Suzanne Weber recalls when the Oregon Capitol hallways were so crowded with lawmakers, lobbyists and other folks that she had to edge her way through sideways.
That was when she was a local government official coming from the coast to talk with lawmakers. The former mayor of Tillamook now is a legislator herself but is working in a quiet, uncrowded Capitol. For health protocols, the Capitol remains closed to the public as the 2021 Legislature toddles toward adjournment this weekend.
To take readers behind the scenes of this year’s session, I interviewed five first-time legislators this week: Rep. Weber, R-Tillamook; Democratic Reps. Maxine Dexter and Lisa Reynolds of Portland, Republican Rep. Bobby Levy of Echo, and Republican Sen. Dick Anderson of Lincoln City. I also requested interviews with several other Democrats and Republicans. I hope to write a future column or two with their stories.
During previous legislative sessions, issues frequently got resolved when lobbyists and others talked and walked alongside legislators who were scurrying between meetings. In contrast, 2021’s Capitol atmosphere is strange.
“It’s quiet and lonely,” Anderson said.
Good staffs, constant learning
“This has been a really exhilarating experience,” Weber said. “I hadn’t realized all the work that went on behind the scenes and all the people who were involved in what goes on behind the scenes.
“I have learned so much about the process of government. It’s challenging. It’s mind boggling – but not in a bad way.”
Said Anderson: “I’ve been impressed. The people are well-intended. In the most cases, good staffs, very cooperative. … I’ve felt good about how I’ve been treated and the intent of people.”
New legislators face an enormous learning curve. “I have been inspired and humbled by the process,” Dexter said. “What I realized is truly we have enormous capacity to make real change.”
Partisanship or not
Anderson was surprised by how often the party caucuses lock up legislators’ votes, so outcomes were determined along party. As mayors, he and Weber were used to operating on a nonpartisan basis.
Reynolds noted that the vast majority of bills pass with strong bipartisan majorities. For the most part, she said, Democrats and Republicans have more in common than they do differences.
“People show up every day ready to work hard to do what they think is the best thing overall for Oregonians,” she said. “People really put their heart and soul into making Oregon a better place.”
Of these five new legislators, Dexter is the most experienced. She was appointed a year ago to fill the vacancy created by the death of Rep. Mitch Greenlick, and was elected last fall to a full two-year term.
Dexter said last year’s special-session legislation on police reforms provided insights into bipartisanship. She cited the collaborative work of Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, and two Republicans who are former police chiefs, Ron Noble of McMinnville and Rick Lewis of Silverton.
Getting to know colleagues and their staffs was challenging this year without the impromptu conversations in hallways and elsewhere. Committee meetings are being conducted via videoconference, and some personal interactions remain restricted by the COVID-19 protocols.
“I’m a one-on-one kind of person – smaller groups – and I knew that was going to be a handicap, getting to know senators on a one-on-one basis,” Anderson said.
Still, connections get made.
“There are colleagues that I wasn’t expecting to have so much interpersonal trust and relationship-building time with,” Dexter said. “That’s been really important to the work that we’ve had to do in these extraordinary times.”
As for House Republicans, Levy described them as a tight-knit caucus that was inclusive of newcomers: “I have never felt better about a group of people – and I’ve worked with lots of groups of people – and more welcome.”
She has made lifelong friends, including some Democrats.
Levy believes the session would have played out differently if the public had been in the Capitol, enabling more conversations that find middle ground. ”We all love our district. We all want something for our district. We just can’t seem to find someplace in the middle,” she said.
It's difficult being in the minority party and not from an urban area. Republicans say urban Democrats don’t understand rural life but assume they do. “If we talk about our side of the state – so I’m in Eastern Oregon – they don’t get it and they don’t try to get it,” Levy said.
Weber’s early morning routine includes perusing her emails to see what trends have emerged in how people feel about issues. Some topics draw hundreds of comments.
For Dexter, one surprise was that many people don’t realize the capacity that legislators have to help constituents with government issues and that legislators have staff – paid with taxpayer dollars – to do so.
When some Oregonians are unhappy with her, Dexter tries to heed Geenlick’s advice about not taking things personally: “Nothing is personal as far as how it comes at me, but everything is personal in how people engage as far as from their perspective.”
And as Levy said: “It’s a learning experience every single day for me. And I enjoy it because I think it’s really important that the people in my district have somebody to speak for them.”