Tackling homelessness top goal for Oregon Democrat Kotek

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek said Thursday she would focus on addressing the state's homelessness crisis and be a leader for all residents, though the race remained too early to call.

Republican rival Christine Drazan is monitoring returns and expecting Kotek's lead to narrow.

If she wins, Kotek would join Maura Healey of Massachusetts as the first openly lesbian elected governors in the United States.

“It is an absolute honor,” Kotek said. “I can tell you that being who I am is important to Oregonians across the state. Lots of young people have come up to me and said thank you for running and thank you for being who you are.”

Kotek stood in front of a fountain in Portland a few steps from the Willamette River and told an invitation-only crowd of reporters and supporters displaying her campaign signs that she was ready to get to work.

She said she plans to travel around Oregon starting in January to talk to community leaders about issues facing the state, particularly the shortage of affordable housing and addiction. She said her priorities are addressing homelessness, expanding access to mental health and addiction treatment and working to bridge the divisions in the state.

Kotek told reporters she has spoken with Drazan and Johnson, a former state senator who ran as an unaffiliated candidate and who conceded Tuesday night.

Drazan's campaign spokesman, asked for reaction, repeated a statement from Wednesday that said: “We continue to monitor returns with the expectation that this race will tighten.”

Tuesday is the last day for election officials to receive valid postmarked ballots by mail. There could be tens of thousands of uncounted ballots still in the mail in a state with 3 million registered voters.

Oregon was the first state to institute vote-by-mail but the 2022 election is different because a 2021 law passed by the Legislature allows ballots to be counted if they were postmarked by 8 p.m. on election day. Previously, votes needed to be received by election day.

In 2018, a total of 1,749,486 votes were cast for the Democratic and GOP candidates for governor. As of midday Thursday, some 180,000 fewer votes had been counted for Kotek, Drazan and Johnson combined.

Like other GOP lawmakers, Drazan was opposed to the 2021 postmark bill when it went through the Legislature.

“Deadlines are deadlines,” she said in a House committee back then. “I think that it is going to create some challenges, and I think it’s going to create some legal complexity when it comes to some of these elections with close turnout.”

Johnson's wild-card presence in the race had buoyed GOP hopes they could win an Oregon governor’s race for the first time in 40 years and break Democrats’ dominance of statewide races in Oregon, California and Washington state.

Kotek, Drazan and Johnson, all former legislators, were the top candidates in the race to become the next governor of the state.

Kotek was the longest serving Oregon House speaker. Drazan is a former leader of the Republican minority in the House. Democrats were so worried that they could lose the governorship that President Joe Biden came to Portland to boost Kotek’s chances.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said verifying the results takes time, with every signature on every ballot envelope needing to be is verified.

Democrats warned that a Drazan victory could threaten abortion rights, environmental protections and democratically run elections in the state.

Drazan blames Democrats for homelessness, crime and inflation, saying picking Kotek would be like reelecting Gov. Kate Brown, who was barred by term limits from running again.

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Rush reported from Portland, Oregon.

Andrew Selsky And Claire Rush, The Associated Press