Oregon Gov. Kate Brown defends virus approach, looks to future in State of the State address

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Jan. 21, 2021 4:23 p.m. Updated: Jan. 21, 2021 6:32 p.m.

Comparing her COVID-19 response to a marathon, Brown said Oregon is well positioned to “finish strong.”

Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday argued the state has emerged from the crucible of 2020 well prepared to defeat COVID-19, and to move forward on a number of other key crises.

In a 45-minute State of the State speech kicking off the last two years of her final term, Brown defended an approach to the pandemic that has alternately been critiqued as too soft or far too harsh. The pre-taped speech was shared with OPB before its broadcast.


Comparing the state’s efforts to tamp down the virus to a marathon, Brown seemed to conclude that her orders to variously close, then gradually reopen, schools and businesses, have walked a fine line that has kept Oregon better off than other states.

“The truth is, those commenting on the far ends of the debate were missing the point,” Brown said, in a the online address. “In a short race, like the 100-meter dash, you run as hard as you can for a short period of time. In a marathon, you have to play the long game.”

She continued: “Because we were cautious, because we listened to experts, because we wore masks and limited our gatherings, because we enforced health and safety rules in businesses, we as Oregonians will finish this marathon and we will finish strong.”

The speech is the governor’s opportunity to assess the state’s situation, and to make her case to Oregonians for her vision for the coming years. This year’s version marked the first time in recent memory a governor hadn’t delivered the address before a joint session of the Legislature as it prepared for its odd-year long session. The speech was part retrospective, part question-and-answer session, and part rehash of a budget proposal and other priorities Brown had previously unveiled.

Related: Big policies take backseat as lawmakers work to address Oregon’s crises

It has been one year, the governor noted, since she convened an incident management team to grapple with the possibility COVID-19 would land in Oregon. Just weeks later, in late February, the state found its first case. Brown would close schools and issue a “stay home, save lives” order that shuttered many businesses in late March. Many schools and businesses have not returned to normal operations since.

To date, the state has seen more than 1,800 deaths from the virus, and more than 135,000 identified infections. Even with those numbers — and with some worrying increases in spread following holiday gatherings — the state has managed to avoid major spikes that have swamped hospitals in other parts of the country.

Brown also revisited the racial justice protests that played out in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. Months of nightly protest in Portland made the city a national focal point.

“The first step to creating opportunity is recognizing that racism is endemic to our systems, impacting every part of our culture and our economy,” Brown said. “I’m committed to ensuring that the world we build as we emerge from this last year is a more equitable one.”


And the governor touched on the unprecedented wildfires that torched thousands of homes last year, and have left, she said, more than 1,000 survivors still without a place of their own.

“None of us will ever forget the blood-red sky,” she said. “We will never forget what it was like to see thousands of homes burn.”

The speech took an unusual turn, when Brown brought in four people to help bolster her arguments.

First she posed questions to Antwon Chavis, a pediatrician at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, asking him about trends he’d seen in the pandemic. Chavis responded that he’d seen families increasingly uneasy about their food and housing security.

He also helped Brown justify her controversial decision to place teachers ahead of elderly Oregonians to receive vaccinations. “The pandemic overall … is disproportionately affecting families of color,” Chavis said. “I feel like we are at significant risk of really widening this racial disparity of educational outcomes … if schools continue to be closed.”

Brown also spoke with Reyna Lopez, executive director at PCUN, the state’s farmworkers’ union, and Paul Solomon, executive director at Sponsors, a Eugene organization that helps people transition from prison. Both serve on a council that’s been advising the governor on racial justice matters and have advocated for steps that would help minority-owned businesses access funding and target criminal justice policies that disproportionately impact communities of color.

Brown also brought on Christina Rainbow Plews, a rural fire chief who got national attention for battling fires east of Eugene even as her own home burned.

The conversations emerged as vehicles for Brown to present policy proposals — many of them familiar from a budget proposal she released in December.

Related: Gov. Kate Brown’s budget proposes prison closures and cuts to health care providers

The governor touted a wide-ranging wildfire bill she’s reintroduced in the 2021 legislative session that would increase the state’s firefighting resources, reduce fuel with thinning and controlled burns and enact other safety precautions.

She also highlighted investments she’d proposed in her $25.6 billion spending plan to fund affordable housing and prevent homelessness, along with a proposal to spend upwards of $20 million helping people of color own their own homes.

“We know that all Oregonians felt the impacts of the emergencies our state weathered last year, but the impacts are not felt equally,” Brown said. “That’s why our state budget and policies must be built on a foundation of equity and inclusion.”

Two other proposals Brown highlighted, expanding broadband access in rural communities and increasing health care funding, would likely need assistance from the Biden administration, she noted.

And the governor mentioned two ideas she’s floated repeatedly: Expanding the state’s automatic voter registration system, and ensuring ballots postmarked by Election Day are counted in an election. Current state law says that ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be tallied.

“The right to vote is fundamental,” Brown said. “It is sacred. Your vote is your voice and in Oregon, as it should be everywhere, every vote matters.”


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