Kate Brown made history in more ways than one Wednesday, when she was sworn in as Oregon's new governor while her mother and husband stood proudly by.
The 54-year-old Democrat became the first person in state history to replace a chief executive who was forced to resign in disgrace.
And when she vowed to uphold the Oregon Constitution during a sober, 16-minute ceremony complete with color guard and prayer, Brown also became the first openly bisexual governor in the U.S.
In doing so, she kicked off a conversation about a slice of America that is often stigmatized and misunderstood. Advocates for the LGBTQ community — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning — cheered the milestone. Libertarian-leaning Oregon — liberal in Portland, conservative elsewhere — mostly yawned.
After all, Democrats and Republicans alike noted Wednesday, the former Oregon secretary of state has never hidden who she was, and Oregonians have already elected her to statewide office — not once but twice.
“I don't think anybody cares,” said Bob Moore, a Republican pollster. “The whole thing seems irrelevant to me. But what does it mean to be a bisexual and married? What does that mean?”
That is exactly the point, said Stacey Long Simmons, director of public policy and government affairs for the National LGBTQ Task Force. Brown's inauguration “gives us an opportunity to talk about the realities of what it means to be bisexual.”
“People want black and white, but bisexuals give them a gray they don't know what to do with,” Long Simmons said. “In some people's minds, it means you're promiscuous, not trustworthy — you're someone who doesn't belong here or there.”
In an essay posted on OutHistory.org, Brown wrote about not figuring out “who, or what,” she was until her early 30s. About feeling some days like she has “a foot in both worlds, yet never really belonging to either.” About coming out as bisexual to her Minnesota parents, who told her, “It would be much easier for us if you were a lesbian.”
And about the most frightening part of the whole out-of-the closet experience: having her colleagues in the Legislature discover her reality when the Oregonian newspaper wrote about her sexual orientation. She recalled sitting in the statehouse lounge at the start of the next legislative session.
“Representative Bill Markham, who is over 70 years old, extremely conservative, and a legislator for more than 20 years comes to join me,” Brown wrote in that online essay. “Over lunch he looks up to say, ‘Read in the Oregonian a few months ago you were bisexual. Guess that means I still have a chance?!'”
On Wednesday, though, Oregon's new governor spent less time talking about her personal life and more addressing the challenges ahead.
She gave a quick shout-out to her “large and wonderful family,” with special thanks to her mother, Sally Brown, and husband, Dan Little, whom she called her “rock.”
Then, she vowed to restore trust and integrity to a state rattled by the swift political demise of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, a fellow Democrat, who was forced to resign because of a swirling ethics scandal.
“The people of Oregon have reason to question their trust in state government,” Brown said. “Oregon has been in the national news for all the wrong reasons. That changes starting today.”
Brown, who served in the state Legislature for 17 years before being elected secretary of state, took the oath of office in a joint session of the Legislature, whose senior leaders had urged Kitzhaber to step down nearly a week ago amid allegations of influence peddling and other ethical breaches that led to state and federal investigations of him and his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, 47.
On Friday, the 67-year-old former emergency room physician obliged.
Among the allegations were that Hayes, Kitzhaber's partner of 10 years, ran a clean-energy consulting firm while advising him on energy policy, that she used her position to promote her clients, that she was paid handsomely to do so, and that she did not report that income on her taxes.
Questions abound about what Kitzhaber knew and when he knew it, and whether he was blind to her alleged activities or complicit in them. On Wednesday, the alternative newspaper Willamette Week reported that newly obtained emails show Hayes told Kitzhaber she wanted to leverage their relationship into an official state position and well-paying outside opportunities even as his staff was trying to rein her in.
On Wednesday, Brown vowed to act decisively to make sure state government wins back Oregonians' confidence and does not repeat the same transgressions. Former Democratic Govs. Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski were at the Capitol for the ceremony. Kitzhaber has not been seen in public in a week.
“I pledge to you today that for as long as I am your governor, I will not seek or accept any outside compensation, from any source,” she said. “And I pledge further that while I am governor the members of my household and the members of my staff will not seek or accept any outside compensation, from any source, for any work related to the business of the state of Oregon.
“That simply will not happen.”