Tina Kotek

Building on a Foundation

House Speaker Tina Kotek is behind some of Oregon’s recent important legislation and says she’s running for governor to build on it

Before moving to Oregon in 1987, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek was a college dropout. 

She was living in Washington, D.C., where she had attended Georgetown University when she says a friend told her if she got bored she should move to Eugene. So she moved to Eugene. 

Nearly 35 years later, Kotek is running for governor of Oregon. 

For the past eight years she’s served as House speaker, where she’s been involved with some of Oregon’s most impactful legislation, such as removing regulations on single-family housing zones. Kotek says she’s running for governor to expand on the legislation she’s been a part of, and if elected she says she brings her values of using government to remove barriers in the way of opportunities for people. 

“It is about where we want to go, and the stuff we’ve worked on is a foundation. It has to be implemented right,” Kotek says in a recent visit at the Eugene Weekly office. “I understand a lot of these topics; I’ve worked on them. So let’s figure out what’s next.” 

When Kotek moved to Eugene, she went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from the University of Oregon. She then went on to receive a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Washington. 

Her education may look unorthodox compared to her peers in the House, whose higher education degrees are typically law, political science or business-related, but hers are academic disciplines that often lead students to question and establish their worldview and values. 

From a values perspective, Kotek says she believes that Oregon and the U.S. can be a place where there’s more fairness and equality. “I’m a person of faith,” she says. Kotek grew up Roman Catholic but now attends the Episcopal Church. “I believe that there’s equality among us all. We don’t need people who have so much money that everybody else has so little.”

The role of the government is to ensure that there aren’t barriers in the way of allowing people to access opportunities to succeed, Kotek says. And this is happening in Oregon, she adds, ranging from racial justice, middle housing development and public safety. “Middle housing is about: If you need more options so you can have more folks living where they want to live. That’s a very American value, as well.” 

And legislation around housing is something that Kotek points to as her signature work while in the House. 

Two bills that she names are House Bill 2001, which permits residents to build housing units on single-family zoned property, and Senate Bill 608, rent stabilization. “Two years ago, rents were skyrocketing and there was no stability in the rental market,” she says of SB 608. “Now, year after year, rents will only increase a certain amount, and I think that provides stability.” 

As speaker, Kotek was also involved with redrawing the legislative maps during a special 2021 legislative session, which Republicans challenged. And one legislative district in Lane County was being challenged by two local Democratic Party-registered voters. But the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the Legislature’s maps. 

Whoever is elected to the governor’s office will have a laundry list of immediate crises, from climate change to homelessness to the pandemic. 

Kotek says the state is on its way to meeting the renewable energy goal by 2040, but Oregon will need assistance from the federal government to go further. And the next challenge is to get Oregonians in electric vehicles and build an infrastructure that supports the shift from fossil fuels. 

Homelessness is another issue that the governor will have to address. Kotek mentions her interest in pod housing that provides an individual with more privacy than a shelter bed, but adds that the state needs to tackle its poorly ranked mental health services accessibility.  

Kotek says Measure 110, which decriminalized small drug possession, created new revenue for mental health programs but won’t solve the problem overnight. In the short term, she adds, the state is going to find ways to fund crisis-response programs, similar to Eugene’s CAHOOTS. “Law enforcement does their job, but they are not trained to go out and have someone in a mental health criss,” she says. “We don’t want them accidentally killing someone because things get out of hand. You need to have a social worker; you need to have a mental health professional on the ground.” 

As for the most immediate crisis Oregon faces, managing COVID-19 cases and vaccinations, Kotek says Gov. Kate Brown doesn’t get enough credit for doing the best she could based on up-to-date knowledge. “She did what she did, and we didn’t lose thousands of lives,” she adds. 

The hard part now for increasing vaccination rates — the best defense in lowering hospitalization rates and transmission of the virus — is vaccine hesitancy, Kotek says. “We’re going to have to do more one-on-one, person-to-person convincing to get higher levels of vaccinations,” she adds. “One of the things that I would want to do as governor is make sure we’re clear about where we’re going, and that’s the hardest part of this pandemic is to communicate, stay the course and just make it clear where we have to go.”

Kotek’s Salem experience and concrete answers contrast with that of former New York Times columnist (and now politician) Nicholas Kristof. When Kotek spoke with EW, Kristof hadn’t yet announced his candidacy, but Kotek did bring up that he has zero management experience. 

“We’re in the middle of multiple crises,” she adds. “You must understand how government functions and manages things. I’ve managed the legislative branch for eight years. That actually means something.” 

Kristof has not made himself available for an interview with EW. 

As of Nov. 23, Kotek has raised $472,942 in 2021, according to OreStar, the state’s campaign contribution transparency website. EW analyzed her campaign contribution data and found that most of her contributors live in Oregon. In Oregon, Kotek’s contributions have primarily come from Portland, where 176 donors have given $248,847. Her largest contribution is $40,000 from Eugene’s Mountain Rose Herbs. 

Kotek is running at a time when it’s a political rarity in the U.S. to have a woman succeed another woman for the governor’s office. The only U.S. states where this has happened are New Mexico and Arizona, and should she win it would be the first time a U.S. state has had two successive LGBTQ governors. 

Despite the political rarity, Kotek says she’s going to make the case as to why she should be governor. And that is to continue building on the legislation she worked on during her time in the Legislature. 

“I want to make sure we follow through on our commitments, whether it’s housing, behavioral health,” she says. “There are so many initiatives in the works from the Legislature and current governor that need to be completed. I’ve worked on all of them so I want to make sure they actually get done.”