When Kate Brown attended her first Labor Day picnic after becoming governor last year, she spoke for only a few minutes. But union officials who sponsored the event at Oaks Amusement Park in Portland said the governor spent nearly an hour cheerfully shaking the hands of dozens of members waiting in line to get food.
That, said Joe Baessler of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was more important than anything the governor said from the stage.
Brown's good cheer and skills at one-on-one politicking helped her quickly put the chaos surrounding John Kitzhaber's resignation in February 2015 behind her. It helped that she has had a friendly Democratic majority in the Legislature that gave her a steady stream of bills to sign.
She mostly avoided bad headlines or even saying anything provocative:
“I want to tackle issues facing Oregonians and open the door of opportunity for all of our people and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do here," Brown told OPB. "This is not easy."
Brown's short tenure will be tested Nov. 8 when she stands for election to the last two years of Kitzhaber's term. Unlike her predecessor, she rarely challenges Democratic orthodoxy.
Yet, even some of her natural allies wonder about her leadership.
Steve Pedery is conservation director of Oregon Wild. His frustration boiled over in June when he thought the governor’s office was trying to hide her early support for a wolf bill that environmentalists didn’t like.
“We’ve had two years of Kate Brown now, and she’s sort of lurched from environmental crisis to environmental crisis with no over-arching narrative," he said.
Brown said she’s learned in her long experience in state government she can’t always make her friends happy. She has indeed been around the Capitol a long time.
In fact, only one Senate president, Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has been in state elected office longer than Brown. She was in the Legislature for 17 years and secretary of state for six before she assumed the governorship.
Former House Majority Leader Val Hoyle said Brown is more willing than Kitzhaber to let others take the lead.
“She isn’t going to be the person that stands up and knocks heads together," Hoyle said. "But I do think she’ll be the type of governor where on the power of relationships with people, she’ll be able to get things done.”
Brown says one of her proudest legislative achievements was devising an alternative to two proposed minimum wage initiatives. Each would have dramatically hiked the wage floor and drew huge business opposition.
“I could have chosen to have done nothing and let those two ballot measures play out at the ballot," she said.
Instead, she assembled a group of labor and business leaders to see if they could cut a deal. She said it showed that she wants to reach compromise when she can.
“We had folks holed up, we pushed and prodded, we got ideas and concepts from them," she said. "And all of that helped inform the proposal I laid on the table.”
It was no grand bargain, however. The business negotiators didn’t accept her proposal, saying the wage increases were too steep. But in Oregon’s current political dynamic, that didn’t matter. Democrats provided the needed votes for the governor’s unusual solution.
Yet in a nod to business concerns, Brown called for three different wage floors depending on the region of the state. The increases will keep Oregon near the top of all states in the minimum wage, and the change earned her praised from Democratic figures around the country — including President Barack Obama.
Oregon is one of just seven states where Democrats control the governorship and both legislative chambers. When Brown took office, she embraced the agenda that Democratic leaders had laid out.
“Her ability to bring people together after Gov. Kitzhaber left and keep the trains on the track, that was a big deal," said Hoyle, the former Democratic majority leader.
Brown’s biggest attempt at bipartisanship failed: She's been unable to gain the Republican votes she needs to raise money for transportation projects. She says it is a top priority for 2017.
Meanwhile, Brown boasts of signing the nation’s first law to phase out coal. She also spearheaded a law automatically registering new voters through the DMV, and she approved a bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. In two legislative sessions, she hasn’t vetoed a single bill.
Brown still sometimes shows discomfort with her sudden ascent into the spotlight. After one big speech at a business summit in Portland late last year, she audibly sighed with relief.
“It might surprise people," she said, "I still get nervous in terms of public speaking, and so I’m working on it. I just got to be me.”
Still, in a tumultuous election year nationally, her own race has been remarkably calm. Two recent polls show her with a wide lead over Republican Bud Pierce, who remains little-known.