Bynum tries to shake up Democratic leadership by running for House speaker

Janelle Bynum is set to challenge longtime House Speaker Tina Kotek in January’s vote.

SALEM, Ore — A battle is playing out in the Oregon Legislature, but this time around, it’s not pitting Republicans against Democrats. Instead, two Democratic leaders are going head-to-head to become speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reported earlier this week longtime legislative leader Tina Kotek was the only Democrat to put her name in the ring to become speaker during an informal vote. Democrats voted for her, but she didn’t get all 31 votes she needed to be reelected when the full House of Representatives votes in January.

Shortly after the news came out, Janelle Bynum announced she’d challenge Kotek for the seat during the full House vote.

KGW political analyst Len Bergstein said usually these kinds of battles are fought behind closed doors. 

“We’re watching something that’s happening that hasn’t really happened very much in Oregon history. So, it’s a kind of an interesting moment,” Bergstein said. “It must mean [Bynum] is going to try and go get some votes from the Republicans, which means that she’ll have to have some sort of power sharing with the Republicans, though they’ll want something.”

That could mean Republicans getting to control a committee or getting a bill passed. This isn’t something Democrats expected to have to concede with their current supermajority.

RELATED: Future voting rights, marijuana laws at stake in states

KGW’s Maggie Vespa spoke with Bynum, and asked why she wants to be speaker.

“Every time people of color come into the Capitol, literally or figuratively, they’re on their knees, it’s not from a position of power,” she said. “It’s not from a position of… how can I add to the conversation? It’s always from a position of need. Deep, deep, deep need. And I felt that I wanted to change that perspective. I wanted to make sure that people always felt that they knew that the Capitol was their house, that they could make demands of it from a position of strength.”

Bynum is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, a powerful position where she has helped push through various police accountability laws in recent months.

As speaker, Bynum said she would focus on mental health, housing and help for small businesses.

“I think that just comes from knowing that someone is there, who was friendly to their cause, who understands the needs of communities of color, rural communities, marginalized communities,” Bynum said. 

Despite her record on police reform, Bynum has taken more moderate positions than Kotek on some issues. She said, as a rule, she always works across the aisle whenever she’s trying to get a bill passed.

KGW reached out to Kotek’s office for an interview, but received a statement instead:

“I’m honored to have the support of my caucus to continue serving Oregon and the chamber as House Speaker. Like every business and family in Oregon, the Legislature has been moving from crisis to crisis since February… I remain committed to continue working with every member to help all parts of the state to solve these immense challenges.”

Earlier this week, Kotek called for a special session in December to focus on economic recovery.

Bergstein said there’s some talk Kotek could be a good candidate for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. 

“There’s a question about whether she might be an attractive candidate for the Biden administration,” he said. “And so that people start thinking, well, gee, maybe there’s a power vacuum kind of evolving. And so people are trying to get in line.”

In response, Bynum said, “You know, what I think is the bigger factor is the gubernatorial election that’s coming up in two years.”

She didn’t elaborate on that, but Kotek’s name has been floated as a candidate in 2022, when Gov. Kate Brown’s final term ends.

RELATED: Movement to form ‘Greater Idaho’ gains steam as two rural Oregon counties vote to consider joining Idaho