Now that Gov. Kate Brown has made it official that she’ll be a candidate in 2016 for the state’s highest office, the pressure will be mounting on her to address a question that her predecessor, John Kitzhaber, managed to duck: Where will she stand if it comes time to enforce Oregon’s death penalty?
A recent story in The Oregonian reminded us of one of Brown’s earliest promises when she assumed office in the wake of Kitzhaber’s February resignation: She said she would convene a small group of advisers to help her think through the issue. The important thing, she said, was for voters to have a clear sense of her position in the event she stood for election in 2016.
Well, now one of those shoes has officially dropped, although it didn’t exactly qualify as a surprise: Brown confirmed last week that she’ll be running next year.
So what’s the status of the other shoe? Brown’s office told The Oregonian that it’s just getting started now on its study of the issue. Brown spokeswoman Kristen Grainger told the newspaper that office attorney Ben Souede will lead an effort to get “legal advice on the practical aspects related to capital punishment in Oregon.”
Sounds good so far. But here’s the catch: Grainger said the goal is to have recommendations in place before the fall of 2016 — which means those recommendations could come after the election.
Which means voters may be casting ballots without any much of a sense where Brown stands on the issue.
You’ll recall that Kitzhaber imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Oregon in 2011, saying that he believed capital punishment had “devolved into an unworkable system that fails to meet the basic standards of justice. … I am still convinced that we can find a better solution that holds offenders accountable and keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values.”
Here’s the problem with invoking Oregon values in this case: The last time voters weighed in on the issue, they supported the death penalty. It’s true that three decades have passed since that vote, and it may be that voters’ values have changed since then. But we don’t know for sure (a 2012 poll suggested that 57 percent of Oregonians still support the death penalty), and neither Kitzhaber nor Brown has seemed eager to push the issue.
Brown has said she personally opposes the death penalty. But she has declined to rule out reinstating executions, as she tries to find a balance between her views and her duty to enforce the laws of the state. She’s raised questions about the logistics of capital punishment, which suggests she may be looking to find a safe harbor from which to maintain the state’s moratorium.
She appears to have the luxury of time: None of the state’s 35 death row inmates is facing execution any time soon. But as she hits the campaign trail next year, voters should press Brown to explain exactly how she intends to deal with the death penalty, which, after all, remains the law of the state.