Kate Brown

Secretary of State Kate Brown was appointed to serve in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1991, was elected to two more terms in the House and in 1996 won election to the Oregon Senate. In 2004 she became the first woman to serve as the Senate Majority Leader. She was elected to the office of Oregon Secretary of State in 2008.

Zachary Jones, Amanda Cross, Chandler Miranda and Josephine Colburn interviewed Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown on February, 14th, 2012 at the Oregon State Capitol Building. This was done for the purpose of the Century of Action centennial celebration of woman suffrage in Oregon. Secretary of State Brown expressed the themes of increasing the diversity of representation in the legislature and connecting Oregonians with how their government works as well as the importance of woman’s vote.

Q: Please share your views on the importance of a woman’s vote. What has been important in the past and how does that compare to the present?

Response: Secretary of State Kate Brown felt that there were two levels of importance based on her background in the legislature. “For me it was really important to have other women colleagues.” One example she gave was a coalition of lobbyists that she worked with to pass a Family Medical Leave Act in 1991. Oregon was one of the first states to pass this law; she felt that it was really due to the number of women in the legislature. She felt that women’s voices in the legislature would “reflect a greater sense of Oregon culture…”

Q: In 2004, you became the first female Senate caucus leader to serve in Oregon, how did that feel?

Response: Secretary of State Brown feels that there is still work to do, but that it was exciting to be the first. It is a “challenge to be the first always because you represent all of the people that have come before you but also all of the people who will come after you.” She recognizes that you always need to step carefully and have the knowledge that mistakes will be attributed to being the first. “Really aware…of what it took…to get to this point.”

Q: What and who inspired you to run for office?

Response: Secretary Brown was inspired by working on 1991 legislation for Family Medical Leave and realized that she “could make a difference and make lives better across the state.” She got a call from her state senator asking her to run; she was only 31 years of age at the time.

Q: How did your time teaching influence you?

Response: She learned a couple of things from teaching at Portland State University. She has kept in touch with the students that she had. She always tried to keep the learning piece of her seminar really engaging through bringing in guest speakers and involving the students because “it is really important to the learning process.” Part of her leadership theory is “pushing the work down” which is an idea that everyone works hard to learn and should not have answers simply given to them. This is an idea that she has brought to politics.

Q: What are the challenges and rewards for women who participate in politics through campaigns and office holding?

Response: Secretary Brown observed: “There is still a layer of sexism out there.” She talked about how sometimes she still gets treated like people’s “little kid sister” or “little niece.” She also notes: “Sometimes women get put into boxes,” like if you are a woman then you work on a certain type of issues. She did mention that when she first started she worked in areas that were “traditionally female” based on her prior career experience in family law. But when she became caucus leader she worked on “non-traditional” roles such as budget issues.

One thing that currently concerns Secretary Brown is that there is a lack of women working on budget negotiations in the state legislature. Without women on budget committees, there will be a lack of voices at the table when the budget is negotiated. One major thing that she mentioned was that it is important to her to have a “diversity of voices at the table,” meaning that there are representations of multiple groups, whether that concerns budget negotiations or really any part of the government.

She talked about her early days in the legislature and how she struggled with her Democratic colleagues because of her passion for civil rights for all Oregonians.  When she became Democratic caucus leader she worked to have a “progressive majority” and she spent a lot of time changing the leadership in the legislature.

Another major thing that she talked about was the title of “Secretary of State” and how that influenced the gender of people who held the office. She felt that if the title had been “Lieutenant Governor” then the number of women who held the office would not be as high as it is. [There have only been three female Secretaries of State in Oregon history.] Secretary of State Brown was also concerned about the fact that we have less than 30% women in the legislature which is one of the things that need to be addressed when trying to diversify the representation at the table.

Q: What have you done and what can Oregonians do to promote civic participation?

Response: Secretary of State Brown mentioned a couple of things that she is doing to get youth motivated to vote; in fact that is one of the major parts of her work. One example is “Project Citizen” where students in low income areas get a chance to work on public policy issues and work with their communities to solve a public issue. This project also includes education about Oregon’s voter system.

She also tries to always speak at high schools and do mock elections that are meant to show the way in which student votes would change the dynamic of voting. If there was a higher “youth” vote, then Secretary of State Brown feels that a solution to education, cost effective loans for students, jobs out of college and the environment would all be major focuses in public policy. On university campuses they are also doing “guerilla raps” which is essentially where she will go and speak at the beginning of a class very briefly, providing statistics such as how, in 2008, there was an increase in student voting and then in 2009 there was an increase in student funding. Then they pass out voter registration cards, collect the completed forms, and then leave and go to the next classroom.

Another project is the “Civics Tool Kit” that gives information about different amendments that has been passed and also the way in which Oregon’s government works. “Any time I can talk to students, I do that,” Secretary Brown notes. She also is active in the Latino community and with new citizens. She is also very active in promoting online voter registration since the “student population is very mobile.” The “Pew Project” is a program intended to make the voter registration seamless—when you don’t get asked at the DMV about voter registration then Secretary of State Kate Brown will send you an e-mail. Students in Oregon can also register to vote when they are 17 so she is hoping to organize a voter registration for high school students in September, 2012. Another recent development made iPads available for voting to people with disabilities.

Her passion around civics is rooted in the idea of diversity and she feels like it is really important to have the leadership of Oregon reflect the diversity of Oregonians.

Q: How would you respond to those who say that voting doesn’t matter?

Response: To respond to this, Secretary of State Brown told the story of how, after she was appointed to the State House of Representatives in 1991, she had to run against the woman who had previously held the seat. In this case, Brown won the race by seven votes. “My story to the world…is that your votes do matter…I’m living proof of that.” She believes her win gave her the ability to create a progressive majority in the House and also with passing gay rights legislation. 

Q: With a progressive majority, why has Oregon not passed same-sex marriage legislation?

Response: Secretary of State Kate Brown responded to this issue in conjunction with Washington having just passed the same-sex marriage law. The challenge for Oregon is that it is a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage versus a statutory ban. So, in Oregon we would need a vote of the people to repeal the constitutional ban and then to pass the same-sex marriage law, whereas Washington only needed their legislature to pass it for it to become a law. She feels that by 2016 it will be passed in Oregon as well.

Secretary of State Brown’s legislative assistant Josh Goldberg joined our conversation. He talked about the PolitiCorps program that brings students together from across the nation and gives them a “10 week boot camp” that teaches them everything they need to know about Oregon government. Students get to plan and run a campaign including picking issues that they find important. Goldberg also mentioned that the women who make it to the legislature have skills that are really held in high regard and thought of with a lot of respect. In terms of gender, he felt that Oregon has a higher representation of women in the legislature than other states, which says a lot about Oregon.

He also mentioned that it is a “citizen legislature.” Secretary of State Brown said that she feels this is a deterrent to women who would run because the pay is not enough to live on; thus, more pressure is put on women who need to have another source of income and “adds something else to women’s already filled plates.” When recruiting candidates, she also mentioned that women often feel like they are not qualified for positions whereas men “wake up and want to run for office,” Plus, in her opinion, women have a larger issue with asking for money for various reasons. She noted that she can sometimes be “Minnesota Nice,” often being reluctant to ask for campaign contributions.  In the past, women have been less connected to money, but she feels this is changing.

This interview is important in showing the steps that Secretary of State Brown has made in connecting young voters to their government. We have gained valuable insights throughout this process about the inner workings of the current government and how it is related to gender issues. In addition this interview points out that there are still issues that need to be addressed in terms equality of minorities represented in the legislature.

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