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Government and Politics
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Capitol Awaits Signals From New Governor

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Alan Sylvestre
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Oregon Governor Kate Brown delivers her inaugural address on February 18, 2015.

Kate Brown became Governor of Oregon without the messy business of running a campaign.

Though she's served in elected office for nearly a quarter-century, she got the state's top job by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. When John Kitzhaber abruptly resigned on February 18, Brown was first in line of succession.

While the Democrat is well known around the capitol, her positions on many key issues are not.

Two days after taking the oath of office, Governor Kate Brown faced reporters at the state capitol. She fielded questions on topics all over the map, including the death penalty, education spending and environmental policies.

But of lot of her answers sounded kind of like this: "As I mentioned, we'll be taking these bills on a case-by-case basis."

And it wasn't long before Brown's communications director was giving the "wrap-it-up" signal.

So when I sat down with Brown a few days later, I peppered her with as many questions as I could about where she stands on many of the major issues before the legislature. She was game. But she offered this reminder.

"I'm like, Chris, I've been on the job for, like, seven days,” Brown said.

Fair enough.

Oregon voters did install Brown as Secretary of State but she hasn't had much time to form policy positions on the broader range of issues that a governor would typically face. Brown has hired some new high-level staff. But so far she's retained many of former Governor Kitzhaber's policy advisors.

"The institutional knowledge that people have is extremely valuable to me,” Brown explained. “I need their assistance right now given that we're in the middle of a legislative session."

And speaking of that legislative session, lawmakers are also eager to pin the governor down on bills that are important to them. But Senate President Peter Courtney said the upheaval that led to the quick resignation of Governor Kitzhaber means lawmakers will need to step up their game.

"We've had this trauma,” he said. “So I think the legislature has to be better and bigger than it's ever been, in terms of helping the executive branch."

For instance, Courtney wants lawmakers to approve a K-12 education budget as quickly as possible. But he admitted he doesn’t have a good sense yet of how much money Governor Brown will approve.

Lobbyists and interest groups are also eager for a chance to sit down with the new governor.

“I think it’s going to be sort of new territory,” said Pete Truax, the mayor of Forest Grove and the president of the League of Oregon Cities.

Truax said he’s hoping Brown will be more sympathetic to cities and towns than he said her predecessor was, especially when it comes to giving municipalities more leverage when it comes to raising property taxes.

"She's coming in with a clean slate and we want to help her see the light with regard to local control and local options around the state of Oregon,” Truax said.

But anyone hoping to suss out where Oregon's new Governor stands on key issues shouldn't necessarily pore over her past voting record as a state lawmaker. Brown said she isn't the same person as she was when she first arrived in Salem in 1991.

"Over time, my perspectives have changed on particular issues,” she said. “And I think that's a part of growing older, if I can say that. I think it's a part of having different life experiences."

One of those life experiences might be running for governor. She'll get the chance next year already. But Brown hasn't said yet whether she'll try to win the job at the ballot box.