Gov. Kate Brown is “likeable,” but that isn’t why Oregon should elect her

This wasn’t the week for the Willamette Week to describe Gov. Kate Brown as “unlikeable.” To back up this claim, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Nigel Jaquiss quotes pollsters saying Brown’s “negatives” are higher than popular Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, as well as former Gov. John Kitzhaber (before the scandal that resulted in Kate Brown becoming the state’s governor). After quoting three Democrats who say they are voting for Brown’s opponent, Jaquiss concludes that Kate Brown’s campaign is “in trouble.”

I’m a former newspaper journalist who went on to get a PhD in Leadership Studies, so I understand how it can be both true and misleading to say that someone’s “negatives” are higher than someone else’s. Moreover, I understand how women in leadership positions are often judged on “likeability” in ways that men are not.

The expectations for women in the public arena could not have been clearer than they were during the recent testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Ford needed to be measured in her tone and emotion. She needed to not only be credible but “likeable.” Judge Kavanaugh — and Sen. Lindsay Graham — could be aggressive, angry, sarcastic, and belligerent without worrying that their “unlikeable” behavior would discredit them.

Many women came away from that experience determined to speak their truth without regard for whether they look “unlikeable,” and that’s a particularly necessary quality for anyone who is seeking high political office. Governors have to make hard choices, and Gov. Kate Brown has done so from highly principled positions that support children, health care, reproductive rights, and the environment. But we know from research that while leaders are expected to be decisive and assertive, when women behave that way, they’re seen as “inauthentic,” that is, not ladylike, that is, “unlikeable.”

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If this question of “likeability” — and the unsupported conclusion that this means Gov. Brown’s campaign is in trouble — sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a claim that dogged Hillary Clinton in 2016. Although Clinton was clearly the more qualified and prepared candidate for the presidency, the news media repeatedly drew readers back to the notion that “voters just don’t like her.” Donald Trump’s “negatives” were far higher than Clinton, but this wasn’t presented as a disqualifying factor the way it was for Clinton. Indeed, in his Willamette Week article, Jaquiss does not even discuss Knute Buehler’s “likeability.” Men can be unlikeable; women cannot.

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It’s not surprising that Senators Wyden and Merkley, who have a long history of service, are among the more popular senators in the country. According to Morning Consult, their “negatives” in July were 26% while Kate Brown, who has been governor for less than four years, had negatives of 41%. So it is true that Brown’s negatives are higher than theirs. What Jaquiss does not say is that Brown’s “approvals” in July were higher than her “negatives,” which makes Jaquiss’ claim that “Oregonians just don’t like her” simply untrue.

Some Oregonians don’t like her, but more Oregonians do. Even more important, however, is that Kate Brown would make the better governor, and that is what matters most. If we take anything away from recent history, it is that pre-election scrutiny should focus on the qualifications for leadership that matter.