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Challenges face Oregon’s new governor

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New Oregon Governor Kate Brown
New Oregon Governor Kate Brown

Incoming Oregon Gov. Kate Brown faces a monumental challenge as she takes the reins of a state government mired in scandal on less than a week’s notice and with a special election already looming.

America’s first bisexual governor will be sworn in Wednesday, becoming Oregon’s 38th leader after fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber resigned amid ethics questions.

Brown, who has been in the relatively obscure position of secretary of state, replaces Oregon’s most experienced governor in the middle of a legislative session.

Since Kitzhaber announced Friday he’d be stepping down, Brown has said little about her plans as governor. But she offered a hint in a statement from her office on Tuesday previewing her inaugural speech.

“She’ll lay out a series of immediate reforms needed to restore the public’s trust in government,” the statement said. “And she’ll speak to her bipartisan approach to helping Oregon’s working families make ends meet.”

Brown’s inauguration comes less than six weeks after Kitzhaber took the oath of office and began his fourth term with a speech bemoaning inequality.

A series of newspaper reports since October have chronicled work by Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, for organizations with an interest in Oregon public policy. At the same time she was paid by advocacy groups, she played an active role in Kitzhaber’s administration, a potential conflict of interest.

Though questions about Hayes have swirled for months, the pressure on Kitzhaber intensified recently after newspapers raised questions about whether Hayes reported all her income on her tax returns. She has not publicly addressed the allegation and Kitzhaber has declined to.

With pressure reaching a fever pitch, Kitzhaber bowed out effective 10 a.m. Wednesday.

After Brown speaks for the first time as governor, legislative leaders will escort her a short distance to the governor’s office.

Among the first of the many decisions Brown must make will be appointing a Democrat to replace her as secretary of state. She’ll also have to decide how much of Kitzhaber’s staff she’ll keep and prepare for an onslaught of bills to come from the Legislature.

For the past six years, Brown has been Oregon’s secretary of state, responsible for important but largely unseen functions of government: overseeing elections, registering businesses, maintaining the state archives and auditing public agencies. Oregon has no lieutenant governor, and the state constitution says the secretary of state is second in line for the job.

Her unexpected ascension to the governor’s office upends the plans of Democrats who’ve been jockeying for years to replace Kitzhaber in the 2018 election. Brown was widely believed to be interested, and she’s done nothing to dissuade the chatter.

Now, she’ll be learning her new role while her rivals prepare for a 2016 special election that appears already to have been begun. When Kitzhaber announced his resignation, Democratic Treasurer Ted Wheeler, a top contender for governor, released a statement that read like a campaign document. When House Speaker Tina Kotek, another Democratic contender, was asked last week about Brown, she could muster only: “She’s equipped to do the job.”

Republicans, who enjoyed a cordial relationship with Kitzhaber, are taking a wary view of Brown, who is more liberal than Kitzhaber and hails from Portland.

“I have concerns that Portland left or liberal interests have really risen in the state — not just in the volume of bills but now in the office they hold,” said Rep. Mike McLane, the Republican leader.

On his last full day in office, Kitzhaber notched a final legislative victory. Democrats in the Senate approved a climate-change measure that failed two years ago in one of the only defeats of Kitzhaber’s third term.

The victory came thanks to two seats Democrats picked up in the November election. The bill was on a fast track before the pressure on Kitzhaber boiled over, and Senate leaders kept it going despite Republicans’ attempts to link it to the Kitzhaber scandal.

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Follow AP writer Jonathan J. Cooper at https://twitter.com/jjcooper .

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