Oregon’s top lawmakers want to remain in power, but a challenger has emerged

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Nov. 11, 2020 2:03 a.m.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum will mount a rare challenge to House Speaker Tina Kotek when Democrats vote on leadership next week. Senate President Peter Courtney is expected to cruise to another term.

In a year that’s seen unending change, Oregon’s two most powerful lawmakers are hoping to buck the trend.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, are each looking to maintain control of their chambers for another two years, pressing their members for support as caucus deliberations loom.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, right, speaks with House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, right, speaks with House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, on the floor of the House at the Capitol in April 2019. Bynum is mounting a rare challenge to unseat Kotek as House speaker.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

But while Courtney appears secure in a vote among his fellow Democrats on Friday, Kotek could be in for a fight early next week. The state’s longest-tenured House speaker, Kotek is being challenged for her spot by state Rep. Janelle Bynum, who has spent recent days trying to rally support among Democrats.

“I’ve canvassed almost all of my caucus,” Bynum, of Clackamas, said in a text message Tuesday. “The seat is very much in play.”

The campaigning is uncharacteristic for the House, which hasn’t seen a visible fight for its top slot since Kotek assumed control in 2013. But the challenge, first reported by Willamette Week, is in keeping with a year that’s seen a widespread push for people of color in more leadership positions.

Bynum, who is Black, serves as chair of the House Judiciary Committee and was recently co-chair of a committee taking up police reforms. In those appointments, made by Kotek, she has been among the most visible lawmakers pressing for changes such as limiting tear gas use, making it easier to identify and discipline officers who commit misconduct, and increasing transparency around police disciplinary records.

Bynum said the Legislature needs to go further. In conversations with her colleagues, she has also made the case that power is too concentrated among House leadership, and that organizational changes could help the process. She has pitched her background running several McDonald’s franchises and past work in engineering as experience that would help guide a reorganization.

More pointedly, Bynum said lawmakers promoting racial equity need to practice what they preach.

“If communities of color want to be at the decision-making table, we have to build a bench and those of us in power have to carry ourselves in a way that inspires, challenges, and moves the needle,” Bynum said. “Those holding on to power also have to be intentional about changing things. They have to walk the talk. I’m asking them to do that.”

She could have a hard time convincing her colleagues that the swap is necessary.

Though House Democrats will lose at least one seat this year, Kotek has presided over a chamber where the party has dominated. Even in the current worst-case scenario — a loss of two net seats to Republicans once final votes are tallied — Democrats would still hold a three-fifths supermajority, allowing them to pass any bill on a party line.

“I’m asking my colleagues for their support to be Speaker of the House again,” Kotek said in a statement. “I never take that nomination for granted, and I look forward to earning my colleagues' support… We have a huge amount of work to do on behalf of Oregonians, and I am ready to bring my experience to bear and get things done.”


Kotek’s tenure in the job has coincided with a progressive tilt in the House. In recent years, the chamber has voted to increase the minimum wage, enact gun controls, do away with single-family zoning in cities, create a paid family leave program and enact new business taxes. In some cases, the House has passed Legislation that wound up dying in the more moderate Senate.

But Kotek also presided over the House as the issue of sexual harassment roiled the Legislature beginning in 2017. Many of the most serious allegations involved the Senate, and Kotek has pushed back on any suggestion she is tolerant of harassing behavior.

Her hardline stance worried some lawmakers recently when she called on one of her own members, Portland Democratic Rep. Diego Hernandez, to resign over harassment allegations by multiple women that had not been formally investigated under the Capitol process. Hernandez won another term in the Nov. 3 election, though he did not actively campaign. Bynum and several other House Democrats made contributions to his political action committee.

Not all House Democrats contacted about Bynum’s challenge would comment, but those who did said she had made a cordial and energetic pitch. Some said they hadn’t firmly decided how they would vote Monday, though all were skeptical that enough votes would emerge to eject Kotek.

“Her pitch was strong regarding her experience as a business owner,” state Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, said of Bynum. “I think it’s a fair criticism of our caucus that we could do better in terms of internal and external communication.”

But Wilde said that occasional portrayals of Kotek’s leadership as iron-fisted were overblown. While he had not committed to a position, he said he has been “fairly satisfied with Tina’s leadership” since coming to the House in 2019.

Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, said both Kotek and Bynum have been placing calls and reaching out to representatives. Reardon said although he thinks Kotek is “amazing,” he didn’t commit to vote for her. He wants both candidates to make their case to the entire caucus.

“Everything we’re working on right now has to have a racial equity lens and I would like to have that conversation with leadership,” he said, adding until that happens, “I would not commit to either of them.”

The Speaker of the House is technically elected on the floor by a majority of House lawmakers, not simply Democrats. But since the supermajority party typically stands behind whomever it chooses in private, the vote scheduled for Monday evening is likely to be decisive.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, signals his vote during a marathon session at the Oregon Capitol on Saturday, June 29, 2019. The Senate had more than 100 bills on which to vote before mandatory adjournment June 30.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, signals his vote during a marathon session at the Oregon Capitol on Saturday, June 29, 2019. Courtney is expected to be elected to another two-year term atop the Senate.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

A meeting of Senate Democrats scheduled for Friday figures to be less dramatic. Senate President Courtney is pressing his colleagues for an unprecedented 10th stint atop the upper chamber, his office confirmed Tuesday. According to Senate Democrats OPB spoke with, he isn’t expected to face a challenger.

Another two-year term as president has looked unlikely at times for Courtney, 77, a longtime lawmaker who had to navigate harassment issues that festered under his watch and earlier this year was hospitalized with serious health issues.

But in the current mold of the Senate, where Republicans walked out three times in the last two sessions, Courtney’s long focus on bipartisanship could be a plus. He’s also viewed by some as unlikely to pursue reelection when his current term is up in 2022, making another stint as president potentially something of a swan song.

There’s at least one contested race expected when Democrats decide their leadership Friday. Sen. James Manning Jr. of Eugene and Sen. Ginny Burdick of Portland are both vying for the role of Senate president pro tem, a position that presides over the Senate when Courtney is not available.

The outcome of that race could be a telling sign of the direction of the Democratic caucus. Burdick is a longtime lawmaker who recently served five years as the Senate majority leader. Manning is a fresher face, one of two people of color in the Senate and, like Bynum, has played a leading role in pushing for police reforms this year.

OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this story.