Capital Chatter: Will rally sway lawmakers?

At 5:30 a.m. Thursday, the Oregon Capitol was eerily quiet.

My arrival was so early that the city of Salem parking meter wouldn't even allow me to pay for the day. Worried about not finding a parking place, I had heeded the advice to get a super-early start on my 12-minute commute and avoid the Let's Roll caravans that were predicted to clog Oregon's highways and Salem's streets enroute to the Timber Unity rally.

As I typed away in the Capitol Galleria, the silence was broken only by the occasional footsteps of a facilities employee or a state trooper walking the halls. Outside, the clank of metal sounded as an awning was erected for speakers at the Timber Unity rally. Gradually, the blare of truck horns filled the air.

Log trucks, farm trucks and more circled the Capitol area. It was perhaps the most polite traffic I've seen in downtown Salem. With rally activities on both sides of Court Street NE, drivers displayed no impatience as vehicles stacked up while pedestrians crossed back and forth.

The rally was to reiterate and reinforce rural and Republican opposition to the new version of carbon cap and trade legislation that derailed in last year's Legislature. But it also became an event for self-promotion by Republican candidates, for registering voters, for signing initiative petitions, for assailing Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and for honoring lawmakers who opposed last year's House Bill 2020.

One of those was Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. She got the crowd going by declaring that last year's climate bill was bad and this year's retooled bill is bad again. By showing up in large numbers, she said, participants were showing lawmakers that the bill will have a real impact on real Oregonians — a negative impact.

Similar cheers greeted House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, of Canby, and other speakers.

A stream of buses, including ones fueled by renewable diesel, ferried rally participants from several sites in Marion and Polk counties. But a couple from Keizer said they arrived a half-hour before the rally's start and found ample free parking in a Salem parkade a few blocks from the Capitol.

How large was the crowd? Who knows. That is the bane of a journalist's existence. Crowd estimates are unscientific, unless you're examining an aerial photo, individually counting people in a few sections and then extrapolating.

One reporter guessed several hundred, another 800. I offered the highly imprecise "a rough guess is somewhere around 1,000, maybe." Lots of wiggle room there.

But I could have been way off. Late Thursday afternoon, an organizer told me 1,100 trucks participated and the crowd was estimated at 9,000 people.

Whatever the size, it was expected to be the largest rally during this year's short legislative session, although groups supporting the carbon bill are holding the Oregon Climate Emergency Day of Action on Feb. 11 at the Capitol.

Will Thursday's rally influence legislative outcomes? When I asked House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, that question on Monday, she diplomatically said legislators always appreciate Oregonians showing up to make their views known.

Dylan Kruse of Sustainable Northwest, like Kotek a staunch advocate for carbon cap and trade legislation, expressed a similar sentiment when I ran into him Thursday morning.

"It's a noisy rally," he said, chuckling. "They've certainly got a few trucks out here.

"Good for these people for coming out. That's what we've pushed all along. If you've got a problem with the bill, show up, work with us, make it better, make sure your voice is heard. And then let's vote on it [in legislative committees] and see what the Legislature wants to do. I'm just happy that people are still engaged."

Kruse said advocates have made many changes to address opponents' concerns.

Not enough to please Mike Pihl, a logger from Vernonia and president of the Timber Unity Association.

"This cap and trade bill cannot pass. It will stifle the economy of Oregon, not just rural Oregon but all of Oregon," he told me. "And we're here today in a responsible manner to make sure it does not pass."

Pihl acknowledged that Democrats — most of them — support the legislation anyway, while Republicans already are aligned with Timber Unity in opposing it.

One value of these rallies is the invigorate the public and the politicians who agree with a rally's cause. Thursday's event undoubtedly reinforced Republican senators' willingness to walk out again — keeping the Senate from having a quorum to conduct business, thereby stopping approval of a carbon bill.

Kruse said that would be a big political gamble for Republicans, because voters oppose a walkout by a 2-to-1 ratio.

But Republicans have found strong support in their home districts – and at the rally. A sign posted in front of the rally tent read, "I support short session walkout."

When I talked with Oregon Republican Party chair Bill Currier at the rally, he said, "If they need to walk out again to prevent a quorum to represent their constituents, I fully support that. And so do the people."

Timber Unity representatives met Thursday morning with Gov. Kate Brown. But there's little hint of a resolution.

With both sides dug in and talking past each other, the lobbyists and others who work inside the Capitol are treading on political eggshells, waiting to see when the legislative session blow ups and counting the days until adjournment … whenever that arrives.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at,, or

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