Profile: Kate Brown, the governor next door

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce (Part 1)

 

SALEM, Ore. -- In her 20 months since taking office, Gov. Kate Brown has been dealt her share of unenviable challenges, as if the world were brazenly saying, "Welcome to the governorship, Kate."

She’s handled raging wildfires, drought, a mass shooting, armed insurrection, foster care scandals, a budget crisis and oil train explosion — all on top of the responsibilities that come with being a public figurehead and the state’s chief executive.

A normal day for Brown is always eventful, though colored less by crisis and more by administrative tasks or informational briefings with elected and appointed officials.

Watch: Kate Brown on KGW's 'Straight Talk' Part 1 and Part 2.

On a recent morning, the Oregon Capitol's revolving doors began spinning and into the rotunda came a dozen Korean men and women wearing business attire, who hurriedly ran upstairs. They were late, and Brown was waiting.

The group was with Lee Nak-yon, governor of Jeollanam-do Province, South Korea — one of Oregon’s sister-states. Nak-yon was leading a diplomatic mission to the United States, and his last stop before heading home was a meeting with the governor.

Brown, 56, was waiting in her wood-paneled conference room, and warmly greeted the visiting delegation as they walked in.

She wore a purple suit jacket, black pants and polished black shoes — and although married, no wedding ring. She and her husband occasionally wear their rings, her staff said. For this meeting, Brown also donned a lapel pin emblazoned with the flags of Oregon and South Korea.

The governors began talking through a translator about business, the environment, agriculture and drones. They agreed that their governments needed to share more information, especially as it pertained to advancing new technologies and business ventures.

When the conversation drifted to Oregon veterans of the Korean War, Vince Porter, who is Brown's economic adviser, politely stepped in.

“We need to hurry,” he whispered, reminding Brown that she and Nak-yon had an official memo to sign.

Pens were procured, the document signed, gifts exchanged — Brown received a green vase, Nak-yon was given a Pendleton Woolen Mills blanket — and the two posed for a handshake photo-op.

Nak-yon and his cohort shuffled out of the governor's office and Brown, who does not drink coffee, sat down to sip her tea.

It was the beginning of what would be a busy day for Brown, an otherwise unassuming yet charismatic woman who, after John Kitzhaber's resignation, now finds herself as Oregon’s head of state.

She carries a reputation among her friends and colleagues of being surprisingly “normal” for such a high-ranking official. In many ways, she could be your aunt, your old friend from college, or the nice woman from yoga class.

Those close to her remark that it is fitting Brown now occupies the governorship; they describe her as cheery, unabashedly genuine and keen on building consensus when it comes to lawmaking — though never at the expense of her core principles.

Brown was catapulted into the governorship under trying circumstances.

Kitzhaber, who was the state’s longest-serving governor, had come under criminal investigation for suspected influence peddling that involved his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes. He stepped down in 2015 and Brown, a Democrat who as secretary of state was first in the line of succession, took the oath of office.

In the days leading up to her ascension to the state’s top job, things were tense around the Capitol and the future governor’s home.

Media trucks had camped outside the Portland home she shares with Dan Little, her husband of 19 years. Brown was away in Washington, D.C., at a secretaries of state conference, and Little didn’t dare leave the house. The media were watching him, as he was watching them on the house’s closed-circuit security cameras.

One morning, with the media still outside, Brown called Little — who was eating breakfast — and told him she’d been asked to come back to Oregon by Kitzhaber, who wanted to speak with her immediately. It was clear Kitzhaber would step down, Little said.

“It’s amazing how calm she was,” he said.

Brown became Oregon’s 38th governor one week later.

After meeting with the Korean delegation, Brown sat down with the Bus Project, a left-leaning nonprofit that promotes voting rights policies.

The group brought about a dozen representatives to meet with Brown, and as they filed into the conference room, she turned to one young woman who seemed in awe at being in the governor’s presence.

“Are you nervous?” Brown said with a laugh. “Don’t be.”

She hugged and exchanged pleasantries with some of the others, whom she knew from her days as Oregon’s secretary of state.

The group of 20- and 30-somethings floated a few voting rights initiatives by the governor, who listened intently and took notes. Instead of green-lighting every proposal, she questioned them.

“Who will support this in the Legislature? Do you have a champion?” Brown asked. “What will be the arguments against this? Can you articulate that to me?”

Brown has long been a proponent of making it easier to vote. As secretary of state she managed to get the Legislature to pass the nation’s first “motor voter” law, which automatically registers eligible citizens to vote at the DMV when they get a driver’s license or update their information. The law is one of her major successes, and has propelled Oregon’s voter rolls to new heights — a record 2.5 million are eligible to vote in the upcoming election, according to the latest tallies.

As the Bus Project staff left the governor's office, the group's director, Nikki Fisher, approached Brown to snag a selfie with the governor.

Throughout the day, Brown would switch gears on the fly for various meetings and public appearances — and take advantage of secluded hallways, basement corridors and a private elevator to avoid protesters, which keeps her security detail happy.

After the Bus Project, she met with officials from Business Oregon, the state economic development agency, who briefed her on seismic upgrade plans for public schools. Chris Harder, director of Business Oregon, told her that they have one-tenth of the funding needed to complete the retrofitting.

"So we're letting only some kids survive if there's an earthquake?" a miffed Brown said.

Harder gave her a straight answer.

"You could argue that, governor," he said.

They agreed to revisit the issue before December, when Brown, if elected, would have to present a state budget.

After a ceremony to sign a proclamation in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, Brown retired to her personal office, a wood-paneled corner space on the Capitol's second floor. The office is decorated with books, awards and goodies from around the state, including Brown's collection of Oregon-themed beer bottles from Rogue Brewery.

Brown sat down at her desk to practice a speech she would give on women's issues. Though she is skilled at the art of conversation, the governor, who has a slight lisp, has struggled with public speaking. Little said she is given to practicing speeches on him as they relax at home.

On this day, Brown needed to rehearse the name of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whom she would quote in her speech later that day.

"Chi-ma-man-da. Chi-ma-man-da," Brown repeated to herself. "Chimamanda." (She almost got it right during the speech.)

Later, she sat down with Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat who is co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee. He's retiring and the meeting was an exit interview of sorts.

He offered her sage advice on writing the state budget. Look six to 10 years ahead, he told her. Think of what your legacy will be. If proposed tax Measure 97 should fail at the ballot, don't cut early childhood education programs or foster care, he said. (If the tax doesn't pass, the state will face a $1.4 billion budget hole.)

"We're really going to miss you, man," Brown said.

Brown was born in Torrejón de Ardoz, a community east of Madrid, Spain, where her father was stationed in the Air Force. The family relocated to Twin Cities, Minnesota, where Brown grew up in a conservative middle-class household.

Brown has always been politically minded; in middle school she was known to wear a button declaring “Nixon Now,” though her politics would lean leftward with age.

“In high school she was enormously popular,” said Jack Ohman, a close friend who has known Brown since middle school. “She’s extremely extroverted.”

She was on student government, an athlete and a good student, participated in yearbook and wrote for the school newspaper, recalled Ohman, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist.

“I know this is really boring, but she’s just a nice person,” he said. “She didn’t do pot; she didn’t drink. We just weren’t in that group. We were trying to go out and do something with our lives.”

Ohman and Brown still talk, and he has high praise for her political work. She's wanted to be governor for 20 years, he said, and in that time she's found her place among Oregon's political elite while remaining down to earth.

"I don't think she’s sitting there in the governor's office thinking, 'I want to move up to the U.S. Senate,'" he said.

After high school, Brown enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she studied environmental conservation and women’s studies. It was there that she would also have her first encounter with Little, who would become her husband almost 20 years later.

The two met at a backyard barbecue hosted at the property where Brown stabled her horse, and hit it off immediately. Little recalled noticing her eyes, long hair and warm personality.

“This is probably what makes her a good politician, but it was just how comfortable you feel around her,” he said in an interview at the governor's residence in Salem. “I didn’t realize she had that kind of rapport with a lot of people.”

The two dated for about six months — including one date at a rally protesting the Iran-Contra affair — but went in different directions.

Brown moved, and enrolled at Lewis and Clark College's law school in Portland, where she graduated in 1985. She practiced family law for a number of years and lobbied the Legislature for the Women's Rights Coalition.

In 1991, she was appointed to a vacated seat from the 13th District in Oregon's House of Representatives. Although she became a standout in the Legislature almost immediately, winning election to the House was no cake-walk. After a hard-fought campaign and much door knocking, she won by just seven votes.

Brown built on her reputation as a deal-maker and sought election to the state Senate in 1996. It was around that time that she reconnected with Little, who by then had married, fathered two children and divorced.

Little had moved to Enterprise in northeastern Oregon, where he was working as a data technician for the U.S. Forest Service. Brown, who was in the middle of trying to convince voters to give her a promotion to the Senate, called Little out of the blue seeking advice — and a campaign contribution.

“I said, ‘Well fine, why don’t you come out to Enterprise and we’ll talk about it?’” Little recalled.

She drove out past the Cascade Range in her Subaru to meet with Little, who she had seen only once in the 20-some years that they were apart.

“It was like we picked up where we had left off,” he said.

Brown would drive out every other week, meeting Little at his small house, which was perched on a hill above a buffalo ranch and offered views of the Wallowa Mountains. They would explore the outdoors, and talk of marriage and the life ahead of them, Little said.

Brown, who was knee-deep in her political career, did not want to move to Eastern Oregon, Little said. She was elected to the Senate in 1996, Little moved to Portland, and they married shortly after.

Brown continued working to pass legislation aimed at helping families, women and minorities, and in 2004 was elected by her colleagues as the state’s first female Senate majority leader.

Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat representing Corvallis, remembers Brown as a mentor in those days. At the time, Gelser was a freshman legislator in the House, and sought out Brown for advice. She took note of Brown's ability to maintain good working relationships across the aisle.

"Kate was someone that I always felt like I could go talk to," Gelser said. "There's nothing artificial about Kate Brown."

Despite her success as a legislator, Brown eyed statewide office, which would test her skills as an administrator. She declared her candidacy for secretary of state and was elected in 2008 with 51 percent of the vote.

Lawmakers noticed her efforts in that office, too.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, a Republican from Ontario, recalled seeing a flu-stricken Brown at the Capitol in the early morning hours. She was hurriedly trying to fix a computer system run by the secretary of state's office that had melted down.

"She was extremely ill, and yet there she was, going to work on that problem at 5:30 in the morning," Bentz said.

Despite the turbulent circumstances that heralded her arrival in the governor's office, Brown had work to do. She became governor in the middle of the 2015 legislative session, which would test her deal-making chops. Democrats wanted more money to upgrade roads and bridges, and despite weeks of negotiations, Brown couldn't find a compromise that worked.

The 2016 session would show more of her political ideology. Her agenda included public-friendly proposals to help families, workers and improve graduation rates. In practice, she and Democratic lawmakers, who hold strong majorities in the state House and Senate, rankled their Republican colleagues by pushing through a minimum wage increase, clean energy mandates and new regulations on landlords.

As a figurehead, one particularly tough test for Brown was the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, which left nine dead and a community in shock.

Brown and Little were in Portland the morning of the shooting, where she was supposed to accept an award from a women's advocacy group. The call came in that shots had been fired, and Brown left with her security detail for Roseburg.

Little, who has maintained a low profile since becoming first gentleman, was left to deliver a speech on the governor's behalf, with only minutes to prepare. The couple reunited hours later in Roseburg and met with the victims' families.

"I have to say, it's one of the hardest things I've ever done, the two of us going through that process," Little said. "I've never been around somebody that traumatized."

The mother of one victim wept on his shoulder for 15 minutes, he said.

"I'm not sure any governor in Oregon has been through what she has in these months," Little said.

He's seen first-hand the stress that comes along with being governor. Brown is often inundated with external stimulus all day — meetings, public appearances and fires to put out, all while being surrounded constantly by a security detail.

At the end of most days, Brown is apt to come back to Mahonia Hall, the spacious governor's mansion, and seek silence, Little said.

Lately through, she's been trying to make time to ride her horse, Tazo. Brown said she's been decompressing by reading a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and listening to the TED Radio Hour podcast on long drives.

She also relieves stress with exercise, and has joked of wearing out her security detail on mountain biking excursions.

"Her Christmas present last year was a treadmill," Little said. "How romantic, right?"

Send questions, comments or news tips to

3. Oregon Education Association, $100,000

4. AFSCME, $100,000

5. Democratic Governors Association, $84,284


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