Oregon’s new governor, just a few weeks on the job, already has faced a stream of questions, but so far has failed to answer the most important one: Can she make hot dish?
Kate Brown, you see, claims she grew up in Arden Hills.
Now, I’m a proud Oregonian, but as someone who spent five summers working in the Boundary Waters, and who has a cousin in Foley, another in Bloomington and a daughter at Macalester, I know a thing or two about your fair state — and I’m starting to wonder about Gov. Brown’s résumé.
Because she sure isn’t acting like a Minnesotan.
You see, earlier in February, Brown — then Oregon’s secretary of state — was called back from a big secretaries-of-state shindig in Washington by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was planning to resign, as revelations of questionable conduct by him and Oregon’s first lady, Cylvia Hayes, piled up.
After landing at the Portland airport, the secretary of state — first in Oregon’s gubernatorial line of succession — was ushered into a meeting with the governor, who apparently had decided to dig in his boot heels and hold onto the reins of power a bit longer.
Now, a “true” Minnesotan, finding herself in this awkward position, would have responded with an apology.
“Oh-fer-geez, John, I understand. You betcha,” she’d say. “You and Cylvia have been under some terrible strain, don’t ya know, and I’m sorry to be takin’ up your time. Now, you just call if dere’s anything I can do for daboat-a-yuz.”
But instead of running some hot dish over to the governor’s residence, Brown served up a scorching public statement, explaining that the governor greeted her by asking her why she had left D.C. (a remark she “found strange”), then declaring that he wasn’t resigning before initiating “a discussion about transition.”
Many observers, including some of my colleagues in the Fourth Estate, have criticized Brown, labeling her a “traitor” who should have showed some deference to the incumbent and kept the curious details of the meeting secret, seeing as how she stood to benefit from Kitzhaber’s departure. That would have been very Minnesotan, but not very smart.
For, as we now know, Citizen Kitzhaber cannot be trusted to accurately report the facts. Given that inconvenient truth, Brown had to give her version of the events before Kitzhaber gave his.
So she threw him under the canoe and, for good measure, smacked his head with a paddle, publicly characterizing the governor’s actions as “bizarre.”
It was a gutsy decision, but not the first time Brown refused to jump ship for a fellow Democrat who felt entitled to hold onto power after a change of heart. It’s how she got her start.
In 1991, a state representative in line for a government job gave up her Portland seat, and Brown, a young lawyer, was tapped to finish the term. The ex-lawmaker, however, changed her mind and decided to run for her old seat.
A lot of Democrats figured Brown should step aside. She surprised folks by not only staying in the race, but winning in an election so close it makes U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s first victory look like a landslide.
Her seven-vote victory margin 24 years ago set Kate Brown on a path that last week led her back to the Oregon House chambers to take the oath of office as the state’s 38th governor.
In her remarks, Brown was kinder to the man she replaced than he was to her. In his resignation letter, Kitzhaber said that what troubled him most was not the mounting evidence of wrongdoing but “that so many of my former allies in common cause have been willing to simply accept this judgment at its face value.”
It was an odd lament from a guy who, as an Oregon state senator, strolled into the private office of then-Gov. Barbara Roberts in fall 1993, not to offer support as she dealt with her husband’s terminal cancer, but to inform his fellow Democrat that he would be running against her in the May primary. In her memoir, Roberts recalls the moment:
“I asked him to sit down so we could have a conversation about his decision. He just kept walking. I spoke to him several more times, asking him for the courtesy of a conversation. He kept walking, never responding, never turning. … He simply walked away.”
Kitzhaber is walking away again — this time, almost certainly, for good. And if a feisty Minnesotan nudged him through the door, well, as they might say in Arden Hills, “it was abowt time.”
John Schrag is publisher of the Hillsboro (Ore.) Tribune News-Times.