SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon's Democratic Gov. Kate Brown faced unprecedented challenges in her final term: COVID-19, a surge in homelessness and street battles between police, racial justice protesters and right-wing extremists.
Now, in her final days in office, Brown said in an interview with The Associated Press that she is unsure about her next career steps — but her immediate agenda includes a vacation in a tropical setting. It will be an antidote to the pressures Brown, the first openly bisexual governor in the U.S., experienced as governor.
Brown's final term was arguably the most challenging, marked by the coronavirus pandemic, wildfires that destroyed towns and even threatened Portland's suburbs, and backlash from conservatives over pandemic restrictions and measures to combat global warming.
In December 2020, anti-lockdown protesters, including members of the far-right groups Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, stormed the Oregon State Capitol — an eerie preview of the much larger Jan. 6 insurrection to come in the nation's Capitol.
“Arrest Kate Brown,” they chanted, before being repelled by police.
Brown became a polarizing figure as she imposed some of the the most restrictive anti-pandemic measures in the nation, including masking and stay-at-home mandates, and became, according to several opinion polls, the most unpopular governor in America.
But Oregon wound up experiencing better outcomes from the pandemic than all but four states, according to the New York-based Commonwealth Fund, which took into account everything from vaccination rates to the number of days that hospitals were strained.
“I think it was incredibly unfortunate that the pandemic became politicized," Brown said in the interview Thursday via Zoom. “It made the challenges of dealing with not enough (protective gear) or not enough, frankly, vaccinations incredibly difficult. I have to say, my team did an extraordinary job.”
Brown — who drew fire by deciding to vaccinate day care, preschool and K-12 employees against COVID-19 before Oregonians ages 65 and older — acknowledged that she had to make “very difficult decisions.”
“We were truly operating without a playbook," Brown said. "There hadn’t been a pandemic in 100 years, and we were learning to fly the airplane while we were in the air.”
Brown's popularity can perhaps be measured by the outcome of the 2022 gubernatorial election, as term limits prevented her from running again.
While campaigning, Republican nominee Christine Drazan said electing Democratic nominee Tina Kotek, a former House speaker, equaled “ four more years of Kate Brown.”
Democrats worried that unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, a former conservative Democratic lawmaker, would siphon off enough votes from Democrats and independents to hand the GOP a win in the governor's race for the first time in 40 years. President Joe Biden even campaigned in Portland for Kotek, who wound up beating Drazan by more than 3 percentage points.
Brown said Kotek shares her vision of Oregon being “a place where everyone can thrive.”
Asked what she saw as her greatest successes, Brown had at the top of her list making Oregon's courts more diverse through her judicial appointments, including, in 2018, appointing the first Black justice on the state Supreme Court in Oregon history. She also established Oregon’s Racial Justice Council to focus on equity in policy making.
“I am very proud of the work that we have done to truly center the voices of Black and brown and indigenous community members in developing the governor’s agenda and budget through the Racial Justice Council,” Brown said. "I think that work is groundbreaking and will have a profound impact on Oregon for hopefully decades to come.”
Council members have pushed for a more equitable workforce training system to address worker shortages and to ensure that more Oregonians – regardless of race, gender or background – can thrive.
Brown said Oregon, like much of the rest of the country, faces workforce challenges in building affordable housing and staffing for mental health and addiction rehabilitation services. They are both linked with the homeless crisis affecting Oregon and many other states.
“I live in southeast Portland. I see it every single day," Brown said. "It breaks my heart. These people, they are human beings, don’t have any place to go but live on the streets.”
Brown said 14,000 people are needed to help build market-rate housing in Oregon. There are beds available in behavioral health facilities, but "we just don’t have the staff.”
Brown said her administration developed a five-year housing strategy in 2019 and that three years later, 1,200 housing units with supportive services are in the pipeline.
“One governor can only do so much," Brown said. "But it’s going to take partnerships. It’s going to take collaboration.”
Brown first gained statewide office in 2008 when she was elected secretary of state — one step from the governorship.
“My motto was, ‘Vote for Kate for secretary of state in 2008,’” she recalled with a laugh.
She unexpectedly became governor when Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned in 2015 amid an ethics investigation. Brown won a special election to complete his term and then was reelected in 2018.
Brown said she intends to keep working in the public service arena, is not planning on running for office, and has had several feelers about opportunities.
“I think what I want to do is take a few weeks off and then figure out my plans for the future,” she said. “I just love Oregon and can’t wait to spend some time thinking about next steps.”
Kotek will be sworn in on Monday.
Andrew Selsky, The Associated Press