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Kate Brown: Unpopular governor leaves legacy of COVID safety, clemency, climate regulation, but also disappointment


Nearly eight years ago, Kate Brown was halfway through her second term as Oregon’s secretary of state when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid revelations that his fiancée used his position to gain lucrative contracts.

Without formulating a campaign platform, running for governor or winning over voters, Brown automatically ascended to the state’s highest office.

That was the first of several happenstances that marked her ensuing eight years as Oregon’s governor, the biggest of which was the coronavirus pandemic. Given the unprecedented magnitude of that life-or-death threat to Oregonians, Brown’s high-stakes decisions on the state’s responses could well turn out to be the legacy for which she is most remembered in decades to come.

“I will give her a grade of B” for her response to COVID-19, said Dr. Carlos Crespo, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois and former vice provost for biomedical research at Portland State University. He cited Oregon’s eighth-lowest in the nation COVID death rate, despite its lower per capita public health spending than neighboring states, as proof that Brown’s executive actions saved lives.

Chunhuei Chi, director of Oregon State University’s Center for Global Health, concurred and said Brown might rank among the top third of governors for her public health response. “Compared with the rest of the states, … her management, her attention and her policy during the pandemic has been very competent.”

Her choices, notably prioritizing teachers’ vaccinations over many older adults’, then allowing schools to remain closed anyway, did not always make sense from a public health perspective, however.

In other ways, Brown will leave the state no better or even worse off than when she took office. Student achievement plummeted despite huge increases in school funding, as most Oregon classrooms stayed closed longer than in almost any other state in the nation. Deep problems in the state’s long neglected and underfunded public defense system became painfully obvious when prosecutors had to drop charges against defendants accused of violent crimes because the accused did not have lawyers. Portland homicides skyrocketed and trash piled up in the state’s largest city, while some local civic leaders said they felt abandoned by the state. Homelessness that was already at a crisis level when Brown took office continued to magnify, and addiction and overdose deaths rose.

“She doesn’t know how to fix things,” said Mike Marshall, co-founder and director of behavioral health advocacy group Oregon Recovers and a longtime Democratic campaign worker. Marshall, who successfully pushed for Brown to declare an addiction and substance use crisis in 2018 and held a campaign fundraiser for her in his backyard, said the governor’s sense of urgency evaporated following her reelection that year. He recounted how in 2019, aides to the governor said that Brown was powerless to push lawmakers to approve a plan to overhaul Oregon’s addiction treatment system — a plan that Brown herself had requested — so advocates should instead press their case with top lawmakers. “Our heads exploded,” Marshall said.

Brown did not agree to be interviewed for this retrospective on her years in office.

EXTREMELY UNPOPULAR

Most Oregonians had a negative opinion of Brown’s performance during most of her time in office. She briefly gained standing thanks to her early actions on COVID-19, registering a high-water mark of 54% approval in spring 2020 before it dropped precipitously. During much of her time in office, the state executive who was ready to smile and to hug was the least popular governor in the nation.

Many of the state’s most deeply entrenched problems predated Brown’s tenure: the extreme shortage of affordable housing, the decade-long delay in replacing the outdated jobless benefits computer system and poor academic outcomes for Oregon students.

Brown never promised to make a significant dent in many of those problems, however, nor did she articulate a plan to broadly improve the lives of Oregonians. She largely left the job of setting public policy to the state’s 90 lawmakers. Two notable exceptions were her leadership on climate change regulation and clemency.

The governor ordered the early release of approximately 1,000 state prisoners deemed at severe risk from COVID-19 or who helped fight the state’s catastrophic 2020 wildfires. In December, Brown commuted the sentences of all 17 individuals on the state’s death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole and ordered the death chamber dismantled. Oregon’s death row was already on its way to being emptied because the state Supreme Court ruled late in 2021 that a 2019 law that narrowly limits capital punishment applies retroactively.

Aliza Kaplan, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor who runs a clemency project, praised Brown, who in turn has cited Kaplan as a key influence on her view of Oregon’s criminal justice system.

“(Brown) has been incredibly brave because unfortunately, although she was using clemency in the exact way our founders intended, … clemency can become very political and it has and she received a lot of backlash,” Kaplan said. “She carried on because she did the homework and really believed in what she was doing.”

Criticism even came from the state’s senior U.S. Senator, Ron Wyden, who publicly denounced Brown for her decision to commute the sentence of a Douglas County man who was sentenced nearly three decades ago to life without the possibility of parole for shooting a young woman in the back of the head. He called Brown’s decision “grossly irresponsible” and “wrong on every level.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Gov. Kate Brown, along with other members of Congress and local elected officials, are pictured in April 2022 at the Portland Airport where they greeted President Joe Biden.Dave Killen/The Oregonian

Brown followed through on closing two of the three minimum-security prisons that she indicated plans to shutter in December 2020, but she reversed course on a prison in Lakeview after rural communities complained about the economic impact of lost jobs. Yet in her final days in office, the public defender crisis resulted in 77 people being held in Oregon jails without any lawyers to represent them and around 600 additional unrepresented people facing charges outside of lockup, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s limits on climate-warming pollution from fossil fuels and industrial emitters that Brown enacted via an executive order went into effect in January 2022. She took that bold action after Republicans in the Legislature blocked Democrats’ second attempt to pass a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade plan.

Under Brown’s regulations, which face legal challenges but currently remain in effect, fossil fuel suppliers must reduce climate-warming pollution by 50% by 2035 and 90% by 2050, said Nora Apter, climate program director at the Oregon Environmental Council.

“Oregon is only the third state in the country to adopt this type of declining cap across multiple sectors,” Apter said. “This is a really huge program and is going to be essential to achieving our climate goals in the state … We owe a debt of gratitude to the leadership of Governor Brown and will be thanking her for decades to come.”

Jana Gastellum, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council, agreed. “We really appreciate her staying in the fight and seeing things through and making sure that action was taken.”

Gov. Kate Brown elbow-bumps student Charlie Abrams at a ceremony at the state Capitol on March 10, 2020, where she signed a sweeping executive order for the state to reduce carbon emissions to combat global warming.AP

Brown made diversifying the state’s judiciary a priority throughout her time in office. Notably, 27 of the 112 judges she appointed to Oregon’s trial, appellate and tax courts were people of color and 56 were women. Eight judges openly identified as LGBTQ+. And Brown appointed the state’s first Asian Pacific American judge to the Oregon Supreme Court, Lynn Nakamoto in 2015, and its first Black judge, Adrienne Nelson in 2018.

Among the challenges Brown faced upon taking office was improving the state’s foster care system, which had in numerous cases sent children in the state’s custody to stay at programs or foster homes where they faced abuse and neglect including Give Us This Day in Portland and Eastern Oregon Academy near Burns. Additional damning details continued to emerge.

During her time in office, under new leaders of her choosing, the number of children in the foster system dropped substantially and leaders in the program worked to address the overrepresentation of Black and Native American children in the system. As of Jan. 4, there were 4,988 children and youth in Oregon foster care, compared with the most recent high of 7,834 in 2018. The state still faces a class action lawsuit alleging that the state routinely harms children and youth in its care by failing to provide stable and supportive interim homes, sending children to unsafe treatment programs and failing to take children into custody in a timely manner after receiving credible allegations of abuse.

STATE AGENCY DYSFUNCTION

Dysfunction plagued executive branch agencies under Brown. She fired or forced out directors at the Oregon Department of Education, Oregon Health Authority, child welfare program (multiple times), Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon Lottery and Employment Department (twice). Brown also fired the state librarian.

Meanwhile, Brown signed labor agreements with public employee unions eliminating annual performance reviews for state workers and making it more difficult for state government to get rid of poor performers. At the Employment Department, Brown appears to have accepted agency leaders’ monthslong delay in starting work to launch Oregon’s paid leave program. As a result, Oregonians will gain access to paid family and medical leave benefits at least eight months later than promised and lose out on as much as $453 million.

“You have Oregonians who are frustrated and mad about things not working, that is true,” Governor-elect Tina Kotek, a fellow Democrat who shared many policy positions with her predecessor, said in an interview during the campaign. Kotek will be sworn in Monday.

Gov. Kate Brown spoke before President Joe Biden was introduced during his visit to Oregon in April, while Mayor Ted Wheeler looked on.The Oregonian

The pandemic also highlighted Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s uncomfortable working relationship as the two stumbled through a confusing and bizarre press conference aimed at encouraging people to stay home to avoid spreading the virus in March 2020, then tangled over Wheeler’s request for Oregon National Guard members to assist Portland police during protests that June. Brown publicly suggested Wheeler should “rebuild” relationships with neighboring law enforcement agencies so he would not need state assistance.

WINDFALL BENEFITS

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Brown had the good fortune to lead the state during a time it experienced year after year of windfall state tax revenues and constantly growing budgets, including through the injection of billions of dollars of federal COVID aid that leaders could largely spend as they pleased.

The governor also benefitted from Democrats’ electoral gains in the Legislature, where they held sizable majorities in both chambers throughout Brown’s tenure and supermajorities since 2019. Those majorities allowed Democrats to pass, and Brown to sign into law, a landmark business tax to boost education spending and a host of other priorities, including raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid to cover non-citizens and mandating paid sick leave.

Brown was also handed an opportunity to make an impact on crucial forest management policies, when the timber industry and conservationists asked her in 2020 to support negotiating new regulations for managing private forestland. Attempts to pass regulations in the Legislature had failed and both sides were proposing taking ballot measures to voters. The two sides’ strong interest in reaching a deal, coupled with the timber industry’s trust in the governor, positioned her to pull a political win out of her late-hour presence at negotiating sessions, said Bob Van Dyk, who helped lead negotiations on behalf of the Wild Salmon Center.

The governor’s dedication to forest management negotiations could not have been more different than her response in fall 2019 when the state Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission asked her to back their strategic plan to improve the state’s addiction treatment system, by boosting funding in the upcoming legislative session. “She felt like this wasn’t something at this point she could do, even after we discussed it,” commission chair Eric Bloch, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge, told his fellow commissioners at a public meeting. Lawmakers still have not approved funding to implement the strategic plan, Marshall said.

A few dozen Oregon moms and others concerned about addiction rallied at Woodstock Park in Southeast Portland and in front of Gov. Kate Brown’s Portland home on Mother’s Day in 2022, calling for state officials with the Oregon Health Authority to take urgent action to improve addiction treatment. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

The two issues voters were most concerned about during the 2022 elections, homelessness and crime, were not among Brown’s top priorities in office.

“I didn’t hear from the governor’s office a real clarion call around ‘Homelessness is an emergency and we have to double down and these are my initiatives to do that,’” said Dr. Rachel Solotaroff, who served until June 2022 as Central City Concern’s president and CEO.

Solotaroff said Oregon missed opportunities during Brown’s tenure to coordinate housing and behavioral health services, since people often need a combination of affordable housing, addiction treatment and mental health care to move off the streets. Solotaroff now works in Maine and said she has been struck by that state’s focus on tackling substance use, with the governor holding summits to work on strategies to combat the opioid crisis for years including during the pandemic. “There’s a clear sense of state mobilization and collaboration and conversation and then action that just blew me away,” Solotaroff said. “It just struck me that, ‘Oh, this is what we could be doing’” in Oregon.

Prior to the pandemic, Brown’s most urgent policy move as governor was to call lawmakers back to Salem in May 2018 for a special session to expand a business tax break that economists said would mostly benefit higher-income earners and that other Democrats questioned. Brown was never able to produce examples of businesses it would benefit, but the move blunted potential attacks on the election trail that year for raising taxes.

Gov. Kate Brown spoke at a news conference after the Oregon Legislature passed a tax cut for sole proprietor businesses during a special session Monday, May 21, 2018.Hillary Borrud/The Oregonian/Ore

When Brown ran for reelection in 2018, even Democratic voters had a hard time pinning down what Brown had done or stood for. “In focus groups, we ask, ‘What comes to mind when you think of Kate Brown?’” pollster John Horvick of Portland firm DHM Research told Willamette Week in fall 2018. “They really struggle to come up with anything. What is the policy she’s pushed through or an argument she’s taken to the voters? They can’t say. She’s just nondescript to them.”

Brown led the state during a wide range of tragedies and emergencies. In October 2015, a shooter killed nine people at Umpqua Community College. Armed militia members took over a national wildlife refuge in Malheur County in January 2016 and occupied the facility for more than a month. As the pandemic raged in fall 2020, deadly and catastrophic wildfires swept through communities across the state.

And in June 2021, a devastating heat wave killed more than 100 mostly low-income Oregonians including older people living in public housing and mobile homes. Despite embracing her role as a leading public health voice in the pandemic, Brown was largely silent on the life-threatening triple-digit temperatures; she spent the hottest day at a retreat at a winery.

UNFULFILLED EDUCATION PLEDGES

On the campaign trail during her first run for governor in 2016, Brown told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she expected her legacy as governor would be her implementation of Kitzhaber’s “cradle to career” plan to improve public education outcomes. But she subsequently stood by as the Legislature promptly disbanded Kitzhaber’s preschool to college education oversight board, which had demanded accountability for key student outcomes.

She did push through notable improvements to both ends of Oregon’s educational spectrum, allowing thousands more 3- and 4-year-olds to take part in high-quality, tuition-free preschool each year and, beginning in 2022, using federal pandemic aid to boost community college career-technical offerings.

But her track record on K-12 education, the largest single item in the state general fund budget, was far less rosy.

Gov. Kate Brown visits with a school bus driver at Kalapuya Elementary School in West Salem.

She will be remembered for allowing schools to suspend in-person instruction for longer than almost any other state in the nation, despite her decision to put education employees at the front of vaccine lines, ahead of older Oregonians who were at greater medical risk.

Proms, graduations and field trips were not the only casualties: Oregon students’ learning setbacks in math were the eighth-largest in the nation and their learning loss in reading ranked even worse, at No. 5 nationally, Harvard University researchers found.

And despite Brown’s oft-stated desire to attack systemic racism and promote equity, her decision resulted in students in whiter and more affluent areas returning sooner and more fully to in-person instruction than students of color, The Oregonian/OregonLive found.

Prolonged remote schooling took a toll on students’ emotional well-being, with schools reporting increased behavior problems, violence and mental health struggles. “Our kids suffered by not having a social life for a long time,” said Crespo, the former PSU vice provost for biomedical research.

Dozens of parents and students rallied at Revolution Hall in Southeast Portland on December 2020, pushing for Gov. Kate Brown to order the state’s public schools to offer in-person education for families and educators who feel safe returning to classrooms.

Rene Gonzalez, a parent who advocated for schools to reopen during the pandemic and won election to Portland City Council last fall, noted that Brown recognized the importance of reopening schools when she prioritized teacher vaccinations but then failed to make it happen. “For a number of parents of school-age children, I don’t know if she’ll ever be able to recover her legacy on education,” he said. “Portland Public Schools closed for over a year. That’s a fact. And there’s no way to change that fact.”

Oregon’s largest-ever increase in state funding for public schools occurred on her watch, but she played a relatively small role in making it happen. Lawmakers including then-Senate President Peter Courtney and Senate Revenue Chair Mark Hass, public employee unions and business leaders did the heavy lifting. In the end, though, Brown forged a compromise with Senate Republicans necessary to allow Democrats to vote the bill through.

But she and Democratic leaders gave schools broad latitude to spend the new funding and — exactly the hands-off approach Brown had promised on the campaign trail in 2018 — did not tie funding to schools’ demonstrating improved outcomes for students.

Meanwhile the governor did nothing to follow through on her 2018 campaign pledge to extend Oregon’s school year, one of the shortest in the nation, to an average of 180 days. During her last year in office, the typical Oregon student got just 168 days of school.

A child in a mask sits at her school desk and looks to the right, where an adult woman with brown hair is crouched down next to the desk

Gov. Kate Brown visited Harvey Scott Elementary School in Northeast Portland in April 2021. It was the first day students returned to the classroom, after more than a year of online classes.The Oregonian

Brown also acceded to pleas from school administrators, the statewide teachers union and some education activists to lessen schools’ accountability for results. She signed into law a bill requiring schools to help students opt out of taking state achievement tests, undermining public knowledge of schools’ effectiveness. And she agreed to allow students to graduate without demonstrating they can read, write and do math at an early high school level. As a result, nearly all high schools abandoned special workshop classes aimed at helping seniors with shaky math or writing skills to get up to par to earn a diploma.

During Brown’s eight years in office the high school graduation rate rose from 74% to 81%. But much of that increase stemmed from improvements put in place before she took office, most notably efforts to improve students’ crucial ninth grade year. Classes that graduated at higher rates during the first several years Brown was in office had received additional help as freshmen while Kitzhaber was still governor. And the most recent federal comparison still ranks Oregon among the worst 10 states in the country at getting students to earn diplomas on time.

GOVERNOR GONE MISSING

During her last year in office, Brown increasingly retreated from public appearances and general visibility. During the pandemic, she shifted all her press conferences online and made a habit of reading a lengthy script from a teleprompter before taking questions. Her last in-person briefing with reporters at the state Capitol was three years ago.

The governor attacked her predecessor, who left office with a backlog of stalled records requests regarding his fiancée’s activities, for not prioritizing transparency and promised to do better. However, after Brown championed the creation and hiring of a public records advocate, the first person hired for the job resigned, citing pressure from Brown’s top lawyer to secretly slow down work to strengthen government transparency mandates in state law.

Brown’s administration further undercut her transparency pledge when, in 2018, the Oregon Department of Education quietly decided to delay releasing key school performance reports until after the election. The state only reversed course after The Oregonian/OregonLive revealed the planned delay.

Kate Brown speaks standing in front of several flags

Gov. Kate Brown is pictured delivering her 2021 State of the State address online.

The news organization also found that the state hid the deaths of children who were in the foster system, by failing to issue mandatory reports in a timely manner — or at all — in the case of every child in state care who died since March 2017. In fall 2021, Brown personally ordered an investigation after The Oregonian/OregonLive obtained a copy of the her controversial plan to commute the sentences of hundreds of juveniles serving time for the most violent crimes, which was a public record.

Nick Budnick, co-chair of the Freedom of Information Committee of the Greater Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said Brown leaves a complicated legacy on transparency that started out with some good government reforms. Her apparent disinterest during her second term in making the workings of government more accessible resulted in “a lot of missed opportunities,” Budnick said. “As a result, Oregon still lags other states in terms of the public’s right to know about its government.”

— Hillary Borrud; hborrud@oregonian.com

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