorship significant. She points to how the conservative Oregon Citizen’s Alliance put anti-LGBTQ policies at the forefront of voters’ minds throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.  

Oregon voters banned same-sex marriage in 2004, but in 2007 — while Brown was the State Senate majority leader — the legislature created and passed domestic partner legislation giving LGBTQ residents the same rights and benefits as heterosexual married couples. A federal judge overturned the state’s same sex marriage ban in May 2014.  

“It’s because of that background and history that [Brown’s] sexuality will not be showcased in campaigns or at least showcased by people who oppose her,” Gash says. “Because we have this ugly history and because to a degree we’ve gotten to the other side of it there really isn’t an opportunity for her sexuality to be targeted in this. … There’s no room in Oregon for that to be any sort of campaign tactic.”  

For now, Brown says her 2016 session goals include requiring lobbyists to register their clients with the state's ethics commission and the creation of an independent public records advocate to help with quicker, timelier responses to requests. She also said the legislature is going to work on a transportation legislation package.  

“I think what gets me up in the morning and has for the last 24 years is that I can be a voice for those that don’t have one,” Brown says. “I realized I could make a difference, I could be their voice, I could fight for them. ... There’s no better place to fight for working families than the governor’s chair.”  

Marissa Evans is a staff writer for CQ’s State Report team. Follow her on Twitter at @marissaaevans.

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