Gov. Tina Kotek’s first year in office was not what her critics expected

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB) and Lauren Dake (OPB)
Jan. 9, 2024 6 p.m. Updated: Jan. 9, 2024 11:20 p.m.

Once considered one of the most progressive legislative leaders in the country, Kotek has spent the last year preaching pragmatism over ideology.

Tina Kotek talks with a woman while in the center of a small crowd

FILE: Gov. Tina Kotek talks with local leaders in Hermiston, Ore., May 3, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB


On the campaign trail for governor, Tina Kotek was the progressive candidate from one of the most progressive cities in the country.

The reputation — hailed by her supporters and demonized by detractors — was well earned.

As Speaker of the Oregon House, she championed laws that made Republicans shudder (and occasionally prompted them to flee the Capitol entirely): expanding reproductive rights, curbing carbon emissions, passing new taxes, bolstering gun laws and enacting statewide rent control.

Then, shortly after being elected governor, Kotek sold her house in Portland and relocated with her wife 50 or so miles south to Salem.

Her politics have also seemingly moved toward the middle.

In her first year as Oregon governor — a milestone Kotek is officially marking Tuesday — she stood out not for the hyper-progressive slate of proposals detractors warned about on the campaign trail.

Instead, many observers note the governor has spent the last 365 days sounding a bit like her more-conservative opponents from last year’s race. Kotek has called for loosening the state’s vaunted land-use policies, sent more police to the city of Portland, touted the need for tighter drug laws, passed major business subsidies, and called for a freeze on taxes.

“She was very public about wanting to be the governor of all of Oregon, and she appears to be committed to trying to make that happen,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend. “If you’re going to do that, it means you have to move toward the center and not toward the left.”

Not everyone agrees with that view point. Kotek’s sharpest critics view her actions over the last year as a bare minimum. They say there simply hasn’t been enough tangible progress on Oregon’s myriad woes at a time Democrats continue to dominate state government. They also blame her for many of the state’s problems in the first place, given her long stint in power.

But conversations with nearly two dozen politicians, lobbyists, advocates and others paying close attention to the governor suggest many have been encouraged by what they see.

Kotek said people shouldn’t be surprised.

“I think this is about: Can you make stuff work?” she told reporters in December, after a lengthy presentation to state business leaders about a plan to revive downtown Portland. ”I am very progressive when it comes to public policy, but I am pragmatic and I’m tired of things not working.”

One thing pretty much everyone agrees with: Things are still not working.

Despite inroads with some skeptics and a tour of every county designed to boost her reputation in rural Oregon, Kotek has seen her approval numbers dip over the last year.

But after what even her Democratic allies characterize as a shaky transition from a dominant legislator to the state’s top executive, many are hopeful that Kotek is on solid ground.

“I know everyone wants to wave a magic wand and say. ‘You’ve got to fix everything right now,’” said Doug Moore, a political consultant who last year stepped down as director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, where he was a close Kotek ally. “That’s not how public policy works.”

A change in tone?

Shaun Jillions is accustomed to butting heads with Kotek. As a longtime lobbyist for real estate agents and industrial manufacturers, he often found himself battling with the formidable speaker.

But this year, as Jillions prepared a presentation laying out the political and housing landscape for a group of Oregon lawyers, he surprised himself.

“Tina and I have had our differences and I’ve typically not been very flattering of her,” Jillions said. “I’m going to be flattering as far as housing goes.”

One of Kotek’s very first actions as governor was declaring a homelessness state of emergency and setting a bold goal of nearly doubling the rate at which Oregon adds new housing units.

A key indicator for Jillions: While Democrats have long sided with environmental and planning advocates when it comes to restricting where new housing can be built, Kotek last year proposed allowing limited expansions of the state’s urban growth boundaries in order to quickly add space for new housing.

Kotek hasn’t solved the housing shortage, “but she sure as hell cares about it … and she’s willing to push her friends,” Jillions said. “That is something [former Gov.] Kate Brown was incapable of doing, Kate couldn’t tell her friends ‘no.’”

As governor, Kotek is offering a modified stance on public safety issues, too.

A critical tone on policing in the city during the 2020 racial justice protests, has given way to Kotek sending state troopers into downtown Portland to assist with patrols (though still a fraction of what Mayor Ted Wheeler requested). And after insisting in her run for governor that Measure 110, Oregon’s landmark drug decriminalization law, should be given more time to succeed, she’s now acknowledging intervention is necessary.

Kotek supports outlawing public drug use around the state — an idea that rankles some progressives who fear criminalizing use will be counterproductive — and is supporting a law change that would make it easier to prosecute drug dealers.

Maybe most notable: As public support for drug decriminalization flags, Kotek is no longer saying she outright opposes repealing Measure 110. Asked about her stance in December, she told reporters she is “waiting to see what the Legislature comes up with” in the 2024 session, emphasizing how quickly the scourge of fentanyl has changed the landscape.

Sometimes panned by the business community as speaker, Kotek is also showing a business-friendly side as governor. She supported a massive $260 million package that will help semiconductor companies expand in the state, while, once again, agreeing with a proposal to temporarily loosen land use laws in order to pave the way for that expansion.

And Kotek courted many of Portland’s most influential business figures for a four-month, closed door task force on revitalizing Portland — a forum to let loose about frustrations with the city’s slide away from national prominence, and to propose ideas for what policymakers must do to reverse course.

One of the central points to emerge from a sprawling task force: a finding that Portland’s taxes are too high, and should be frozen for three years. That’s an idea the governor is supporting.

“I’m going to continue to move the progressive needle if I can because that’s who I am as a person,” Kotek said in an interview Tuesday. “But you also have to be able to get things done... It’s just I have a different set of tools as governor.”

If skeptics like Jillions are more flattering than they used to be, not all of Kotek’s critics have been swayed.

“Her first year has been marked by the tactical triumph of marketing over product development,” said Kevin Looper, who hammered Kotek in 2022 as a consultant to Betsy Johnson, one of her two rivals in the governor’s race. “There’s nothing in evidence that she has moved the actual markers.”

Looper spent nearly two decades as a Democratic political consultant, helping advise governors John Kitzhaber and Kate Brown and getting progressive ballot measures, such as tax increases on the wealthy, across the finish line. He has since become disillusioned with the party, and these days helps run People For Portland, a nonprofit known for installing splashy billboards critical of Portland elected officials in prominent places around town.

Looper sees Kotek’s efforts this year as largely talk, but suggested even that is an improvement from Brown, his former client.

“She is taking us as a state this year from doing nothing to talking about doing something,” Looper said. “That is both a critique and a compliment.”

Another one of Kotek’s rivals from last year’s race isn’t offering any compliments. Christine Drazan, the Canby Republican who lost to Kotek by 3% in 2022, argues the governor has underperformed at a time her party controls state government.

“She had full rein, and unfortunately I’m looking around and I don’t see the progress that Oregonians should expect from a party that has no limitations on what they can achieve,” Drazan said. “I don’t believe that we have seen the kind of results that we deserve.”

A struggle to adjust

In a session hijacked by the longest legislative walkout in Oregon history, one of the most interesting moments came as the curtains closed.

On the last day of the 2023 session, Kotek teamed up with Republicans to push a bill that would have expedited the often lengthy and litigious process of bringing land inside the urban growth boundary so it could be developed.

The bill died at the hands of Kotek’s own Democratic party, despite a last-ditch visit by Kotek herself to the Senate chamber to exert pressure. Environmental groups cheered its downfall.

The demise of one of the governor’s priority bills stood in stark contrast to her time in the Legislature, when she muscled tough bills to passage time and again.

“If there’s any knock on Tina in the first year, it’s that she didn’t adjust very well to not being in charge of the Legislature,” Jillions said. “I promise you, Tina as speaker doesn’t lose House Bill 3414 on the last day of session.”

As speaker, Kotek was often described by Jillions and others as the Capitol’s most powerful figure, comfortable pressuring Brown, then-Senate President Peter Courtney, and anyone else who stood in her way.

“I don’t think she’s as powerful as governor,” Jillions said.

Some members of Kotek’s party agree, though few Democrats would speak on the record with criticisms of a politician with a reputation for exacting retribution.

Several of Kotek’s current and former colleagues suggested that she struggled in her first year to adapt from having the “hard power” of speaker, where she controlled the fate of bills and lawmakers’ committee assignments, to the more relationship-based tactics required of a governor with fewer levers to pull.

Some described Kotek as keeping relatively aloof from the session, not sitting down with lawmakers or hosting receptions at the governor’s residence as frequently as her predecessor. But Kotek’s long history in the Capitol also means she still has enemies in the building.

When Senate Republicans walked away from last year’s session, for instance, Kotek stepped in to broker a truce. She gave up a week later, an outcome that some saw as inevitable given who was on the other side of the table.

One of the more outspoken Republicans in the walkout, state Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, frequently casts the governor as untrustworthy, after Kotek broke an agreement she’d cut with Republicans over redistricting in 2021.

“She could be doing good things for Oregon right now,” Bonham said recently. “If the actions matched the words we would be in a good spot.”

For her part, Kotek says she’s been required to tap into her roots as an advocate for Oregon nonprofits to get her way as governor. With fewer levers to pull, she needs to sell lawmakers on her budgetary and policy vision. But it’s not in the self-described introvert’s nature to be overly chummy with her former colleagues.

“I have very cordial relationships with a lot of legislators,” she said, “and they have a different job to do.”


If Kotek has struggled at times to wield power legislatively, she’s been active in other areas.

After promising to bring a cultural shift to a state government many saw as moribund, Kotek replaced nine agency heads upon taking office and pressured another, Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission Director Steve Marks, to resign.

Not all the changes were by design. Kotek’s handpicked choice to lead the Oregon Health Authority, James Schroeder, resigned after less than two months on the job. Reporting by the Lund Report showed he had grown quickly disillusioned with the agency, and contended in private Kotek did not back up his approach.

Kotek has also been busy with another campaign pledge: pressuring Portland’s leaders to do a better job.

In August, Kotek convened a task force that would take up many of the same problems they’d been wrestling with — visible homelessness, public drug use, piles of garbage, and struggling downtown business. The following month, the governor announced she was clawing back $2.7 million in state funds that had been promised to Multnomah County, after expressing concerns the county hadn’t offered a clear plan for spending the money.

“Who’s paying for what? Where does the money come from? What’s the city committed to? What’s the County committed to?” Kotek said in April of the county’s application for funds. “They need to get their stuff together.”

If those decisions tracked with Kotek’s campaign messaging, one of her most consequential decisions was not by design.

Early in her term, Kotek was forced to reckon with fallout spurred by a pair of cannabis entrepreneurs who were prominent supporters of her campaign. Rosa Cazares and Aaron Mitchell, one-time owners of the La Mota chain of dispensaries, became a political liability in early 2023, when reporting by Willamette Week showed they’d hired Secretary of State Shemia Fagan as a highly paid consultant.

The revelation led to Fagan’s speedy resignation, and ensured Kotek would have to choose a new secretary of state. She surprised many by tapping LaVonne Griffin-Valade, a former Portland city auditor with no interest in holding the job long-term.

Despite rough spots, by the end of the 2023 session, many allies say Kotek had begun to find her feet.

“This is the right governor at the right time,” said Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego. “She has her finger on the pulse of Oregonians in terms of the most dire needs facing the state, and has a vision to take the state forward.”

FILE: Participants in a roundtable on youth mental health pose for a group photo on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Portland, Ore. Portland Public Schools hosted the roundtable, which included Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson.

FILE: Participants in a roundtable on youth mental health pose for a group photo on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Portland, Ore. Portland Public Schools hosted the roundtable, which included Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Relentlessly focused on core issues

Kotek won office touting three main issues: the housing crisis, behavioral health and early childhood literacy.

From her first major act as governor — declaring a homelessness emergency — to a pair of announcements last week about expansions to mental health and addiction treatment beds in the state, Kotek has spent the year relentlessly hammering those priorities.

Democratic state Rep. Rob Nosse, of Portland, said the laser focus is necessary.

“I want Democrats to maintain control of the executive branch and if we don’t have things turned around on housing and homelessness, it’s going to be really hard,” Nosse said.

Kotek has made progress.

This week, she pointed to significant headway on helping those without housing or on the brink of losing their home. Her office said in her first year in office, the administration worked with local agencies to create more than 1,000 new shelter beds, rehouse 1,293 households who were homeless and prevented another 8,886 households from experiencing homelessness. (Her original emergency order called for creating 600 shelter beds, rehouse 1,200 households and prevent 8,750 households.)

On behavioral health, Kotek recently announced the state would pour $25 million into expanding youth mental health services across the state, and that her administration would help buy an inner Southeast Portland hotel that will be converted into an addiction treatment center.

“First time in a decade, a governor seems to be listening and acting,” said Doug Riggs, a familiar fixture in the state Capitol hallways, who has long lobbied on behalf of children issues.

The governor also successfully helped steer $140 million to the Early Literacy Success Initiative, a dedicated effort to improve literacy rates for Oregon students, who are woefully behind in reading. After the Portland Public School teachers went on a prolonged strike, Kotek vowed to address longstanding issues of school funding and make other changes to the state’s lagging education system.

“The governor is very focused,” said state Rep. Mark Owens, an eastern Oregon Republican. “She has set out her three priorities and she’s gonna double down and triple down on them until hopefully there’s some success.”

Kotek has a reputation as being highly intelligent, and more engaged in the nitty gritty details of the policies she cares about than many elected officials. Some Democrats say an insistence on digging deep risks creating a bottleneck in her office, as staff wait for Kotek to sign off on decisions.

“I’m definitely working on my delegation skills,” the governor said Tuesday, adding that she didn’t have the impression her close involvement in many issues was creating delay.

Others worry Kotek’s intense focus on her central issues has come at a cost to other needs.

Nora Apter, with the Oregon Environmental Council, said there is room to integrate some of Kotek’s current priorities with what she sees as the most pressing crisis: climate change.

Apter hopes Kotek makes it clear rising global temperatures are a top priority. “So … as we’re expanding semiconductor manufacturers, we’re not ramping up industrial emissions or as we’re building new homes and expanding housing access and affordability, we’re not expanding or increasing our alliance on fossil gas that is driving the climate crisis,” Apter said.

Damon Motz-Storey, with the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club, was more blunt in an email.

“Governor Kotek can and must do better on climate and environmental issues,” he wrote. “Due to her lack of focus, Oregon now stands to lose ground on our climate goals.”

Kotek stands behind her administration’s environmental work, pointing to examples such as the landmark deal recently reached to attempt to rescue endangered Columbia River salmon.

‘I feel like the things that were on our plates, we did well and we brought home,” she said. “That was really important in the first year and climate will continue to be a priority for me.”

An olive branch to rural Oregon, and sliding poll numbers

In Kotek’s inaugural address, she promised to soften the polarization between urban and rural Oregonians, citing former Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh as inspiration.

“He, too, was a former legislator with deep knowledge of our state budget,” she said. “… I will endeavor to listen and lead with the same authenticity, compassion and skill that Governor Atiyeh brought to the job.”

In that spirit, Kotek visited every county in Oregon over the last year. She stopped at a homeless shelter in Cottage Grove, talked to seed farmers in Jefferson County and watched a developer build a home using a 3-D printer in John Day.

In Harney County, Kotek ate dinner at the ranch of Owens, the eastern Oregon Republican, who invited local farmers and a county commissioner to come meet the governor over steaks.

“It was just a good time,” Owens said. “It was allowing my community to see her as a person. A person that actually cares.”

Gov. Tina Kotek fist bumps Oregon Rural Action organizer Ana Maria Rodriguez while visitng her home in Boardman on May 3 to learn more about nitrate contamination and how its impacting residents.

FILE: Gov. Tina Kotek fist bumps Oregon Rural Action organizer Ana Maria Rodriguez while visiting her home in Boardman on May 3, 2023, to learn more about nitrate contamination and how its impacting residents.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

Kotek’s visit to Linn County took her to the Dixie Creek Saloon, a well-known local watering hole and restaurant in Tangent. State Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis’ phone began lighting up with text messages from people surprised to see the governor eating lunch in their community.

“I shot off a text to [Kotek] like, ‘The Dixie, huh?’” said Boshart Davis, R-Albany, one of Kotek’s most persistent critics. “She texted back saying she didn’t know it would make that much of a splash. I will give her that. It was funny.”

Former Gov. Barbara Roberts said the tour was a smart move.

“I think it’s always good to get to all parts of the state because people tend to think if you come from Portland, you don’t care about the rest of the state,” Roberts said.

Others are less convinced.

“She came, she went, she saw mostly people who were friends or friendly,” said Bonham, scoffing at the notion that Kotek was like Atiyeh, the last Republican governor in Oregon who left office in 1987. “I’m sure I could go to every county in the state and find people who agree with me.”

Boshart Davis said visiting all 36 counties is the minimum expectation for a governor — not something that merits praise.

“That should be obvious. You’re the CEO of Oregon.”

Kotek says the tour was a major undertaking, including meetings with around 1,000 people and handwritten thank-you notes sent by the governor afterward. She says the experience was important in helping her understand challenges throughout the state.

“You can’t put a price on just having a deeper understanding of what it means to live in these communities,” she said, recalling talking to people in Prairie City who’d come to see her sign a bill to expand access to a suicide hotline for rural farmers. “You don’t forget that stuff. You don’t forget that importance for people. You don’t get to do that unless you’re out on the road.”

Whatever goodwill the tour might have won her in the vast stretches of the state that tend to vote Republican, it didn’t help Kotek’s approval numbers.

When she took office, polling conducted by Portland firm DHM Research found just 34% of Oregonians had a positive impression of Kotek. That number slipped to 30% in August, and today stands at just 29%, according to John Horvick, senior vice president of the polling firm.

“Her numbers are not good,” Horvick said. “Historically, they are in really bad shape.”

DHM isn’t the only firm with that finding. Like Brown before her, Kotek has one of the lowest approval ratings of any governor, according to the firm Morning Consult. In polling released in July, 45% of Oregonians signaled they approved of the job Kotek was doing.

But given Brown’s many critics, and the historic partisan division within the state, Horvick said Kotek doesn’t shoulder all the blame for her bleak numbers.

“It’s momentum carried forward from Brown,” he said. “People aren’t going to view her as a blank slate. They’re going to view her as Brown’s successor, as a Democrat, as a whatever. It’s not just going to be who she is or the accomplishments she had in the legislative session.”

At the same time Oregonians’ views of Kotek appear to be dimming, however, their outlook for the state has improved. Recent polling by DHM found 34% of those polled think the state is headed in the right direction — a number Horvick called “historically crappy”, but still better than the 26% the firm found in April 2023.

The next three years will dictate whether Kotek can turn the public sentiment in her favor. It will likely hinge on whether there is a visible dent in the state’s housing crisis, how livable downtown Portland is and whether more Oregon students can read at the appropriate grade level.

Because the governor’s goals are so clearly defined, so too will be her successes or failures.

“All I can hope is that we will continue to communicate over the course of the first term about what we’re doing,” Kotek said. “It will be up to voters whether I’ve made the case, but my message is I’m just going to keep working hard.”