In a New York Times feature story published earlier this month, Governor Kate Brown comes across as the life of the party, in stark contrast to the reclusive reputation of her predecessor, John Kitzhaber.
Brown says of herself, "I'm a people person." Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, was often characterized by friends and foes alike as someone happy to sew up a patient without having to strike up a conversation.
Brown's ascension as Oregon's governor when Kitzhaber resigned amid a building ethics scandal was serendipitous because of the marked difference in their personalities. She bounds down Capitol hallways where Kitzhaber was rarely spotted. She banters with lobbyists, whereas Kitzhaber tried to avoid them. She chose to live in Mahonia Hall, the governor's official residence, which Kitzhaber treated more like a Salem bed and breakfast.
By all accounts, Brown's more outgoing, approachable style has been viewed as a welcome respite from Kitzhaber, who one lobbyist called a political ghost. She is seen as politically popular, which doesn't hurt as she faces an election in 2016 to fill the remaining two years of what was Kitzhaber's unprecedented fourth term.
The Times cites a poll taken in May showing Brown has earned a 55 percent job approval rating. She gets good marks in the poll from 40 percent of people who identify themselves as Republicans. Numbers like that tend to scare off would-be challengers, even those who whisper that Brown is a liberal Portland Democrat. That's not always a good thing for voters living outside Portland, even just outside Portland.
While Brown's voting record supports the label of "liberal," her political style is more inclusive. As Senate majority leader, Brown listened to almost anyone willing to schedule an appointment, without turning a conversation into a polemic. The term "pragmatic" would have been fairly applied to her as she understood her role was to find common ground, not stake out high-minded positions.
Brown has stepped into the higher pay-grade as governor with political grace. She encircled herself with new staff, but retained the policy staff left behind by Kitzhaber, which provided a smooth transition working with a legislature already underway.
Brown generally supported the main thrust of Kitzhaber's agenda and didn't try to imprint them with her own stamp to gain glory. Instead, she focused on ethics legislation, much of which she had introduced in her role as secretary of state.
Late in the 2015 session, Brown attempted to engineer a compromise to pass a transportation funding bill that business and labor groups had pushed. The compromise required backing off somewhat or entirely from a clean fuels carbon reduction measure passed earlier in the session, despite strong Republican protests, in part because the bill had been tainted in their minds by its association with Cylvia Hayes, the first lady under the Kitzhaber administration.
Some in the environmental community were upset at Brown's willingness to roll back the clean fuels measure, but others took it as a positive sign that she wasn't a captive to our ideology.
Kitzhaber was renowned for his ability to get people with disparate interests in a room and pound out a path to progress that often avoided politically divisive ballot measures. That is role Brown has yet to fill, but may have a chance as the November 2016 general election ballot could be loaded with initiatives from a variety of political directions.
For now, the Times noted, Brown is demonstrating she isn't anything like Kitzhaber. When a group of Chinese tourists wandered into the Governor's office, Brown came over to talk, encouraged them to take the formal tour and posed for a picture. There aren't many pictures of Kitzhaber doing that.