SALEM — Oregon Democratic lawmakers made history Thursday when they selected Rep. Tina Kotek as their nominee to hold the speaker's gavel, putting her in line to be the nation's first openly lesbian House speaker.
Democrats broke the historic 30-30 split in the House by gaining four seats in the recent election, giving the party a 34-26 edge over their Republican counterparts.
In the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, Rep. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from Coos Bay, shared the speaker duties with Rep. Bruce Hanna, a Republican from Roseburg. Roblan and Hanna were hailed for helping their parties avoid partisan breakdowns that were evident in other states. Roblan said he's confident Kotek will keep the spirit of bipartisanship intact.
“She's thoughtful," Roblan said. “She comes from the Portland area and sometimes people in rural areas get nervous about that. But she listens intently to the needs that exist across the state."
Kotek, 46, will work closely with Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, who was selected last week to be the House Republican Leader. During McLane's first legislative session, his desk on the House floor was next to Kotek's desk.
“I like Tina Kotek," McLane said.
After McLane was chosen to lead his party, Kotek called him.
“She assured me all good ideas will have an opportunity to be heard," McLane said.
Kotek, who is serving her third term in the House, said one of her proudest accomplishments was her work to redesign the state's cash- assistance program for low income families, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF.
TANF was restructured and expanded, along with ensuring additional funding went to child abuse programs.
“It encompasses everything I care about," she said, adding that helping children and families who are the most vulnerable has long been a priority.
Kotek also played a key role in the state's overhaul of the health care system.
Her Republican counterpart on the legislation was Rep. Tim Freeman, a gas station owner from Roseburg.
Freeman acknowledged the two are on different ends of the political spectrum. They also served as co-chairs of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.
“Neither one of us raised our voices at any time or were ever unprofessional," Freeman said. “We had a cordial, professional relationship and I look forward to that continuing, and I see no reason why it shouldn't."
Kotek has made it clear she plans to prioritize funneling more money toward K-12 education.
With limited state revenue, she said, lawmakers will scrutinize tax breaks to see where money can instead be put into the state's education system.
“Does a tax break on a vacation home somehow have a bigger priority than more money in the classroom?" she said. “I don't know if we'll take on that tax credit, but that's an example of how we'll set priorities."
When it comes to reforming the state's public pension program, Kotek says she is open to having the conversation. But she doesn't believe voters are as concerned about the system as other state issues.
“People want to talk about schools and the fact that they have been unemployed for 21 months ... we need to keep the focus on those things and have a discussion about PERS," she said.
Kotek said most of her colleagues know her as an advocate for children and health care.
But, she said, it's because that work has been well respected that she can also have a conversation about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, issues.
And she said, she realizes with her new position comes a new responsibility.
“You have a higher profile if you are Speaker of the House no matter who you are," she said. “I would like to say that I'm a responsible role model for LGBT youth and that it does get better, as the video campaign says."
Although Kotek will be the first openly lesbian speaker, an openly gay man was elected as Speaker of the House in Colorado.
There are also gay speakers of the House in New York and Rhode Island, according to Denis Dison with the Victory Fund, which is a nonprofit that supports openly gay candidates for office.
The speaker controls the House agenda and assigns lawmakers to committees.
The formal vote of the entire House will be Jan. 14.
At the end of her term, Kotek already hopes lawmakers will be able to say she always had “the best interest of the entire state at heart."
Rep. Val Hoyle, D-West Eugene, will serve as House majority leader.