Advice for Progressives from America’s Radical Feminist Governor

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Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, after her Inaugural Address, in Salem, in early January.Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, after her Inaugural Address, in Salem, in early January.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY DON RYAN

How to resist Trump? Early the other morning, I put the question to Oregon’s Kate Brown, who in November became the first L.G.B.T. person to be elected governor of an American state, after being appointed to the position in 2015. “At my age, I can go pretty solidly for twelve hours,” Brown, who is fifty-six years old, said. “So, if you have a nine-to-five job, that gives you a couple of hours to be at your local airport to protest the immigration order. It gives you time to go to a League of Women Voters meeting to help register people. It gives you time to go online and research which organization you’re going to donate money to. It gives you time to help you connect to your family and friends in states that have key senators.” When I suggested that this sounded pretty onerous, she doubled down: “It’s going to require more than you’re bargaining for. Activism will change your life.”

Of Trump’s many political opposites, Brown, who is known to do headstands to prepare for important meetings, may be the closest to being his personal antithesis: a former family lawyer and women’s-rights activist who identifies as bisexual, she is approachably fierce, “a combination of Snoopy and Katniss Everdeen,” according to one of her old friends, Kristin Grainger, who lives next door to Brown in southeast Portland, and who until recently served as her communications director. After Brown stepped into the governor’s mansion from the Oregon secretary of state’s office—her predecessor, John Kitzhaber, resigned amid a corruption scandal—Portland Monthly published a list of her “upsides” and “downsides.” Among the former: “Not entirely impossible to imagine her morning motivational speech in mirror includes the words ‘You slay.’ ” Among the latter: “Still hasn’t apologized for pastime of following her favorite folk band around Oregon.”

Despite the temptation to write Brown off as the “Portlandia” governor, she won Oregon by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton did, and she’s supported by a solid Democratic majority in the legislature. Her state, among the nation’s most liberal, is the only one that has committed to eliminating coal-fired electricity, and it has long prohibited local authorities from enforcing federal immigration laws. This is all to say that Brown may well have the broadest mandate of any progressive politician in the country, and, like a left-wing Scott Walker, she will try to push through a radical agenda—in her case, one that could include everything from cap-and-trade to universal health care. When I asked her if Oregon might secede, she laughed: “Interesting! No, but when I was in college I did read ‘Ecotopia’ ”—Ernest Callenbach’s novel about the Pacific Northwest breaking off into a rogue ecological state—“and I want to go back and read it now.”

We were talking in the back of Housing Works, a SoHo bookshop-café whose proceeds go toward H.I.V./AIDS advocacy. Politics being politics, Brown, who, following a special election, will serve out the second two years of her predecessor’s term, had come to New York for meetings related to her 2018 reëlection campaign. The night before, she’d had dinner with Win McCormack, an Oregonian who owns The New Republic, and she had a full day of hobnobbing ahead. And yet, apart from the security detail watching from a nearby table, she looked like any other huddled-over café regular. When I walked in, she was reading “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead, on a dinged-up iPad. A thin Columbia anorak hung from her chair, dangly sterling-silver feathers from her ears. I asked about them. “Oregon’s motto is, literally, ‘She flies with her own wings,’ ” she said. “Or maybe you know ‘birdwing,’ your yoga word for ‘opening.’ ”

Brown has long been ahead of the progressive curve. “I was born a feminist,” she told me. When I asked if she identifies as a radical feminist—one of Brown’s staffers had told me, with some hesitation, that she did—she readily assented, though she added, “There’s no question that this has been a white middle-class feminism, and what I see happening is the change: it’s more inclusive, and I think that’s long overdue.” Brown would know: in 1973, when she was thirteen years old, growing up in middle-class Roseville, Minnesota, she took advantage of Republican outrage over Roe v. Wade to convince her mother, a retired P.E. teacher, to become a Democrat. In the mid-eighties, after getting a degree in environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Brown headed west, to Lewis & Clark Law School, in Portland, where “I was, shall we say, introduced to lesbianism,” she told me.

It’s hard to see Brown’s progressivism as aloof or calculated. At Lewis & Clark, she took one of the only women-and-the-law classes that was available anywhere in the mid-eighties, and began volunteering at the Portland Feminist Women’s Health Center, protecting women who were getting abortions and the doctors who provided them. When she started practicing family law at a local firm, she protested that a male junior colleague made more than her, and a partner told her, “Well, we want to pay people based on merit.” Brown, who since 1997 has been married to a retired forester named Dan Little, has also spoken publicly about an earlier relationship in which she was the victim of domestic violence.

As we talked, Brown sipped a hot chocolate. “I’m naturally caffeinated,” she said. This much was clear a couple of weeks ago, when she took to Salem’s Capitol Mall during the Women’s March there, donning a pink pussyhat and delivering the kind of speech that many had dreamed of Hillary Clinton giving: “In my Oregon, and under my leadership, women are in charge of their own bodies,” she said, shaking with her fist. “In my Oregon, immigrants and refugees are welcome with open arms.” She ended with a call to action, then turned to someone behind her and did an ear-cupping pantomime that is a regular feature of her speeches. Then she turned back toward the Mall: “Are you willing to fight?” The crowd screamed this time; in the front row, a wheelchair-bound woman raised her sign and shook it: “Proud to be 94 and ‘nasty.’ ”

Brown believes that we are traversing the arc of justice even now, when the movement feels imperceptible. As an example, she gave me a mini-history of gay rights in Oregon. She was appointed to a vacant Assembly seat in 1991, after being noticed in the legislature as the Women’s Rights Coalition advocate, and immediately began fighting anti-gay ballot measures. (This was before she was outed by the Oregonian as bisexual.) But it wasn’t until 2007 that the state passed comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, which finally seemed to generate momentum: a relatively short time afterward, in Brown’s first months as governor, she was able to sign bills prohibiting so-called conversion therapy in Oregon and enacting broad protections for transgender students. “It was a thirty-year fight,” she said.

Collecting her things and putting them in a weathered hiking backpack, Brown told me that progressives must prepare to pounce even as they lick their wounds. She ticked off a list of longstanding left-wing priorities: reforming voting rights (“This Administration will reduce access to the polls”); replacing the Electoral College (“It’s just not an accurate reflection of democracy today”); and undoing Citizens United (“Amending the Constitution is hard work, so we better get started, right?”). Wasn’t it fantastical, I asked Brown, to mention such prescriptions at a time like this? She shrugged. “I think that under Obama there was a level of complacency in this country that it was going to be O.K. Now we know that this is not going to be easy. It may feel like you’re hitting your head against a wall. But, in the end, that only makes you stronger.”