Twenty years ago, Democrats in the Oregon Legislature were publicly incensed about the redistricting plan created by then-Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. The plan arbitrarily benefitted Republican candidates. Or so the Democrats said.
Ah, but their lamentations were for show. In reality, Democrats were downright giddy about how they would profit from fellow Democrat Bradbury’s plan. Their public handwringing was merely a ruse to dispel the notion that Bradbury was guilty of pro-Democrat bias.
The Democrats’ target audience? The Oregon Supreme Court.
The ruse largely succeeded. The court rejected almost all arguments against the plan, leaving Oregonians stuck with gerrymandered legislative districts. In one infamous example, the district boundary for Republican Sen. Jason Atkinson of Jacksonville was moved slightly – just far enough to exclude his residence.
Bradbury’s blatant partisanship could be repeated this year under Secretary of State Shemia Fagan unless the Legislature bucks history and actually agrees on a redistricting plan.
This year’s process has been upended by court cases and late results from the 2020 U.S. Census.
Generally, if the Legislature fails to settle redistricting, the responsibility moves to the secretary of state. If there’s no legislative agreement on congressional boundaries, the courts decide those districts.
In both instances, Democrats have an advantage. Fagan is a progressive Democrat. The Oregon Supreme Court remains reliably progressive, thanks to the judicial appointments by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
These realities make the recent agreement between House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, particularly intriguing.
House Republicans no longer will slow the process by insisting that bills be read aloud in full before voting. In return, Kotek reconfigured the House Redistricting Committee to have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. She and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, also deviated from the usual budget process and gave all legislators several million dollars in federal money to spend on projects in their district.
More about that unique agreement in a moment. But first, what’s at stake.
Redistricting is the process every 10 years of redrawing legislative and congressional lines to equalize the number of people in each district.
“It matters because it makes up the state Legislature and who represents you in Congress,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, the newly appointed co-chair of the House committee. She said having equal representation on the committee opens the door to having equitable political representation in Oregon for the next decade.
Redistricting is even more complicated this year because Oregon will gain a sixth congressional seat, thanks to our population growth and other states’ declines. The boundaries of every current district will be affected, including that of the lone Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, Cliff Bentz in the 2nd District.
To reduce the likelihood of gerrymandering, some states have turned redistricting over to independent, nonpartisan commissions. A ballot measure effort to do that in Oregon died last year amid the pandemic. An independent redistricting task force convened by the late Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson previously faltered.
Regardless of which political party is in power, that party doesn’t want to give up its ability to draw partisan lines while keeping a straight face and promising fair, reasonable, nonpartisan decisions. Incumbents of both parties look out for themselves; they want district boundaries that ensure their re-election. Thus, Oregon has few competitive districts.
Drazan said the Republican agreement with Kotek at least gives Oregonians a chance for less-partisan redistricting. Kotek added Drazan to the redistricting committee and elevated Boshart Davis to serve as co-chair with Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego.
The committee meets Friday, April 30, for the first time since Kotek made the changes. Boshart Davis will have the gavel, meaning she runs this meeting.
The committee is still collecting information, not drawing lines. That will happen late this summer and early fall, presumably followed by a special legislative session to turn the new boundaries into law. Of course, that assumes that the House, Senate and governor all agree.
For her part, Salinas did not appear pleased with her committee changes, writing in her constituent newsletter: “Prior to these appointments, Democrats held 3 of the 5 seats on the committee, and I held the gavel. I will now Co-Chair, and Democrats hold only 3 of the 6 seats.”
However, Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River, told her constituents: “I’ll be honest with you: this may be harder for me, politically, but I think it’s good for the state and for the country. As a swing member who narrowly won my last election, I probably stood to benefit from a redistricting process under Democratic control. Our district could have been reshaped in a way that would include more likely Democratic voters and fewer likely Republican voters. That outcome is unlikely now, under a dual-party redistricting system – and that’s a good thing!”
But the House is only half the Legislature. Courtney has given no indication that he will equalize membership on the Senate Redistricting Committee. It’s also telling that Kotek and Courtney did not create a unified House-Senate redistricting committee this year and instead had each chamber go its own way.
Democrats still hold the majority of the redistricting cards. But Republicans made progress and achieved a big win by getting $240 million in federal pandemic relief divided among all 90 legislative districts, instead of having that spending determined by the Democrat-controlled Joint Ways & Means Committee.
That is a fraction of the approximately $2.6 billion in discretionary funds headed to Oregon under the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. And legislators previously suggested more than $30 billion in such projects.
Each senator will have $4 million for one-time projects and each representative $2 million. Legislators have until May 10 to submit their plans, which will be vetted against the ARPA guidelines.
Probably because they’re being lobbied by constituents and interest groups, most legislators have not announced their choices. Courtney, for example, previously proposed five times as much money – $20.4 million – for projects involving affordable housing for veterans and for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, and a regional career/technical education center.
Among the few who have revealed their plans, Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, will direct his $4 million to the East Umatilla Fire & Rescue District for a new fire station and headquarters. The district, which is in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, serves several small communities as well as providing wildland protection.
Hansell likes this allocation process because legislators get the same amount to spend locally instead of believing that some other region is getting all the money.
Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, has said he would use his share to help small-town St. Paul fix its water and sewage systems. Communities throughout Oregon face similar infrastructure problems, with pipes dating to the early 20th century.
The climate outside and inside the Capitol: Republicans in both chambers have been under pressure from some constituents and interest groups to boycott floor sessions and thus block the supermajority Democrats from passing gun-control and other contentious legislation. However, House rules created by Democrats allow Kotek to impose a $500 daily fine for any member whose unexcused absence results in the lack of a quorum to conduct business.
Though House Republicans no longer require word-by-word reading of bills, Senate Republicans did so this week. A kerfuffle occurred Thursday when some senators were irritated that the speed had been upped on the computerized voice now being used to read bills.
Senate dynamics are particularly dicey with its three caucuses: 18 Democrats, who not infrequently are at odds among themselves; 10 Republicans; and two Independents, Brian Boquist of Dallas and now Art Robinson of Cave Junction.
Republicans and Democrats in each chamber have taxpayer-funded caucus offices and staffs, which Boquist and Robinson also are seeking – so far, unsuccessfully.
In other news: Oregon could become one of the first U.S. legislatures with unionized employees. Legislative assistants will vote by secret mail ballot May 6-27 on whether to be represented by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89.