Gov. Kate Brown, unlike her predecessor, has been a lively presence in Salem.
SALEM, Ore. — Shane Jackson, a lobbyist for the Autism Society of Oregon, was minding his business outside a conference room on a recent afternoon in the state Capitol when Gov. Kate Brown barreled down the hallway with a file folder in hand, headed for a meeting.
“What are you working on, Shane?” Brown asked loudly. “I’ve got an amendment going on in there,” Jackson replied after jumping to his feet as she approached. “Hopefully not to one of my bills,” Brown said with a laugh and a whack of the file folder on his arm. And off she went, with several other conversational pit stops — and file-folder whacks — along the way.
This is not behavior that Oregon’s capital is used to.
Brown, a Democrat, was the secretary of state in Oregon when she took over five months ago for Gov. John Kitzhaber, who resigned amid an ethics investigation a few months after being elected to an unprecedented fourth term. His imprint on Oregon was deep, if only by force of his 12 years in office; Brown’s stamp is new and has been at least partly defined by simply being not-Kitzhaber. But that goes a long way, people in both parties said.
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Where Kitzhaber was cerebral, private and unflappably cool — perhaps a carry-over from his days as an emergency-room physician — Brown has been vocally engaged if not loud, testifying in hearings, meeting with lawmakers from both parties and speaking around the state. Where he left office under a cloud of whispers and secrets, she has pledged a more open government and ethics reform.
As for tooling through the Capitol striking up conversations, you were more likely to see a ghost than a governor through the Kitzhaber era.
“I never saw him walking the hall,” said Jackson, who has worked in the capital for 17 years. “When she calls me out in the hallway like that,” he added, referring to Brown, “it’s very unique. It catches people off guard.”
Part of the new direction was calculated. Oregon is not accustomed to political scandal the way some states are, so there were shock waves when Kitzhaber’s career imploded amid media reports that his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, had used access in the governor’s office to further her career as an energy consultant. A federal inquiry is in progress.
“There was a grieving process happening, a healing process, so we felt like we needed to sort of hold the hands through that,” said Brown, 55, who grew up in Minnesota and came to Oregon for law school, practicing family and juvenile law before entering politics.
After the grieving, she said, her personality asserted itself.
“My skills are different,” Brown said in an interview in her office. “I’m a people person.”
As the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, she said she had also wrestled with how much, or how little, that label might define her. When she took office in February, she said, many news reports focused on it. “Instead of being Kate Brown, Democrat, I’m Kate Brown, bisexual, right?” she said.
Brown said she felt different about that sort of attention since getting a letter from a teenager in the Midwest who told her that he had been suicidal, but had found new hope after reading about her. “If I can save one kid’s life, for me it’s absolutely worth it,” she said.
However the chemistry of a Brown administration works, it seems to be winning over Oregonians, people in both parties said.
“Everyone likes her; she’s very personable,” said the minority leader in the House, Rep. Mike McLane, a Republican. “There’s no question she’s popular.”
Brown also inherited political and economic momentum that many other governors only dream about. Last fall, when voters across the nation dumped Democrats in favor of Republicans, Oregon was the one state where Democrats gained seats in both legislative chambers, adding to pre-election majorities.
And only oil-rich North Dakota had a greater percentage increase in personal income in the first quarter of this year compared with last year, according to federal figures. Tax revenues allowed generous spending by the Legislature, including an expansion of full-day kindergarten and an affordable-housing package.
In a poll of 625 state voters by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research in late May, 55 percent said they approved of the job Brown was doing, including about 40 percent of self-identified Republicans. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
“She stepped right up and was ready to take over,” said Robert Hiebert, 55, a construction worker who was on a job in Salem, the capital. “That’s what I’ve caught so far.”
But there is a potentially tricky road ahead, especially if Brown runs for a full term in 2016, which she is widely expected to do.
In a state where leftward leanings and population are concentrated in the Portland area, and much of the rest of the state is rural and more conservative, Brown is an urban liberal. She represented Portland in the Legislature for 17 years before being elected secretary of state in 2008.
That Kitzhaber occasionally stood up to the more liberal wing of his party is prompting a bit of nostalgia about him from Republicans.
“Gov. Kitzhaber was a moderating influence, quietly behind the scenes,” said McLane, the House minority leader. “I’m hoping Gov. Brown will be that, but I haven’t seen it.”
Asserting independence from Portland carries its own risks. During tough negotiations over a package for statewide road and bridge work near the end of the legislative session last month, Brown said she would be amenable to repealing a measure she signed just three months earlier: a clean fuels carbon-reduction law.
The law, which the oil industry and some Republicans abhor, is aimed at cutting climate-change gases by requiring a gradual reduction of carbon in fuels. Brown said that if there was another way to achieve the same end, a political compromise could be worth it.
Portland-based environmental groups that had backed the fuels law howled their disapproval. Ultimately, the talks collapsed with no transportation package and the carbon standard still in place, but the wounds from that battle may take time to heal.
“There may be some raw feelings,” said Jessica Moskovitz, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Environmental Council, a nonprofit group that had championed the law. “But I think there will be plenty of opportunities, as we look forward to the fall of 2016, for the governor to show strong action on climate, and to show her true colors in that way.”
Other people said they thought Portland liberals were likely to see more distancing in the months ahead, not less.
“She’s not the mouthpiece for the Portland crowd,” said Joe Esmonde, political director for Local 48 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers there. “She’s too smart for that, and she’s running for election, probably.”
Her stance on the fuels standard “was a signal she was open to solutions for everybody,” Esmonde said. ”I think she gained respect.”
Brown said her position on the fuels law was not political but simply aimed at getting something done. If carbon emissions could be reduced by some other path, she said, she felt an obligation to listen.
“I’m really pragmatic,” she said. “That’s my reality.”
That pragmatism extends to where she lives, too. Kitzhaber pointedly commuted the hour from his home in Portland to his job in Salem. Brown and her husband, Dan, said immediately after her inauguration that they were moving to Salem and making the official residence, Mahonia Hall, their home.
On some level, she is still introducing herself. When some Chinese tourists happened by her office recently, for example, they were startled to find Brown walking back in.
“You are the governor, right?” one of the women asked.
“I’m the governor,” Brown said with a firm nod and a smile. “Do you have time for a tour? They do good tours downstairs.” Then she crowded the group together around her for a photo.