Oregon Democrats select first lesbian House speaker

Oregon Democrats select first lesbian House speaker
State Representative Tina Kotek was selected by Democrats Thursday night to be the next House speaker in Oregon. She will be Oregon's first openly gay House speaker.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon House Democrats voted Thursday to make Rep. Tina Kotek of Portland the nation's first openly lesbian woman to lead a state legislative chamber, another milestone from an election that brought a series of victories to the gay community.

Kotek as House speaker is almost a certainty, but her speakership still has to be formally ratified in January.

With the selection of Kotek, openly gay leaders will control the House or Senate in five of the 50 states — more than ever before, and up from two before last week's election, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

"For many years we were building a bench of openly gay officials who could step into those roles, and now we're seeing that around the country," said Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, a national group that helps gay candidates get elected to offices at all levels.

The organization backed 180 candidates this year, and 122 of them won, Dison said.

Kotek said she didn't set out to break barriers but is honored to represent the gay community. It's important for the gay community to have role models in leadership positions, she said.

"We all look for people out there who look like us," she said.

"I have had emails and text messages from people who are very excited," Kotek said. "I think any time you have a 'first' it's an important thing for the community."

Kotek has represented a liberal district in the heart of Portland since 2007. She became the No. 2 leader in the Oregon House in 2011 after convincing her Democratic colleagues to oust her predecessor following a legislative session that left many of them frustrated by Republican successes. She oversaw campaign efforts that helped her party pick up four House seats and grab the majority last week.

Kotek ran unopposed for speaker, and her colleagues selected her for the job in a closed-door meeting Thursday evening. She won't formally take over as speaker until the new Legislature convenes in January.

"Now the real work begins," Kotek said in a statement after the vote. "Oregon continues to face many serious challenges, and the public is counting on us to tackle them head on."

Once they all take office next year, five states will have openly gay leaders at the helm of the House or Senate.

In Washington, Ed Murray was chosen by his Democratic colleagues Tuesday to be Senate majority leader, the top job. Colorado Democrats last week nominated Mark Ferrandino to be House speaker.

John Perez in California and Gordon Fox in Rhode Island have led the lower chambers in their states since 2010.

Oregon House Democrats also selected Rep. Val Hoyle, D-West Eugene, to be House majority leader as well as Rep. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, as speaker pro tempore, Rep. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, as majority whip, Rep. Jules Bailey as deputy majority whip and Rep. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Rep. Betty Komp, D-Woodburn, as assistant majority leaders.

Last week House Republicans elected Rep. Mike McLane of Powell Butte to be House minority leader.

The House had an even number of Republicans and Democrats during the last two sessions. But after the election earlier this month, Democrats retook four seats and became the majority in the House, 34-26.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

KATU.com staff contributed to this report.