Oregon Democrats pick Tina Kotek for House speaker, but a challenge remains

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Salem, Ore. Nov. 17, 2020 2:53 p.m. Updated: Nov. 17, 2020 10:10 p.m.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Clackamas County Democrat, said Monday she would continue to press her case for leading the Oregon House and would work to build a coalition to unseat Rep. Tina Kotek.

Speaker of the House Tina Kotek spoke about the relationship between the Oregon legislature and the confederated tribes of Oregon in the Rotunda on Thursday. The nine confederated tribes of Oregon gathered at the Capital building in Salem to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Legislative Commission on Indian Services.

Speaker of the House Tina Kotek has been nominated by House Democrats for an unprecedented fifth term presiding over the chamber.

Alan Sylvestre / OPB

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, won her party’s nomination for an unprecedented fifth term atop the Oregon House of Representatives, withstanding a rare challenge. But what most years would amount to a coronation is anything but settled this year.


Rep. Janelle Bynum, the Clackamas County Democrat who has mounted a bid to unseat Kotek, announced Monday night she would pursue the role despite not receiving the formal nomination of her caucus. In fact, Bynum did not formally seek the nomination of Democrats in their private meeting, according to two people in attendance.

“I will seek the nomination for Speaker on the House floor,” Bynum said in a statement. “For too long, old ‘traditions’ and ‘customs’ have... prevented people who don’t come from traditional political backgrounds or communities of color from successfully challenging the status quo."

In most years, the Democratic caucus vote for Kotek would be decisive because Democrats hold a supermajority in the chamber. But it was unclear Monday if Democrats planned to vote in lockstep for Kotek on the Oregon House floor.

If they don’t, it could create an opening for Bynum — who is more moderate than Kotek — to build a coalition of Republicans and Democrats. A majority of the House’s 60 members are necessary to select the speaker.

“Ideally I’d earn my caucus' full vote and perhaps those of my colleagues across the aisle,” Bynum said in a text message Monday. “It will take a lot of work to build that coalition. But I believe it is what Oregonians want —a courageous leader who is driven by her values and wants what is best for our entire state.”

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

Kotek’s latest nomination to preside over the House marks the first time in eight years she’s faced competition for speaker, a position that wields huge power over members' committee assignments and the flow of legislation.

The speaker since 2013, Kotek had publicly made a case that her long tenure atop the chamber — a period during which Democrats have grown a sizable majority — made her an ideal pick as the state prepares to navigate budget shortfalls, calls for further police reform and a housing crisis.

“I’m honored to have the support of my caucus to continue serving Oregon and the chamber as House Speaker,” Kotek said in a statement Tuesday. “All of these crises require urgent action and experienced leadership. I remain committed to continue working with every member to help all parts of the state to solve these immense challenges.”

But while Kotek has won the allegiance of many Democrats in the chamber, she has also faced occasional questions about her leadership. That included an incident earlier this year where she called on one of her members, state Rep. Diego Hernandez, to step down after harassment allegations emerged from several women.

Some people within the Democratic ranks felt Kotek’s call was premature since an investigation had not been carried out. Hernandez won reelection to his East Portland district in this month’s election.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, attends an Oregon House session on Monday, April 29, 2019, in Salem.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, attends an Oregon House session on Monday, April 29, 2019, in Salem.

Laurie Isola / OPB

Bynum, who recently won her third term in office, has been a leading voice this year as lawmakers take up new police reforms. A restaurant owner with a background in engineering, Bynum had urged her colleagues to embrace a rejiggered power structure in the House, with decision making less concentrated at the top.

She also made the case that the Capitol needed more people of color in top positions.

“Those holding on to power also have to be intentional about changing things,” Bynum, one of two Black women in the Legislature, told OPB last week. “They have to walk the talk. I’m asking them to do that.”

She expanded on that Monday, saying people of color “are often told to wait, are brushed aside, or made to feel that we don’t pass a particular litmus test. It should not be lost on us that no person of color has ever had their name spoken on the floor of the House in the election for speaker.”

Bynum closed her statement by saying she would “lead by example and completely respect the body’s decision.”

Related: Oregon’s mental health system falls short for people of color. Rep Bynum is trying to change that

House Democrats who spoke with OPB prior to Monday’s vote were universally skeptical that enough votes would emerge to oust Kotek. But all said Bynum had made a compelling pitch, and that they weren’t certain which way the vote would go. Adding to the uncertainty was a crop of incoming Democratic members who have perhaps not developed allegiances within the caucus.

It was not clear how tight the final vote tally was on Monday. Both parties typically say little about closed-door caucus deliberations.

Along with Kotek, Democrats plan to renominate state Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, as the speaker pro-tem, presiding over the House when the speaker is not available. The caucus retained Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, as the majority leader.

Kotek is not the only top lawmaker to win their party’s vote of confidence this year.

Senate Democrats last week renominated Senate President Peter Courtney to a 10th term atop that chamber. Courtney, 77, faced no opposition among his caucus, which holds a supermajority in the 30-member Senate.

Democrats did make a choice in at least one contested race, though. They elected Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, as the Senate’s president pro tem, a role that takes over the chamber if Courtney is unavailable.

Manning, one of two Black people in the Senate, has worked closely with Bynum in putting forward police reforms this year. He was expected to be challenged for the seat by Sen. Ginny Burdick, of Portland, who until recently served as the Senate majority leader.

Meanwhile, Republicans are also keeping their leaders on hand. Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, was reelected by his members on Monday. House Republicans kept Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, in a vote taken earlier this month.