Oregon Gov. Kotek’s first year in office took her to 36 counties. Here’s what she learned.
By: Julia Shumway – January 9, 2024
COTTAGE GROVE – Tina Kotek peered into a metal microshelter on a brisk December afternoon, turning with a question to Kris McAlister, executive director of the homelessness nonprofit Carry It Forward in the small Lane County city.
The governor had seen a lot of microshelters like the dozens of units at Carry It Forward’s low-barrier adult shelter on the outskirts of Cottage Grove. She wanted to know what worked well – and what could be better.
Those questions defined Kotek’s nearly year-long tour of all 36 Oregon counties, which began in December 2022 in Yamhill County and ended in Lane County in December 2023. She met with nearly 1,000 people in nearly 100 towns across the state, with First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson joining her on most visits.
“Having an opportunity to sit down with Oregonians in their home communities and hear about what’s going on is an experience neither of us will forget, and they will actually help me be a better governor over the next several years,” Kotek said in a press conference after the Lane County visit.
The tour brought her to familiar territory – a day shelter and park mere miles from the Portland home where she lived before moving to the governor’s mansion – and to areas of the state she’s never visited.
It started with a narrow focus on three key issues: Kotek’s first visit to Yamhill County consisted of conversations at a community clinic about behavioral health, a preschool about education and a local government office about the housing crisis. As the tour continued, she began adding more conversations with elected officials, usually over meals at local restaurants.
Kotek told the Capital Chronicle in an interview that those meetings are making it easier to do her job. A June coffee with Tillamook County Commissioner Erin Skaar meant that Kotek was able to directly call Skaar after torrential rains caused flooding in the coastal county in December to talk about how the state could help with recovery.
Most of her conversations were with invited guests, local elected officials and community leaders. Reporters covered each discussion in Yamhill County, but at subsequent stops most or all of her events were held in private and followed by short briefings with local reporters.
Some unexpected interactions did happen, though. The Capital Chronicle joined Kotek on a walking tour of businesses in downtown Independence, where Kotek hopped on a passing trolley with Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth; Polk County Commissioner Jeremy Gordon and Mayor John McArdle and sang “Happy Birthday” to a fellow trolley rider.
While the tour remained largely focused on housing, education and behavioral health, Kotek also added local issues, including tours of farms in rural Oregon. Her October visit to Linn County brought her to the Pugh Seed Farm in Shedd, where sixth-generation farmer Denver Pugh showed Kotek and state Rep. Jami Cate, R-Lebanon, around his family’s farm.
Linn County boasts that it’s the “grass seed capital of the world,” and the Pughs grow seed-producing grasses for pastures across the world. They also raise other crops, including wheat, radishes and meadowfoam, a flowering plant that’s used as an oil in cosmetic and hair products. Kotek knew that Linn County was the grass seed capital but admitted that she knew nothing about growing grass seed and had never been on a grass seed farm before, Pugh said. He jumped at the opportunity to show her his work.
“There’s a handful of us in my area that open our farms up to tours and stuff like that,” he said. “But I don’t know too many that had the opportunity to do it at the level that as of the governor. Their state representatives come by every once in a while, there’ll be opportunities for them and local leaders, but as far as the governor, you just don’t hear of a governor reaching out like that.”
His politics don’t align with hers, Pugh said, and he suspects she knows that. But he said he looked past political differences because Kotek wanted to learn.
Judging from body language, Kotek said she could tell that some people she met over the year started off hesitant but most were smiling by the end of the conversation.
“Some of the feedback we’ve received third-party has been that she seems like a normal person,” she said. “I’ll take that. I’m a very straightforward person. I think a lot more people know about my story, about how I got to Oregon, because we’d have those conversations. They certainly have gotten to meet the first lady so that’s always helpful. They see us as a family and that’s important.”
Jake Boone, assistant city manager in Cottage Grove, said he hopes Kotek continues to visit rural communities and that future governors do the same. Towns like his, with a population of about 10,600, don’t have the same resources or pull with state leaders as Oregon’s big cities, and the tour was a rare direct line to the state’s top official.
“One of the standard complaints about every governor is that Portland drives the bus and we all kind of get dragged along by it,” he said. “We have 261 cities in the state. Only one of them is Portland. Only one of them is Salem. Only one of them is Eugene. The rest of them, a huge number of them are in the roughly 10,000 range, but it’s hard to get our voices noticed because we’re small. Unlike Portland and Salem, we can’t afford our own lobbyists to go be there in the Capitol building every day.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, praised Kotek for visiting each county. Wyden and fellow Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley hold town halls in every county each year.
“You can’t do your job well, sitting behind her desk, and guessing what is on somebody’s mind,” Wyden told the Capital Chronicle. “You gotta get out, and that’s what she’s doing and I commend her for it. I’ve had my way and everybody’s got their own approach, but my understanding is that no governor in Oregon has done what she’s done.”
It’s not an experience Kotek plans to repeat this year, but she said she hopes to continue meeting with Oregonians and visiting different parts of the state in future years as governor.
“This has been an amazing experience to do the intense, very targeted conversations we were having in communities,” she said. “I think future visits will shift a little bit. We want to try different things and communicate with folks around the state. I’d like to be able to visit different places as well. I don’t see us doing every county next year, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have different ways to communicate with Oregonians.”