Tina Kotek, one of two lesbian candidates poised to make history in runs for governor this year, exudes confidence on the campaign trail although it's clear she's in a tough battle.
Kotek is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in deep-blue Oregon, which has already had the nation's first out bisexual governor, Kate Brown, a Democrat who's retiring due to term limits. Kotek and fellow Dem Maura Healey, in Massachusetts, stand to become the first out lesbian governors in the U.S. But while polls show Healey with a lead of more than 20 points over her Republican opponent, Kotek is in pretty much a dead heat with Republican Christine Drazan.
The race in Oregon has been complicated by the presence of an independent candidate, Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic state legislator. Johnson is far down in the polls, but she's getting enough support to make trouble for the other candidates. A recent poll from Nelson Research found 43 percent of likely voters supporting Drazan, 41 percent for Kotek, and 5 percent for the fast-fading Johnson.
Leading up to Tuesday's election, Kotek, the former speaker of the Oregon House, is crossing the state and has brought in some big-name Democrats, such as President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Oregon's two U.S. senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, have campaigned for her, and former President Barack Obama has done a video ad. Kelley Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and soon to be president of the Human Rights Campaign, has visited the state on Kotek's behalf. Kotek has the endorsement of most major Oregon newspapers.
Stopping recently in Bend, the largest city in central Oregon, Kotek allowed that "a vote for Betsy Johnson could bring us a Republican governor," but she stressed that the race is primarily between herself and Drazan -- and she's taking steps to emphasize the differences between them.
One of the major differences involves reproductive rights. Appearing with pro-choice activists, Kotek noted that when Drazan was a state representative, she proposed legislation to criminalize abortion providers, just part of a long antichoice record. Yet Drazan has scrubbed her campaign website of any reference to abortion, Kotek pointed out. Drazan is supported by Oregon Right to Life and a national antichoice group with the innocuous-sounding name of the Education and Policy Center, which is affiliated with the Abortion Survivors Network.
"Christine Drazan can't be trusted on this issue," Kotek said.
Kotek, meanwhile, is endorsed by Planned Parenthood PAC of Oregon and Pro-Choice Oregon, and she's been a staunch advocate of reproductive rights in the state legislature. She successfully pushed for the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which wrote the right to abortion into state law, and for expanded access to contraception.
Reproductive rights and all health care are linked to economic security, Kotek said. Without access to the health services they need, people "don't have the freedom to plan their own future," she said.
Oregon may need to go further to protect this freedom, she added. That could include writing the right to privacy into the state constitution to guarantee that right no matter who the governor is or who controls the legislature, she said. The state will likely need to take steps to protect abortion providers who serve patients from states where the procedure is outlawed.
On every issue, Kotek falls on the progressive side, Drazan on the conservative side -- whether it's climate change, education, gun control, economic matters, etc. Kotek's lesbian identity hasn't been much of a talking point in the governor's race, but it's been an issue below the surface, she said. This year, Drazan told an anti-LGBTQ+ group, the Oregon Family Council, that she supports religious exemptions from antidiscrimination law, so employers don't have to hire LGBTQ+ people or others who offend their beliefs. And both she and Johnson have expressed support for the exclusion of transgender women from women's sports.
Oregon has strong LGBTQ+ rights laws, covering discrimination, hate crimes, conversion therapy, and more. Kotek said a priority of hers is to see that these laws are enforced. In some of the more rural, conservative parts of Oregon, people don't feel comfortable reporting anti-LGBTQ+ attacks, she said. "If people do not feel safe in their communities to call law enforcement because they're being harassed, we have to fix that," she told The Advocate.
But LGBTQ+ rights haven't been front and center in the governor's race. Campaign ads have been dominated by homelessness and economic issues, with Drazan blaming Brown and Kotek for encampments of unhoused people in the state's larger cities. Kotek, though, has pointed out that she called for a state of emergency on homelessness three years ago, and that Drazan, as a legislator, killed bills for homeless shelters and affordable housing.
On economic issues, Drazan emphasizes cutting taxes and business regulations, while Kotek focuses on enhancing opportunities for workers. "I have stood with working families throughout my career," she said during her Bend visit.
"I'm the only candidate who really has put comprehensive plans on their website and detailed not only what I've worked on but where we're going to go and what we're going to do together. ... Not only do I share the values of Oregonians, I can get the job done," she added.
And as she has said frequently during the campaign, she noted,"We do not need to take a right-wing turn to fix our problems."
Courtesy Tina Kotek