Influential Women

Oregon’s Tina Kotek Downplays Gay Milestone

'People have worse comments about me as a politician'

Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, D-Portland, left, deflects talk of a possible gubernatorial run but doesn't rule it out. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)

When Tina Kotek was a graduate student at the University of Washington in the mid 1990s, she applied for married student housing with the woman who was her partner. The school refused her application, and Kotek filed a discrimination suit, which she lost.

But then, as president of the graduate student government, Kotek was able to get the university to change its rules and allow housing access for domestic partners.

“That was a big deal back then,” she said in an interview.

That incident sparked an interest in politics, and nearly two decades later, Kotek was elected speaker of the Oregon House. 

Yes, she's the first openly gay woman in the country to rise to that position. But Kotek, 49, downplays the milestone.

“Being gay is less hard than being a politician,” she said. “People have worse comments about me as a politician than they do as being a lesbian.”

Her unexpected friend

One of Kotek’s former Republican colleagues in the House, Tim Freeman, is now a commissioner in rural Douglas County. He calls himself a “traditional family values guy” and does not hesitate to describe her as a “liberal urban Portland legislator.”

In 2011-12, when the House was evenly split, Freeman and Kotek were forced to work together as co-chairs of a state Ways and Means subcommittee that controlled about a third of Oregon’s budget.

And yet, despite their differences, he now considers Kotek an unexpected friend. “We’re honest with each other,” he said. “That sounds like no big deal, but when you’re in this kind of work, honesty is a very difficult thing to do.”

In the aftermath of the October shooting that left 10 dead at Umpqua Community College, which is in Freeman’s hometown of Roseburg, he said that one of the first phone calls he got was from Kotek.

“It was, ‘Hey, whatever you need, I got your back,’” he said. “And she was true to her word.” Still, if there was one word he could use to describe Kotek, he would say “driven.”

During a  heated debate  over raising the state’s top minimum wage to $14.75 per hour earlier this year, House Republican Leader Mike McLane accused Kotek and other Democrats of freezing Republicans out of negotiations.

He repeatedly described their actions as “tantamount to an abuse of power,” and warned “they will reap what they sow.”

Proudest achievement

Not a single Republican in the legislature voted for the bill, which passed in March anyway. Kotek counts that as her proudest achievement.

But she can claim others, and had a hand in laws on paid sick leave, affordable housing, mediation in foreclosure proceedings, and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

Kotek is also credited with shepherding a “grand bargain” bill in 2013 that raised some taxes, cut others and boosted spending on education and social services.

She points to a 2015 bill intended to curb racial profiling by police and another expanding child-care subsidies to low-income workers as reflecting her core commitment to fairness.

Still, big problems loom, including a pension system with $21 billion in unfunded liabilities -- a problem the legislature thought it had solved, only to have the state’s Supreme Court declare the new law unconstitutional in 2015. For Kotek, the highest priority in the next session, which begins in 2017, will be transportation funding. A related bill died in the legislature last year.

Middle class roots

Kotek grew up in a middle class family in York, Pa. Her father worked for an air conditioning company and her mother stayed home to raise Kotek, her twin brother and an older sister.

Kotek initially wanted to work in the foreign service and enrolled at Georgetown University, but became disillusioned with the school and dropped out after a year and a half. Eventually, at the urging of friends, she moved west, where she earned a bachelor's in religious studies at the University of Oregon.

She received her graduate degree in international studies at the University of Washington and  worked for many years as a lobbyist for non-profits that advocated for children and fought hunger. In 2006, she won a seat in the House from her district in Portland, where she lives with her partner, Aimee Wilson. She was elected House Democratic leader in 2011 and speaker two years later.

When asked about the talk that she might run for governor or Congress, Kotek is not all that coy. “I just want to continue to do a good job as speaker. If that means other things …” she trails off.

Still, she acknowledged, “We have a changing landscape here. … Who knows, two years from now, I might not be doing any of this.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.