Tina Kotek has been sworn in as Oregon’s 39th governor.
She gave her inaugural address inside the Oregon State Capitol following House and Senate sessions earlier in the morning where new and returning members of the Legislature took their own oaths of office.
Kotek, a Democrat, won a close race against Republican Christine Drazan and Independent candidate Betsy Johnson last November, becoming Oregon’s first openly lesbian governor and among the first openly lesbian governors in the nation.
She was optimistic in her inaugural address, hopeful that her administration and the Democratic-led Legislature in its upcoming session would address homelessness, crime, education and renewing trust in the state government.
“Oregonians in every single corner of our state are demanding better. They want to see the idea of Oregon … Land of Promise — match up with the realities in their everyday lives,” she said. “So do I.”
Legislative members sworn in
Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, was sworn in for another term as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives after being formally nominated by Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland.
Rayfield took over the position late last session when Kotek resigned to focus on her campaign for governor.
“We know Rep. Rayfield for his ability to get things done, and his approach – his kindness and his patience,” Nosse said. “I have trust in his values, his commitment to this state, and his ability to do this difficult job.”
Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, was sworn in as the first new Oregon Senate president since 2003, following the retirement of Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem. Courtney was known for his bipartisanship, and had a history of prioritizing legislation in his chamber that had the support of both parties.
Wagner was nominated by Sen. Steiner, D-NW Portland/Beaverton, and received votes along party lines.
“I have confidence that Sen. Wagner will serve honorably, with integrity, with openness, to ensure that we each individually and collectively make the state we all love better,” Steiner said.
There were 16 senators and 21 new representatives sworn into office. Senators and representatives eagerly welcomed each other surrounded by the dull thuds of construction that have closed large portions of the state Capitol building. In the House chamber, bright orange construction helmets with representatives’ names sat on their desks.
Capitol construction:Oregon Capitol’s iconic rotunda, 1938 building close until 2025
In the Senate chamber, senators smiled, mingled and shook hands as invited guests waited in the aisles before they were welcomed onto the Senate floor. Most members wore a yellow rose pinned to their lapels. According to the Senate president’s office, the flowers are custom for the opening day of the Legislative Assembly and have been provided by their office for many years. The yellow roses and blue ribbons reflect Oregon’s ceremonial state colors.
Sen. Mark Meeks, D-Clackamas County, kicked off the gathering with an operatic rendition of the national anthem.
During her opening invocation, Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, urged her fellow legislative members to come together to consider all of the ways legislators could help those struggling the most and find ways to help all Oregonians meet their basic needs.
“May we be inspired to do more together than we could possibly do on our own,” she said.
Wagner spoke of his hopes for creating a better Oregon, sharing memories of hiking a difficult trail in Oregon alongside his parents and walking along the National Mall in Washington D.C while he studied for his master’s degree. He remembered repeatedly asking his parents “Are we there yet?” throughout the hike and contemplating the question into adulthood.
It is a question he said can now be asked about the state’s progress.
“Let us fight that trail with all the switchbacks to form a more perfect union, to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Mom, Dad, we aren’t there yet but we’re on our way,” Wagner said.
Kotek to declare state of emergency
Kotek directly thanked her predecessor, Gov. Kate Brown, who was in attendance, for her “compassionate” leadership and deep love for the state.
But her comments also appeared to acknowledge some of the largest criticisms of Brown’s leadership, including the failures of some agency heads and frustration from conservative leaders and rural communities that Brown wasn’t responsive enough to their needs.
“The status quo is not working,” Kotek said.
“This isn’t a partisan issue, or frankly, a criticism of one leader,” she added.
Kotek spoke about her desire to “deliver results for Oregonians.”
“It is my pledge to all Oregonians, including the leaders in this chamber, that I will work every day to turn things around – to be a partner with you in solving problems big and small,” Kotek said. “We won’t be perfect, but we will improve every year so Oregonians can proudly say their state government was there for them.”
Her priorities, she said, are strengthening connections with Oregonians to deliver results on affordable housing and homelessness, behavioral health and addiction care, and education, as well as setting clear expectations for agency leaders at the executive level.
To foster connections, she said, she launched the One Oregon Listening Tour that will take her to 36 different counties across the state to “hear directly” from Oregonians. She told a story she heard at her first stop in Yamhill County from a woman providing services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The woman, Kotek said, spoke of the difficulty of providing affordable housing to these survivors.
“We must do better,” Kotek said. “We must take on our housing crisis at the scale needed to solve it.”
She announced plans to sign an executive order on her first full day in office Tuesday and to declare a homelessness state of emergency.
The executive order will establish an “ambitious” statewide housing production target of 36,000 new homes per year. It is an 80% increase over recent construction trends, she said.
Kotek added that she will be proposing to the Legislature a $130 million investment in Oregon communities that will help at least another 1,200 Oregonians experiencing unsheltered homelessness move off the streets within a year.
“I am urging you, as leaders, to start the legislative session by taking up this investment package as quickly as possible,” she said.
Kotek also laid out her goal for accountability in state government and expressed a desire for Oregonians to remain confident in the state and engaged in their government.
She asked people to imagine an Oregon where no one is unsheltered or without mental health or addiction resources; an Oregon where every child receives high-quality public education and families have access to affordable child care; and an Oregon where everyone has financial stability and they feel safe in their communities.
“That’s an Oregon worth fighting for — and today is a new beginning,” Kotek said. “I’m eager to get to work. And I hope you will join me.”
Legislature must solve ‘greatest challenges’
Before Kotek’s address, Rayfield and Wagner delivered their own remarks laying out their hopes for the upcoming legislative session.
“So many Oregonians are relying on us to find solutions to stop their skyrocketing rent, their inability to get behavioral health care, feeling a sense of insecurity in their neighborhood,” Rayfield said. “The weight of this responsibility can be scary.”
Wagner echoed the weight of the issues.
“On day one, voters have asked us to tackle some thorny issues,” Wagner said.
At the top is affordable housing, he said.
“The Senate will answer the call,” he promised, adding that the Senate would also be prioritizing the behavioral health system, climate crisis and rural communities.
Senate Republicans will be prioritizing protecting the kicker, freezing property taxes for seniors above the age of 67 for primary residences, and raising the Corporate Activity Tax coverage threshold from $1 million to $5 million, according to Senate Republican communications director Ashley Kuenzi.
As Senate president, he said, he will maintain an open-door policy and acknowledge that good ideas come from everywhere.
“I look forward to serving with you,” Wagner concluded.
Rayfield and Wagner also both spoke about the need for unity. It was a sentiment of bipartisanship that Senate Republicans hope “is real,” Kuenzi said.
“Given her extensive experience in the Legislature, we will be sure to hold Gov. Kotek to her commitment to work with the Legislature to include ALL voices,” Kuenzi added.
Rayfield addressed the polarization and trust issues in the country and acknowledged his own “mistakes” that “contributed to our overly polarized culture.”
“I ask all of us to consider what is our responsibility, as leaders of this state, to build community instead of succumbing to the pressures of a political system that incentivizes demonizing each other,” he said.
Legislators, Rayfield said, can be a part of the problem or part of the solution.
A solution, he said, would include calling for lawmakers to deliver on a package of housing investments in the first 60 days of the session.
Priorities will also include drawing out millions of federal dollars for the semiconductor industry, investments in water, improving access to reproductive health care in the state for rural Oregonians, and action on measures to prevent gun violence.
“While we didn’t individually cause the problems facing our state today, we have a collective responsibility, on our watch, to fix them,” he said. “In that spirit, let’s get to work.”