Politics

Oregon’s Tina Kotek could be the country’s first out lesbian governor

Tina Kotek
Tina KotekPhoto: Friends of Tina Kotek

In 2013, Tina Kotek made history when she was elected as Oregon’s Speaker of the House and became the first out lesbian speaker in any state house in the country.

Still serving in the role today, the progressive Democrat is now taking on a new rainbow ceiling.

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Running for governor of Oregon, Kotek could become the nation’s first out lesbian governor.

“It’s an honor and frankly a privilege to be a trailblazer in this regard,” Kotek told LGBTQ Nation. “I think for me it comes down to what message it sends to young people… It is still hard out there.”

“Transgender individuals are being murdered, kids are still being thrown out of the house when they come out to their parents. It is absolutely essential to see out political leaders pushing to break down barriers because it sends a message to our young folks that it is going to be okay.”

Kotek is also running to succeed Gov. Kate Brown (D), who is bisexual and became the first out LGBTQ governor in the country when she was elected in 2014. Brown can’t seek another term because of term limits.

Kotek is ready, she said, to take her leadership to the next level.

“I’ve had the good fortune to be in the position to do things that really improve the lives of Oregonians, and this is a state I love…and it’s a state that has allowed me to be myself. It’s a beautiful place and I want to give back. It’s about making sure we can continue to improve people’s lives.”

As governor, her top priorities include increasing access to housing and behavioral health services, as well as continued aggressive work on climate action.

As for why she is the right person for the job, she cites her proven track record of getting things done in the legislature.

In fact, Portland publication Willamette Week described Kotek last month has having “earned a reputation among both friends and enemies for passing bills—with or without consensus.”

Among the work she is most proud is raising the minimum wage, increasing access to health insurance, passing a rent stabilization law, and improving the state’s paid family medical leave policy.

“You really have to listen to people,” she said, of her ability to get things done. “You have to bring people together and say, ‘OK what’s the problem and how do you think we should solve it?’… and then you have to collaborate on a solution.”

But the final step—actually implementing the solution—is the most important, she said.

“You have to say, ‘OK, we do these three things, these will be better. Who has to lead it, what’s your agency, how much does it cost, what happens at the local level versus the state level…’ So that’s what I’ve learned as Speaker. You can’t just talk about things. You have to actually be able to do them.”

With her vast experience in the House, Kotek said she knows how to bring the right coalitions together to solve problems.

“If you don’t do it together, you’re not going to be successful, and I think that cuts across partisan lines.”

But as in the rest of the country, there has been an increasingly bitter divide between Republicans and Democrats in the Oregon legislature, where Democrats hold a majority.

Over the past few years, Republicans have staged multiple walkouts, and in September Kotek made headlines for breaking a handshake agreement she had made with House Republicans in which she had agreed to give them an equal say in the state’s redistricting process.

Kotek, who received the support of several Democrats for her decision, blamed Republicans for not holding up their end of the bargain and continuing to block redistricting legislation from passing through committee.

Republicans, of course, felt otherwise and that they had been betrayed.

Nevertheless, Kotek emphasized that bipartisanship is a priority for her. She said that while these days it is more challenging, she is up for the task.

“We’re not going to agree on everything, but there are a lot of things we can agree on,” she said, “and with my Republican colleagues, I think it’s anywhere from housing to water to education, we can find common ground. It just takes a little more work now because we’ve got a lot of national efforts to keep us apart. We just have to work harder, and I don’t shy away from hard work.”

Kotek has indeed been working hard in public service for decades.

Before she was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2006, she was a policy advocate for the Oregon Food Bank and then served as policy director for child advocacy organization Children First for Oregon.

“Public service for me, it’s a calling,” she said. “It’s about helping people. I’m not in it for the glamour. I’m in it to improve people’s lives…That’s the only thing that gets me up in the morning to do this work.”

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