Tina Kotek was on a roll as last month came to an end. In a matter of days, the House speaker and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful scored quadruple victories.
• The Portland lawmaker forcefully pushed for a special legislative session to help renters who face eviction, and Gov. Kate Brown came through. The session is set for Monday, which, by the way, is just ahead of Kotek’s official campaign kickoff via Zoom on Thursday.
• Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who would have been a formidable opponent in the Democratic primary, announced she wouldn’t run for governor.
• Judges upheld the congressional and legislative redistricting plans pushed through the Legislature by Democrats, aided by Kotek’s finagling.
• Oregon House Republican Leader Christine Drazen, who became Kotek’s political nemesis, stepped down from that role. Drazen, of Canby, will seek the Republican nomination for governor. That leaves House Republicans with a new leader, Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, of Prineville, for Monday’s special session and next year’s short legislative session.
The good news for Kotek kept rolling in. On Tuesday, eight labor and environmental organizations endorsed her for election.
At this point, Kotek arguably seems the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, in large part because of her deep support among fellow progressive Portlanders. However, 10 other Democrats, including State Treasurer Tobias Read also have filed to run, and more plan to. The Republican nomination also has attracted 11 candidates, with more coming.
With so many candidates in each party’s primary election, it will be challenging for anyone to win a plurality.
But Kotek faces a more immediate challenge, one of her own creation. I’m not talking about Kotek and Brown being photographed without facemasks on Saturday during the LGBTQ Victory Fund's 30th Anniversary Gala in Washington, D.C., where they were featured guests.
The challenge is Monday’s legislative session. Kotek has a lot riding on it. Enough Republicans must show up to guarantee the House and Senate have quorums for conducting business. House Republicans are wary of Kotek after she reneged on a redistricting bargain in the year’s first special session, back in September. Will they show up?
Republicans argue that a special session is unnecessary because the Legislative Emergency Board could take whatever action is needed, and do it faster.
Public work begins Saturday afternoon, when the Joint Interim Committee on the Second Special Session of 2021 holds a virtual hearing on four potential legislative concepts – drought relief, illegal cannabis grows, emergency rental assistance and related spending.
The Legislature’s worrier-in-chief, Senate President Peter Courtney, put the situation in perspective: “Special sessions are the most difficult of all sessions. Everything must be carefully planned. We have a lot of work to do. I hope we will be ready.”
The Salem Democrat will be working with a new Republican leader in the Senate, Tim Knopp of Bend. Knopp is a longtime legislator, whereas Breese-Iverson became a state representative in August 2019.
On Thursday, I posed this question to Courtney’s spokesman and received no response: “Has agreement been reached between Senate and House, D’s and R’s, on what the session will consider?”
A House Republican boycott on Monday might further enhance Kotek’s standing among liberal Democrats, and they’re the ones most likely to vote in the primary election. Yet among a wide swath of voters, a boycott could raise questions about Kotek’s leadership skills.
In a fundraising appeal last week, Kotek highlighted her work on housing and told potential supporters: “Why I’m running for Governor is simple: It's time to get past the politics of division and focus on making real, meaningful progress for families across our state.
“I'm not running for Governor just because I want to do things. I’m running for Governor because as a leader, I’ve realized we can only ‘get things done’ if we work together. …”
Monday’s special session will test that ability.
And there’s more: A different cloud also hangs over Kotek, Courtney and other legislative leaders.
Long after heralding the Legislature’s supposed reforms in workplace conduct, it has not hired a permanent equity officer to handle complaints, oversee investigations and conduct workplace training. Given these delays and other problems, one must wonder how committed the leadership is to genuine, full-fledged workplace reforms and compliance with a 2019 agreement signed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.
To get more candidates, the Legislature has extended the application deadline for legislative equity officer until Dec. 27. (The salary range is $104,808 to $157,212 annually.)
Two people have served in an acting capacity since the office opened in December 2019. The latest one, Nate Monson, started last April. He abruptly resigned in mid-June, issuing a scathing letter about problems he allegedly found. An 11-page tort claim notice from his lawyers this week contains more explosive allegations about certain legislators, legislative employees and the Legislative Equity Office.
If true, the allegations should lead to a thorough housecleaning. If false, the allegations appear defamatory. I won’t detail the allegations here because I don’t know whether they are credible.
The final paragraph of my April 22 Capital Chatter, in which I listed Monson’s work experience, apparently led to his departure. The head of the Iowa Coalition for Effective Change saw the column, contacted legislative staff and said Monson never worked there, despite what he claimed. That led legislative staff to dig further into his work experience. However, it wasn’t until a month after his resignation that the leaders of the Legislature’s bipartisan Joint Conduct Committee released this information in response to media requests.
All this creates concerns about how Monson ever got hired. It raises questions about the veracity of his allegations. Still, whistleblowers often come with baggage.
Monson’s tort claim notice said he would be happy to enter confidential mediation within the next three weeks, “in hopes of resolving this matter with as little expense as possible to the taxpayers.”