Closed to the public, the Oregon State Capitol also will be temporarily off-limits to lawmakers and their staffs, interfering with the start of the 2021 Legislature.
“Out of an abundance of caution regarding building security,” according to legislative officials, the Senate and House floor sessions and all committee meetings have been canceled for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Lawmakers were told, “While any committee meeting would have taken place remotely, in-person staff must still manage the technology and operate the virtual hearings rooms from the Capitol.”
Tuesday is supposed to the opening day for this year’s session, which under the Oregon Constitution must end by 11:50 p.m. on June 28. But our country is on edge because of the violent mob assault on the U.S. Capitol last week, as well as the sometimes-violent protests in Salem, Portland and elsewhere.
Gov. Kate Brown, like governors in a number of other states, has called out the National Guard to bolster security in advance of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday.
Salem Police said they and Oregon State Police are “aware of potential demonstrations and civil unrest at the Oregon State Capitol this weekend” and next Tuesday and Wednesday. “Based on current information, the protest start times vary between 9 a.m. and noon.”
OSP conducted security training this week for folks who work in the Capitol, including journalists.
And in a statement, FBI Special Agent Renn Cannon said: “The FBI in Oregon is running a command post to gather intelligence and coordinate with our law enforcement partners on potential threats. We also have special agents, bomb technicians, the FBI Evidence Response Team, tactical teams, intelligence teams, and others to support investigations and counter any potential threat of violence to the state capitol, federal buildings, and our shared community.”
Among the canceled legislative meetings is the Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health and Recovery, which I find ironic because Oregon could use some help with its mental status.
Brown will give her annual State of the State Address at 10:30 a.m. Thursday on YouTube and the legislative website. The traditional joint session of the House and Senate is deemed too dangerous for potentially spreading COVID-19.
Committee meetings via videoconference also might start on Thursday, followed by floor sessions to move bills along in the process. Actual action is weeks or months away.
Nearman saga continues: One legislator who’s been uninvited to committees is Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, removed him from legislative committees and imposed other penalties.
That came after security footage showed Nearman opening a locked Capitol door on Dec. 21, 2020. Protesters then entered the building, which had remained closed to the public. A special legislative session was in progress.
Kotek has called for his resignation: “His actions have created immense fear among legislators and Capitol staff. I believe he should resign immediately because he has already breached the public trust and endangered our ability to safely conduct the people’s business.”
That apparently is not going to happen soon, if at all.
Nearman read a letter on the House floor during the Legislature’s organizational session on Monday, agreeing to temporarily give up his badge that provides around-the-clock access to the Capitol, to not let unauthorized persons into the building and to provide 24 hours’ notice before being at the Capitol.
“The Speaker felt strongly that we needed to have immediate safety measures in place, in addition to other actions she and the House could take. Rep. Nearman agreed to sign the letter and read it on the floor,” Kotek’s communications director, Danny Moran, said by email Thursday when I asked about the letter.
On Tuesday, Nearman had issued a 548-word statement in which he neither confirmed nor denied that he let protesters into the building. But he did take aim at the Multnomah County district attorney for not prosecuting one of Kotek’s staffers who was involved in Portland protests, and at the news media for not asking “tough questions” of Kotek.
“I hope for due process, and not the mob justice to which Speaker Kotek is subjecting me,” he said.
The security footage shows Nearman pushing a side door wide open and exiting. A protester immediately walks in, gradually joined by others. There is no sound, so it’s unknown whether Nearman said anything to the protesters. As the scene unfolds, OSP troopers and Salem Police officers confront the protesters and try to push them out. Someone sprays a chemical irritant toward officers.
Nearman concluded Tuesday’s statement with, “I implore the Capitol leadership to open the building to the public as required by the Oregon Constitution.”
What is political influence?: Most of the Legislature’s work takes place in committees, though many consequential decisions are made behind closed-doors and only acted upon in public. Nearman’s loss of committee assignments won’t significantly alter whatever influence he has.
He largely has been an outlier, a dedicated ideologue but with little perceived clout within the Capitol. First elected in 2014, he has withstood election challenges from more middle-of-the road Republicans, independents and Democrats. He is a former chair of the Polk County Republican Party.
Nearman is listed as being from Independence because that is the city closest to his rural residence. However, Independence City Manager Tom Pessemier has sent out a press release emphasizing, “Rep. Mike Nearman is NOT the elected state representative for Independence.” That representative is Paul Evans, D-Monmouth.
Nearman is known for fighting public employee unions and illegal immigration, including previously serving on the Oregonians For Immigration Reform board. He has filed potential ballot measures for next year that would fill judicial vacancies by election instead of appointment; suspend state agencies’ administrative rules so they could be reviewed by the Legislature; curb the Legislature’s use of the “emergency” clause; and require that the Environmental Quality Commission have members from the mining, agricultural, manufacturing and timber communities.
In 2019, the individual-liberty, small-government Freedom Foundation announced Nearman as its Oregon state director. He currently is listed as a senior fellow instead.
Nearman’s legislative biography, which ranks among the more interesting ones, says: “After graduating from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he returned to Oregon to help with the family office furniture business. Almost too late in life, he completed a degree in Computer Science from Western Oregon University, confirming once and for all that he is now educated beyond his intelligence.
“He's held a variety of jobs. He has been a cab driver, a dishwasher, a grave digger, a computer support technician, a mover, a call center supervisor (as in ‘can I speak to your supervisor?’), and most recently a software engineer.”
As the world turns: Kotek appointed Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, to four committees for the 2021 Legislature after stripping him of all committee assignments. She also had called for his resignation from the Legislature amid allegations of sexual harassment. Voters reelected him in November.
Hernandez’s case before the House Conduct Committee remains unresolved.