Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek formally announces bid for governor

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Sept. 1, 2021 2:11 a.m. Updated: Sept. 1, 2021 8:32 p.m.

The House Speaker becomes the most prominent candidate in either party to enter the race.

A woman in a blazer points to something not visible in the image, as a man stands next to her and looks.

House Speaker Tina Kotek motions to someone on the House floor on April 11, 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek is making official what many had already seen as a certainty: She will run for governor in 2022.


That announcement came Wednesday morning. In a release, Kotek outlined a campaign that builds upon many of the themes she’s pursued as speaker. Among them: addressing the state’s housing crisis, bolstering access to health care and addiction treatment, and taking steps to fight climate change.

“Oregonians are living through a devastating pandemic, the intensifying impacts of climate change, and the economic disruptions that leave too many behind,” Kotek said in a statement. “We must get past the politics of division and focus on making real, meaningful progress for families across our state.”

The announcement goes on to tout major policies that have passed the state House during her more than eight years atop the chamber. Those include billions in new funding for schools, a paid family and medical leave policy, raising the minimum wage, statewide rent control and a bill that aims to make the state’s electricity grid emissions-free by 2040.

Kotek had already given her colleagues a warning about her plans. OPB spoke with four Democratic House members Tuesday who said they’d recently been contacted by the speaker about her impending run.

While Kotek’s announcement makes her the most prominent candidate in any party to formally enter the race, it’s not clear her campaign will be able to dodge the “politics of division” she derides — particularly if she wins the Democratic nomination and advances to a general election. With a long history of pressing progressive policies, and deep ties to a Portland that Republicans pillory as a mismanaged eyesore, Kotek already routinely faces accusations she’s an urban liberal who’s out of touch with much of the state.


Kotek has also seen criticism from some progressive groups for her support for funding highway projects, which they say will only add to the state’s carbon emissions.

Even so, the speaker’s deep political ties suggest she’ll be able to mount a serious campaign. And she joins a Democratic primary field that is currently sparse.

Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla, a progressive farmer who promises to act as a salve to the state’s urban-rural divide, was early to announce his candidacy. Patrick Starnes, a campaign finance reform advocate and the Independent Party’s nominee for governor in 2018, also has a campaign committee.

In a rare gubernatorial election with no incumbent, the Democratic primary is likely to grow much more crowded. State Treasurer Tobias Read is widely expected to announce a campaign in coming days, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is said to be seriously considering a race and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has acknowledged he’s exploring a run. Kristof said in an email last week that he is “getting close to a decision.”

But with Kotek’s forthcoming presence in the race becoming more and more clear in recent days, the list of potential primary candidates has grown shorter.

State Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle said recently she will pursue re-election to that position next year, after leaving her options open for a run at governor. Melissa Unger, the executive director of SEIU 503, the state’s largest labor union, told OPB last week it is “really unlikely” she would pursue a campaign she had considered.

Kotek’s announcement sets aside speculation that she would pursue federal congressional office, as the state prepares to receive a new seat in the U.S. House. But the move creates questions about state House leadership during the short legislative session that will take place in February, months before the primary.

Under House rules, Kotek would not be able to raise money during the session, meaning she might opt to step down if she’s in the middle of a heated primary race. That would likely set up a vote for a new speaker on the first day of next year’s session, though members could also opt to hold off, with Speaker Pro-Tem Paul Holvey presiding over the chamber for a time.

Regardless, after nearly a decade in the role, Kotek’s absence would be a meaningful shift for the House. One person who is almost certain to have interest in the speaker’s office: state Rep. Janelle Bynum, the Clackamas Democrat who considered challenging Kotek for the role earlier this year, before brokering a deal.

Oregon Republicans have so far been far more eager than Democrats to announce their gubernatorial hopes. Among the more prominent candidates or potential candidates in next year’s primary are Salem physician Bud Pierce, political consultant Bridget Barton, Medford businesswoman Jessica Gomez and Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam.