For the past several months, Gov. Kate Brown was locked in a bruising fight for governor.
In a race that saw an unprecedented amount of cash spent by major-party candidates, she was maligned in advertisements for the state’s dismal graduation rates and failing foster care system.
National media outlets hammered the idea that she was in the midst of a tough battle despite it being the “year of the woman” and pundits predicting a blue wave. Oregon’s largest newspaper wrote she “never owned the role” of being governor.
There were questions about her leadership. Her vision. Her willingness to defy her political allies.
All that faded just after 8 p.m. Tuesday when the first numbers were revealed. Brown’s lead was commanding.
Her GOP opponent, Knute Buehler, conceded so quickly the Democrats hadn’t made it through their entire program at the downtown Portland Hilton hotel. U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley took the stage briefly and powered through their speeches.
About 10 minutes before 9 p.m., Brown walked out as Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” played over the loudspeakers.
She was jubilant, dancing and hugging people as she made her way to the podium.
Questioned for months, Brown now has a full term ahead of her for the first time since she became governor. She not only doesn’t have to run for re-election in four years, she can’t under state law.
All she has to worry about now is what’s right in front of her.
“This election was truly about Oregon’s future,” the governor said once she took the stage.
Many Democrats expect this is when Brown will make her stamp on the state.
“I’ve obviously been on the campaign trail for 20 years, and as a governor pretty much straight for the last three years,” Brown said post-election. “It’s a relief, totally, to not have that constant campaigning hanging over our heads.”
In the next four years, she’s expected to help shepherd a litany of progressive causes including: strengthening the state’s gun laws, advocating for a cap-and-trade proposal to fight climate change, championing campaign finance reform and finding sustainable funding for the state’s public school system.
In other words, Brown is expected to “own” being governor.
“Every governor I’ve seen has grown into the job,” said Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, “and I would expect no less of Gov. Brown. If you look at our history, most governors, including Tom McCall, had most of their major accomplishments in their second term, and I expect great things from our governor.”
That said, Burdick dismissed a lot of the narrative surrounding Brown’s leadership style that was highlighted during the campaign.
“Hyperbole runs very strong in any campaign,” Burdick said. “She’s an engaging, nice person who doesn’t crack the whip. Her style is collaborative, and I think sometimes people mistake that for weakness.”
House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, wrote in an email she’s confident the governor will “cement a progressive legacy that leads Oregon into a better, more stable future.”
That’s how much politics can change in a week: Before 8 p.m. Tuesday, the conversation was about whether Kate Brown has a vision. Now, the question is what kind of legacy she might be able to craft.
Brown has deep roots in the Statehouse. Having served in both the House, the Senate and in the secretary of state’s office, she’s long been a familiar presence.
Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem, served with the governor in the upper chamber. Winters said she called Brown after her victory to congratulate her.
The two discussed setting up a task force to consider how to improve the lives of people who have survived domestic violence.
Winters said she is expecting the Republicans — and the Senate in general — will continue to serve as the backstop to some of the more liberal policies that emerge from the House.
While Brown did tell voters on the campaign trail that she wants to extend the average school year and boost career-technical programs, she didn’t reveal how she wanted to pay for an increased school’s budget. She also didn’t show any appetite for overhauling the state’s pension system, which is facing an approximate $22 billion deficit.
The state is facing a budget shortfall, and Democrats are likely to float more concrete ways of raising taxes in the next couple of months. Brown’s budget should be unveiled at the end of November, giving Oregonians more insight into her priorities.
Sounds Fun, Doesn’t It?
After Brown left the stage on Election Night, she fielded questions from reporters.
No, Buehler hadn’t called her personally yet. Yes, she will be working with the Independent Party of Oregon candidate Patrick Starnes, who quit the race a week before the election and endorsed Brown, on campaign finance reform.
Eventually, Brown left the press scrum and made her way back to her suite at the downtown Portland Hilton.
She crammed into an elevator with her husband, her campaign spokesman, two reporters and seven bodyguards.
“We got room,” the governor said, encouraging more people to get into the elevator.
The door to her hotel suite swung open to reveal a crowd of friends and family waiting for her arrival.
Once inside, Brown sat on a couch and took a moment to reflect on the campaign.
She acknowledged she didn’t always do a great job at getting her message out.
“I certainly think one of my lessons was communicating better, and I’ll take that to heart and figure out what’s the best strategy,” Brown said, adding she’s not always comfortable “tooting her own horn.”
But it wasn’t long before she pivoted away from her accomplishment.
Brown gave a lot of the credit for Tuesday’s victories to a coordinated effort, led by women of color, including her campaign manager Andrea Cooper, which she said drove turnout and helped defeat four conservative ballot measures.
When the governor heard the Democrats picked up three seats and will now have 38 members to Republicans’ 22 in the House, she was surprised at the margin — and the possibilities it opens up.
“Oh my gosh,” the governor said. “Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?”