House Speaker Tina Kotek will resign from the Oregon Legislature later this month, she announced on Thursday.
In a neck-snapping move that runs contrary to Kotek’s past statements, the longest-tenured speaker in Oregon history will forgo leading her party through a high-stakes February legislative session to focus on her campaign for governor.
Her last day will be Jan. 21.
“Serving as Speaker of the House and representing my community in the legislature has been an amazing honor, and I am forever grateful to my constituents, my colleagues, and the entire state for the opportunity to serve,” Kotek said in a statement. “After considerable reflection, I have decided to step down from the legislature before the upcoming session.”
Kotek’s decision sent shockwaves through a chamber where allies had expected her to lead a tightly scripted one-month “short” session that will tackle continued police reforms, the state’s ongoing housing crisis, worker protections and more. Rather than being guided by their leader of nearly a decade, majority Democrats now face uncertainty — and a potentially ugly power struggle for the speakership months earlier than anticipated.
The news was likely welcome for Republicans, many of whom say Kotek has been an untrustworthy and punitive presiding officer. House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, said in a statement it was also “abrupt and unexpected” and “creates immediate difficulties we will need to overcome for a smooth legislative session.”
Kotek suggested in her statement that the table was set for next month’s session, regardless of who is leading the House.
“I have spent the past few months working hard with my colleagues to set a session agenda that includes essential investments in the services Oregonians need and paves a path forward on important issues for workers, our natural resources, and economic growth,” she said. “I have faith in my colleagues to get everything over the finish line next month.”
Kotek’s sudden change of strategy — as recently as November her office said she planned to remain in her role through the end of the year — is a telling totem of the risks she sees in a competitive race for governor. Dozens of candidates have filed to run for the spot being vacated by a term-limited Gov. Kate Brown this year.
Under House rules, Kotek would need to pause her fundraising efforts for the entirety of next month’s state legislative session, which can last up to 35 days. While she’s considered by many to be a lock to land highly coveted — and typically lucrative — endorsements from the state’s largest public-sector unions, Kotek has seen potential Democratic rival Nick Kristof use his appeal as a former New York Times columnist to post eye-popping contributions from donors in Oregon and across the country.
As of Thursday morning, Kotek had reported raising nearly $860,000 in the race, compared with Kristof’s almost $2.5 million. State elections officials ruled Thursday that Kristof does not meet a three-year residency requirement to run for governor, but that matter is expected to be challenged in court and is far from settled.
Another prominent candidate for the Democratic nomination, state Treasurer Tobias Read, had reported collecting a little more than $721,500 in donations.
Also waiting in the wings is former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Warren moderate who announced last year she would leave the Democratic Party to run for governor as a nonaffiliated candidate. Johnson resigned from her seat in December to focus on the race and has reported raising nearly $3 million, potentially making her an unlikely threat in November. Rather than run in a party primary, she’s attempting to collect enough signatures to make the general election ballot.
In an interview Thursday, Kotek suggested fundraising was not the primary reason she’s resigning. Rather, she said she realized after a one-day special session last month that she could not serve as speaker and ably run a campaign.
“I always do everything 110%,” Kotek said. “I want to make sure session has my full attention and I just felt like I couldn’t do it.”
Kotek’s departure brings a close to a legislative career that has been successful by nearly any measure. Since becoming speaker in 2013, Kotek has seen Democratic dominance in the chamber grow in almost every election. With those stronger majorities, she’s been able to help muscle through a raft of progressive priorities including raising the minimum wage, expanding access to health care and paid leave, standards for cleaner fuel and increasing business taxes to fund K-12 schools.
In a statement Thursday, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said Kotek “would always be a historic figure in the Legislature.”
“Tina has served the state well during a challenging time in Oregon’s history,” Courtney said. “I thank her for her years of service.”
But while Kotek’s fans say she’s a clear-eyed and principled leader, critics have increasingly complained she has consolidated power, bulldogging allies and rivals until they agree to go along with her vision.
The speaker’s ability to consistently cut deals with Republicans has been in question since September, when she backed out of an agreement to grant the GOP equal say on redistricting maps. That move inspired howls of outrage and vows by Republicans never to trust Kotek again.
“The past decade of leadership has failed to serve all Oregonians fairly and excluded voices from across the state on contentious issues,” Breese-Iverson, the House Republican leader, said. “I look forward to turning over a new leaf to accomplish real work and a more inclusive process for all Oregonians.”
Despite those sentiments, Kotek was a major force in pushing a successful December legislative session that saw lawmakers extend help for renters hurt financially by COVID-19 and assist ranchers and farmers hit hard by drought and wildfires, among other priorities, with little incident.
Unclear Wednesday was precisely who will run the House when it convenes next month. Under chamber rules, Speaker Pro-Tem Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, will step in for Kotek once she departs. But Holvey has shown little outward desire for serving as the chamber’s official leader.
Kotek suggested Thursday that the House would be required to vote on a new speaker when it convenes Feb. 1, but that’s not strictly true. House Clerk Tim Sekarak said such a vote would be typical as “a matter of custom and practice,” but not mandated by the chamber’s rules.
But it seemed unlikely Thursday that House lawmakers would delay, though members were clearly still processing news of the leadership vacuum.
State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley has been speaking to colleagues for months about her interest in the speakership. She briefly considered challenging Kotek for the job in early 2021. Bynum backed off, she has said, partly because Kotek agreed to support her as speaker in the future. Kotek has denied she promised to solely back Bynum for the job, and is not endorsing any candidates.
“I’ve never stopped making it very clear that I was pursuing the position,” Bynum said. “I think I have the right skills as someone who can unify the chamber, who can be an effective administrator [and] who can understand the complexity of the job.”
Democratic lawmakers have also suggested that state Rep. Dan Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat and co-chair of the powerful budget-writing committee, could be considering a run at speaker. Rayfield said Thursday he had not made any decision about running.
Kotek’s imminent departure is the first in what will be a seismic change at the highest reaches of state government over the next year. Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat who has presided over the Senate for 20 years, announced on Wednesday he would not seek reelection this year.
With this departure, Oregonians are guaranteed to have a new governor, House speaker and Senate president by early 2023.