Oregon voters have passed a new state motto last week: “Keep Oregon politics weird.”
In the past few days, the state elections director has been fired — via text message — despite a seemingly successful mail election that drew an 82% turnout. Oregon’s longest-serving House speaker faces a rebellion. A special legislative session apparently is among the latest victims of the coronavirus. The governor’s top aide is headed to the Biden-Harris transition team. And while the nation focuses on close races elsewhere, Oregon has its own election uncertainties.
Let’s start with that last point.
The GOP picked up a coastal seat in the Senate, as voters chose Lincoln City Mayor Dick Anderson to succeed the retiring Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay. Among the election peculiarities is that Anderson won in Coos County, where the Democratic candidate Melissa Cribbins is a county commissioner, but lost on his home turf of Lincoln County. (By varying margins, Anderson prevailed in Lane, Douglas, Polk, Tillamook and Yamhill counties).
In Salem, Republican Sen. Denyc Boles and Democrat Deb Patterson remained 505 votes apart, with Patterson’s lead growing gradually. In Hood River, Democratic Rep. Anna Williams was 175 votes ahead of former Republican Rep. Jeff Helfrich. Of the 38,845 votes counted so far, 1,039 went to Libertarian Stephen Alder.
Several other legislative races remained relatively close but seemed unlikely to change as the final ballots are tallied. Voters have until Nov. 17 to fix missing or incorrect signatures on their ballots.
Republicans have already gained one House seat. Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber defeated Debbie Boothe-Schmidt of Warrenton.
House Democrats are not thrilled about losing any seats, despite maintaining their hefty majority. That could play into some members’ supporting the upstart bid of Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, to become the House’s presiding officer. Capitol onlookers say Bynum is making a credible but difficult challenge against Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.
House Democrats are scheduled to meet Monday via video conference. The full House elects the speaker, but Democrats typically unify behind whoever their caucus has chosen, rather than someone becoming speaker through a coalition of disgruntled Democrats and Republicans.
Bynum, who has not been one to seek the political limelight, is a fascinating challenger. She holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering – she was a steering systems engineer for General Motors – and a master’s in business. She and her husband own McDonald’s restaurants, making her one of the few legislative Democrats with a significant background in business.
There are several reasons that some colleagues might support Bynum. One is the opportunity to have a person of color lead the House, especially after a year in which civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement have galvanized Oregon’s attention. Bynum, who is Black, has emerged as a legislative leader on police accountability and racial justice.
Some Democrats are irritated with Kotek for stripping Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, of his committee roles and calling for his resignation over sexual harassment allegations, even though the legislative investigation still is not finished. Voters overwhelmingly re-elected him last week.
(Kotek had similarly demoted David Gomberg, D-Otis, before the House Conduct committee acted. The committee ultimately found he had not violated legislative rules. Gomberg also happened to be winning re-election this in the latest ballot counts this week.)
Further, the tight margins of victory in several races have some Democrats worrying that they have overreached in passing so much progressive legislation and burdening businesses.
By the way, the sentiment that legislative Democrats are anti-business runs strong in State Capitol circles, regardless of whether it is accurate. During the 2019 session, Republican Rep. Cheri Helt of Bend told a visiting group of constituents that legislative colleagues referred to her as “one of the good business owners,” as if business owners were inherently bad. Helt, who co-owns two Bend restaurants with her husband, lost her reelection bid to Democrat Jason Kropf.
Special session: Oregon legislators won’t be returning to the Capitol soon for a lame-duck session. Gov. Kate Brown had been expected to call this year’s third special session for right before Thanksgiving. That now would seem unconscionable, given that Marion County and thus the Oregon Capitol are included in her increased coronavirus-safety restrictions that took effect Wednesday.
On Thursday, Oregon reported a record 1,122 new cases of COVID-19. Only Multnomah and Washington counties have experienced more cases than Marion.
Elections firing: As for state Elections Director Steve Trout, whom I mentioned at the start of this column, his abrupt firing by Secretary of State Bev Clarno was a stunner. She apparently did not appreciate his sending a memo to the Democratic and Republican candidates vying to succeed Clarno, in which he detailed issues with the Oregon Centralized Voter Registration system.
Blosser, Biden and Harris: Meanwhile, Brown’s chief of staff, Nik Blosser, will become the state lead in the intergovernmental affairs office for the transition team of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Replacing him in Brown’s office will be Gina Zejdlik (pronounced ZED-lik), a longtime Brown aide who is deputy chief of staff.
Blosser’s new gig will heighten speculation that Brown is headed for a job in the Biden administration. Were Brown to resign before Oregon’s incoming secretary of state is sworn in, Treasurer Tobias Read would become governor. If Shemia Fagan has taken office as secretary of state, she would be elevated to governor.
Oh, as for Oregon’s state motto, the actual one is “She Flies With Her Own Wings.” It was adopted by the 1987 Legislature.