Note to readers:
Capitol Chatter is on hiatus following the Special Session. Returning soon.
Let’s dive right into this week’s on-and-off special legislative session about redistricting. Here are six lessons.
1. House Speaker Tina Kotek plays hardball
That is not a revelation. But it gives Oregonians a glimpse at how the Portland Democrat might operate if elected governor next year.
Kotek abruptly pulled out of her agreement that gave Democrats and Republicans equal representation on the House redistricting committee. By canceling her end of the bargain, she could send congressional redistricting, which is the more contentious issue, through a Democrat-run committee and ensure passage.
Kotek usually figures out how to get her way. Remember back to May 2019, when a PERS-reform bill was two votes short of passage in the Oregon House. Kotek paused the vote count, went behind closed doors with Democratic Reps. Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego and Mitch Greenlick of Portland, and persuaded them to change their “no” votes to “yes.” Senate Bill 1049 became law.
Salinas chaired the House redistricting committee this year, then co-chaired it with Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, when Kotek evened the representation, and now chairs the two new redistricting committees with Boshart Davis effectively sidelined.
By the way, Kotek is not among the nine Democrats and Republicans who’ve officially filed to run for governor – she has until March 8, 2022, to do so – but she’s the highest-profile Democrat to announce so far.
2. Despite what they say publicly, Republicans and Democrats like gerrymandering if it benefits them
Some legislative proposals placed two or more incumbents in the same district. They’d have to run against each other for election. After complaints from both parties, the latest maps were reconfigured some boundaries so fewer incumbents would be affected.
Protecting incumbency is illegal under Oregon law, which states: “No district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring any political party, incumbent legislator or other person.”
3. Public input often is meaningless
The House and Senate redistricting committees held numerous public hearings this year. And then … poof! … the redistricting proposals appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
It is unclear what adjustments, if any, were made based on public comments as opposed to insider pressure from colleagues and Oregon’s congressional delegation.
4. Is it OK to break a political promise?
Kotek’s reversal on the power sharing with R’s was stunning yet not surprising. Too much is at stake for Democrats: creating congressional boundaries that virtually guarantee their party will hold five of Oregon’s now-six seats in the U.S. House. That has national implications.
The Democrats and Kotek found a way to justify her action. They blamed the Republicans for failing to negotiate in good faith. Republicans blamed the Democrats.
Look back again to 2019 when a similar promise unfolded in the Senate. Gov. Kate Brown brokered a deal with Senate Republicans to end their walkouts. In return, Senate Democrats agreed to kill certain legislation.
Then Senate Republicans walked out again, this time over House Bill 2020 on carbon cap and trade. Democrats screamed that Republicans were reneging on their deal ending walkouts. Republicans said that wasn’t so, and it was Democrats who weren’t playing fairly.
Meanwhile, Oregon Democrats this year lauded Democratic legislators in Texas who walked out for weeks in a vain attempt to prevent passage of restrictive voting-rights legislation. Oregon Democrats contended the significance of the Texas issue justified that walkout.
5. There’s a hierarchy of dislike
Republicans learned to work with Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and became some of his most ardent defenders, including helping him with legal and personal expenses from his ethics case – which turned out to be considerable ado about not much. Republicans preferred Kitzhaber over Secretary of State Brown, who gained the governorship when he resigned.
The GOP distrusts new Secretary of State Shemia Fagan even less than Brown. If lawmakers can’t finish the legislative redistricting by Monday, Fagan takes over. That scares Republicans, given her record as an ultra-liberal Democrat.
Fagan is prepared to appoint a People’s Commission to advise her work. Republicans fear it will be s a sham to provide cover for highly partisan legislative boundaries. The GOP much prefers the Democrats’ legislative redistricting plan that passed the Senate, although on a party-line vote, and awaits action in the House.
In contrast, the redrawing of congressional boundaries would go to a five-judge panel appointed by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters. Republicans would prefer that approach, hoping that those districts wouldn't favor Democrats as much. That’s also exactly why Democrats want to pass their congressional map into law.
6. Covid rules
This week’s special session already was bizarre by the time COVID-19 interfered. A positive case was reported involving an unidentified person connected with the Oregon House, so the House now is on hiatus until Saturday while members get tested.
The Senate adjourned its special session role on Monday after taking less than two hours to pass the legislative and congressional maps. If the House were to make any changes on Saturday, the Senate would have to return to Salem by Monday to act on them.
Meanwhile, House Republicans must decide the lesser of two evils for Saturday. If they boycott and deprive the House of a quorum to conduct business, Fagan takes over legislative redistricting but at least the Democrats’ partisan congressional plan dies. If they show up, that congressional plan undoubtedly will pass but so will the legislative redistricting plan that is better than what Fagan might do.
Of course, there could be a political breakthrough so legislators work things out. Don’t count on it.