Tina Kotek Says She's a Defender of Women. She Has a History of Ignoring Sexual Harassment Complaints.

A 2018 investigation found the Democratic gubernatorial candidate fostered a 'sexually hostile environment' in the Oregon statehouse

Democratic Oregon gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek / Getty Images
November 2, 2022

Tina Kotek has built an image as a protector of "women's rights," touting her efforts to end workplace discrimination and defend survivors of sexual assault throughout her career.  But a review of her time as Oregon House speaker reveals a record of neglect and disregard for sexual harassment.

Complaints and lawsuits filed at the height of the #MeToo movement allege that Kotek for years ignored accusations of sexual misconduct against state lawmakers. One of those complaints alleges that a lawmaker groped female state senators as well as interns—and that Kotek looked the other way. Another charges that a state representative told a young woman working in the legislature "to get ready for a birthday spanking," according to notes Kotek took about the incident, but that Kotek did nothing. And an investigation by Oregon's labor commissioner in 2018 found Kotek had fostered a "sexually hostile environment in the Capitol."

That record is a far cry from the pro-woman advocacy she's leaned on throughout her gubernatorial run, during which she has told voters that she has "fought to advance equity for women" and described herself as a "leader with a proven record of standing up for women's rights and protections." With a week to go until Election Day, Kotek is in a close race against Republican opponent Christine Drazan, with the RealClearPolitics average giving Drazan a 1.7-point lead. Kotek served as House speaker from 2013 to 2022, when she announced her run for governor.

But Jackie Sandmeyer, an official tasked with handling misconduct complaints in the Oregon legislature, said Kotek was willing to do anything to keep her office quiet.

"Kotek thinks she is a tough lesbian, but really she will try to bribe you to keep you quiet," Sandmeyer told her successor as legislative equity officer, Nate Monson. "She'll offer you whatever you want—money, resources for the office."

Kotek allowed female interns to work for state senator Jeff Kruse (R.) even though she knew he had a history of groping female colleagues, the labor commissioner's investigation revealed. State senator Sara Gelser had accused Kruse in 2016 of sexually harassing her before the interns were hired at the close of the year. Kruse called the interns "sexy" and subjected them to "a lot of hugging," occasionally trailing his fingers across the bottom of their breasts, an independent investigator found.

The report also revealed that Kotek kept notes in 2013 on a Democratic state representative who joked about introducing a female aide as a "stripper" on the House floor, the Oregonian reported. Kotek knew about the incident four years before it surfaced.

In 2017, Kotek said the representative was made aware that his conduct was inappropriate and that the complainant was satisfied with the way in which the matter had been resolved. She also said in 2019 she disagrees with the labor commissioner's report and is "committed to the ongoing work to make the Capitol a model workplace free of harassment."

That same year, a legal aide in the legislature sued Kotek and the state Senate president for failing to protect her from being fired after she reported the accusations against Kruse. Gail Stevens, a former deputy legislative counsel, said her boss, Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson, let her go after she had "reported unlawful conduct, mismanagement, and abuses of power at the Oregon State Capitol."

Kotek's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Monson, Oregon's most recent legislative equity officer, filed a lawsuit this year alleging that Kotek and other legislators similarly pushed him out of his job after he uncovered other sexual harassment complaints. One involved Democratic state representative Diego Hernandez, who resigned in 2021 following sexual harassment accusations from five women.

Hernandez's case has shed light on what some legislators view as a pattern of general workplace abuse from Kotek. In a separate workplace complaint, a legislator testifying before a House committee in October said that Kotek created a hostile work environment as speaker and drove Hernandez to the point of suicide, the Associated Press reported. That committee deadlocked on Monday over the accusation, with two Democrats voting against holding Kotek responsible, saying her conduct was neither "severe or pervasive."

Melissa Healy, an attorney at Stoel Rives law firm in Portland, investigated Hernandez's case and found that Kotek's behavior hadn't crossed any lines. Healy donated thousands of dollars during Kotek's speakership to the Campaign for Equal Justice, a left-wing legal group on whose advisory committee Kotek has served since 2013.

Stoel Rives is also one of two law firms tasked with operating the Oregon legislature's equity office after Monson left his post.

Kotek's performance against Drazan has Democrats worried they may lose Oregon in the upcoming election. The Democratic Governors Association and other liberal groups have spent millions in the state in the past two months.