Tina Kotek on her last day in office as the Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Jan. 20, 2022. Kotek, D-Portland, served as speaker from 2013-2022 and resigned to focus on her campaign for governor.

Tina Kotek on her last day in office as the Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Jan. 20, 2022. Kotek, D-Portland, served as speaker from 2013-2022 and resigned to focus on her campaign for governor.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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This month, we’re hearing from nine of the candidates vying to be Oregon’s next governor. It’s an open seat for the first time since 2015. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, served as the state representative for Northeast Portland since 2004 and as Speaker of the House from 2013 to 2022 before she resigned to focus on her run for governor.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to another conversation with somebody who wants to be the next Governor of Oregon, Democrat Tina Kotek. She was first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2006; by 2012, her colleagues had put her in charge of the chamber, Kotek eventually set a record as the longest serving Speaker of the Oregon House in state history. She stepped down earlier this year to focus on her race for Governor. Tina Kotek, Welcome back.

Tina Kotek: Hi Dave. How’re you doing?

Miller: Doing very well. Thanks for joining us. What would your top priority as Governor be?

Kotek: It will be addressing our homelessness issue and our housing supply issue. So, housing and homelessness number one priority.

Miller: And how would you approach homelessness as the Chief Executive of the state?

Kotek: That’s a great question. Well, as Speaker, I have been sounding the alarm for the last five years of the need for the state to take a more proactive role to help local communities address the fact that too many people can’t afford their housing, do not have housing and are living on the streets. It’s not acceptable. And we’ve had success passing legislation. But as a Governor, you have a different set of tools, your ability to work directly with local leaders to make sure agencies are doing their work, holding them accountable is going to be really incredible. So it’s really important to getting this done. You can see on my website, I have a housing and homelessness plan. As Governor, on day one, it’s having that special team to work with our local governments to find out what barriers we need to remove and what funding we need to help them serve the folks who are living on the streets right now. I think with the resources available, and the right priorities and the right focus, we can end homelessness for our most vulnerable Oregonians, pretty quickly, I think – veterans, seniors, people, families with kids – utilizing existing resources, having that focus, but it’s gonna take more than that. It’s going to take making sure we have enough housing supply that people can afford. So people who live here now, have a place to stay and people who are moving here, and that is not something I think we’ve had a comprehensive approach to. And it is the long term solution to the fact that we have people living on the streets.

Miller: Well, if you’re saying that you could, within a short period of time, get people off the street who are families, or veterans, or older people, what is not happening today that you’re saying would happen, when you became Governor?

Kotek: I think it’s about focus, I think it’s about convening urgent conversations in a way that everyone knows what we need to accomplish, first. Look, the goal is to get everybody into permanent housing. And I’ve worked on that as Speaker with passing legislation and money for Project Turnkey.  I think a lot of folks are familiar with the fact that we’ve been able to convert motels and hotels across the state to increase our transitional shelter capacity by over 20% in as little as seven months. I believe there’s a will, there’s a way, I think what’s happening right now is it is a complex, it is a complex challenge and I think there’s just a lot going on. So you start with achievable goals and keep building on the rest of those – and that’s why I think we focus on vulnerable Oregonians, first. There’s money for veterans’ vouchers, why aren’t our veterans housed? We don’t want to see seniors on the streets, that is not a population of Oregonians who will do very well, living in a tent, we need to protect those folks. I mean, first of all, let’s make sure no one loses their housing who’s on the verge of becoming homeless. That is key. And I’ve worked on that with the eviction moratorium during the pandemic in the short term though, let’s focus on those populations of Oregonians where there are resources, and I think general consensus that we can solve that problem first, But for people who have been on the streets for a long time, it is also going to take what is my second priority and related priority, which is making our mental health and addiction service delivery system work better for folks, making sure that when people can get stable if they were living on the streets and get them into a motel room, that we can then also get them into whatever treatment or services they need. That is also a long term solution, and frankly, we have underfunded that system, it has been very disorganized over the years. We can do a better job there. So I think it’s a combination of things, but at the end of the day as Governor, you have different tools at your disposal, it’s not just about money or bills, it is about bringing people together, making sure that there is a top priority. I mean, frankly, there should be an emergency management Room for hearings daily on this issue, statewide, and we don’t have that.

Miller: You’ve said that you would support requiring people to go to a shelter if enough shelter exists, but your approach to homelessness does seem more heavily focused on housing and longer term solutions. How much do you actually want to increase shelter capacity statewide?

Kotek: Well, honestly, I think I’m a ‘both / and’ person; we need to do both. It’s not acceptable that people are living on the streets, just not. And I think the right types of shelters that will have the most…have the strongest outcomes. That’s why I’m a big fan of managed villages that are inclusive and provide people stability and security, but services that help them get into permanent housing. I think traditional shelters that kick people out at the end of the night, or in the morning, do not meet the goal. And so it’s the types of shelters, how they’re managed is very important, so people can be successful. And we also have to talk about building more houses. There’s just no way around it. So it’s a ‘both / and,’ we have to do both, and I’m going to bring the energy and commitment to work on both at the same time, because that’s what we have to do.

Miller: A recent OPB Poll found that less than 20% of voters think the state is headed In the right direction. A separate poll in Portland found that only 8% of voters are happy with the status quo. As Speaker of the Oregon House, you have been one of the most powerful leaders in Oregon for more than a decade. How are you not the status quo?

Kotek: Well, I’m not happy with the status quo. I wouldn’t be running for Governor if I thought everything was fine.

Miller: No, the question is, how do you not represent what has created the status quo?

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Kotek: Well, I think this is, I’m not quite sure I understand that line of reasoning. Here’s the thing, things are not good. People are not happy and things can be working better. And right now, I have shown that in the Legislature, I’ve managed a branch, I’ve been able to move complex legislation to improve people’s lives. And it’s not enough. You have to, as a Governor, be able to manage your Agencies and to work with local, elected leaders to have a comprehensive, targeted approach to solving problems. And that’s what we need right now. And this is not the type of thing… I mean, government is complicated, but I think solving problems are the things that… that’s what Oregonians want to do. They want to make sure we can have housing for people who need it. I think they want to make sure people have access to healthcare and the good things that we have done, aren’t enough. Like I said, if I thought we were in good enough shape, I wouldn’t be running for Governor. I am frustrated, like everybody else, that things aren’t working better.

Miller: Oregon’s high school graduation rate is one of the lowest in the country. The Journal ‘Ed Week,’ [Education Week ] ranked the state 40th in terms of K-12 Achievement. This is after you and other lawmakers have put a lot more money into Oregon schools in recent years. Before we get to solutions. I’m curious about your diagnosis of what’s not working.

Kotek: Yeah, well, certainly resources has been a big piece of the conversation for years, since I’ve been in the Legislature. That’s why I fought so hard to pass the Student Success Act in 2019, so we could add more resources, a billion dollars more per year to our schools to fill out what we need, what we know is necessary for students to be successful. That money from the Student Success Act will fully fund career and technical education like voters wanted us to do when they passed Measure 98. Remember? That was a Bill that was passed to do more in that regard, but didn’t come with a funding source. We now have the resources to fully fund career and technical education across the state that will increase graduation rates. We know it will and we have to make sure it happens. As Governor, my job is to make sure that School Districts will be following through with the intent of that new money to make sure students have what they need. We also know that when students need more social and emotional support from Counselors and Nurses, that they can get that.  That helps them be successful in school, that was another big priority of the Student Success Act. So I…when we passed the Bill in 2019, we said we’re going to have targeted investments to improve graduation outcomes. And as Governor, my job is to make sure that those dollars are being spent well, District by District, to meet those outcomes. Certainly the pandemic has taken us off course there, I mean the last two years are just, you know, they have changed the entire situation for everyone, but we have to get back on track and talk about how Student Success Act investments are helping students graduate. And that will be the number one focus for me on the education side, because we know that money is there, is it being spent well, to have the outcomes we want?

Miller: I want to just be super clear about, then, what the administrative differences would be in your mind with you as the Superintendent of Public Instruction as opposed to Kate Brown or John Kitzhaber, or however far back you’d like to go, what, specifically, would be different?

Kotek: Well, John Kitzhaber spent a lot of time restructuring our education system, most of which is no longer around. We can go back to the…all those things of having an integrated system of governance. I think under Governor Brown, I think it’s been an uncoordinated approach to make investments here and there. I am going to be focused on what we said we would do with the Student Success Act. I am going to hold Districts accountable. I think the Oregon Department of Education can be more proactive instead of sitting back and being reactive, to when things aren’t going well. I supported, for example, back in 2015, a piece of legislation that said, ‘Hey, some school Districts are doing really well with English language learners, they’re having fine outcomes. What’s wrong with the other districts?’ We, I made sure we had set aside money for English language learners to get more help from the Department of Education. Let’s get back to that model where the Department is saying, X District, Y District, you’re not hitting your goals, we’re going to step in and help you do that. I want us to be more proactive because some Districts are figuring it out. Other Districts are not.

Miller: What would stepping in mean, would it mean less money or more help?

KotekI think it’s more help. Here’s the thing about state government, you have to provide services day in and day out. It’s not fair to students to say, ‘We’re going to pull money back because the adults can’t do their job.’ What it means is you have resources that we’ve given you, and you have a plan, well, is your plan the right plan? Let’s go have that conversation with school Boards. If it’s a good plan, are you implementing it? That oversight, I think is the appropriate role of the state, to have this local implementation, but state oversight, so we can have statewide goals. And frankly, I’m not talking about our Districts. I’m talking about public.

Miller: In other words, if you don’t see improvements in Portland Public Schools, you’d like to see the state take a more active role and take some administrative ability away from the local District?

Kotek:  Yes,

Miller: Let’s turn to Measure 110. Voters in Oregon approved it and they were promised in return for decriminalizing drugs in the state more services going to drug treatment. So far, that has not happened. How would you approach the installation of a new Measure 110 world in Oregon?

Kotek: Yeah. When voters made that decision, it was up…the legislature took up the Measure in 2021, to work out some of the details, to put it on a course for success. And we did that. I advocated for early money to help providers get up and running. We adjusted the timeline for the agency to be able to hit the allocation timelines, and here we are in April and the Agency hasn’t been able to do that. I think it’s an example of… my desire as Governor to get into the details with agencies. You can’t step back and say it’s up to the agency. The Governor has to say ‘It is absolutely essential to keep our promises to voters, and serve people who need help right now.’ As it relates to Measure 110 on the ground, the resources that we have, are…need to be sustainable, and I think connected to marijuana revenue – that is very helpful, sustainable, but also really based on providing the right access to services? Right. Are we paying providers well enough so they can be there day in and day out in every community. Is it peer-driven? Do we have enough folks who have ‘the lived experience’ in Recovery or addressing a Mental Health issue where they can be helpful? Is it evidence based? How do you regionalize it? I mean, one of the things that Measure 110 is, it is coming into these resource networks for entire counties, to understand how they can coordinate their services. We are past the time of individual nonprofit providers of county providers, sitting in their silos saying I do my job, but I don’t know what’s wrong over there. Everybody has to work together in the sandbox better, because right now we have a lot of need, and we are the worst in the nation for providing that care.

Miller: If you win the nomination, it’s pretty clear how your opponents are going to portray you – as the embodiment of liberal Portland values who was propped up by union money. How do you plan to win over nonaffiliated voters, an increasing share of Oregon voters, or Republicans in the general election?

Kotek: I believe voters want outcomes. They want problems to be solved and they want to focus on things that we have in common – housing an issue… housing is an issue on the Coast, in Southern Oregon and Central Oregon and Eastern Oregon. So I’m going to focus on the things that I know that people agree are concerns, and work together to focus on that. I think being with communities around the state and listening, making sure they understand as Governor, I’m not in there to tell you how to do things. I’m there to be a partner, I’m there to be a friend in terms of, you know, removing barriers to you being able to solve your own problems locally with some help from the state. I think that at the end of the day, my values and the things that I have worked on, from raising the minimum wage, providing sick leave, working on housing and homelessness issues, those are the types of things that Oregonians care about and they want in a problem solver. They want someone who can get the job done and that…I think that combination of issues and values and my skills as a leader are what people are gonna end up, I want them to hire me to do this job. I’m excited about doing this job so we can move our state forward.

Miller: Tina Kotex, thanks very much.

Kotek: Thank you, Dave.

Miller: That is former Oregon Speaker of the House. Tina Kotek. As I mentioned before, we had planned to bring you interviews with nine candidates for Oregon Governor. We have now had seven: Republicans, Bridget Barton, Stan Pulliam, Bob Tiernan and Jessica Gomez, and Democrats Patrick Starnes, Tobias Read and just now Tina Kotek. We are still hoping to hear from Republicans Christine Drazen and Bud Pierce. We’ve given both of their campaigns, a lot of flexibility around dates and we have availability, we just need them to get back to us so we can actually put them on the schedule. If you’re voting in the Republican primary in particular and you’d like to hear from these prominent candidates, you can feel free to let them know.

Miller: Tomorrow on the show, even after recent rain and snow, the West coast is facing another year of extreme drought, meaning water managers are deciding where slim resources should go. We’ll talk to a Climatologist who says these managers are relying on outdated models and measurements in their water allocations. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC, I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.

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