oregon map

Up, in, around or out?

It's a question facing dozens of incumbent lawmakers and scores of potential challengers after the Oregon Supreme Court on Monday removed legal obstacles to implementing new legislative political districts.

The justices dismissed two lawsuits against new maps for 60 House and 30 Senate seats approved by the Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown on Sept. 27.

The complaints filed in court claimed claimed Democrats had created districts that would build on their current supermajorities in Salem. At the end of the most recent session, Democrats had a 37-23 advantage in the House and 18 of the 30 members of the Senate.

In its decision, the court ruled that the plan for districts that would go into effect with the 2022 election was not illegal, even if it had a partisan lean.

The ruling has accelerated the moving, jumping, switching and throwing-in-the-towel among incumbents and would-be insurgents.

Each move has set off a domino effect among Democrats and Republicans. If none of the announced candidates makes a political U-turn, the political power structure in state politics will have a significant makeover in January 2023. Oregon is guaranteed to have a new governor, one new Congress member, and a swarm of freshmen lawmakers in Salem.

Leadership in the House would have its biggest change in a decade. House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, told Willamette Week on Monday that she is mapping out a run for governor. No Republican has won the state's top job since Vic Atiyeh in 1982.

If she wins the May 17 primary next year, Drazan could face-off with her political nemesis, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. The longest serving speaker in the state's history is running in the Democratic primary for governor.

Regardless of the outcome of bids by Kotek and Drazan, they cannot run for governor and the Legislature at the same time. The House would have a new speaker and new minority leader when it convenes in 2023. And two new faces will fill their House seats.

The lesser of two evils

Republican leaders in the House and Senate had considered a walkout to block a vote on redistricting maps drawn by Democrats. Oregon is one of the few states where a quorum to do any business is more than a simple majority. Oregon's two-thirds threshold meant at 40 House members and 20 senators had to be in attendance for the chambers to meet. If all Republicans stayed away from the Capitol, redistricting would grind to a halt.

But the legislature's failure to remap Oregon in light of the 2020 U.S. Census would cause a clause in the state constitution to kick in, sending the mapmaking responsibility for legislative seats to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. Prior to her election in 2020, Fagan was a Democratic state senator from Portland. Republicans were faced with the choice of allowing maps they knew but didn't like to pass in the Legislature or take their chances on the political pot luck that Fagan would create.

They chose the known outcome instead of the unknown.

When the maps drawn by the majority Democrats were approved on a largely party-line vote, Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, was among the most outspoken critics of the outcome.

“Rigged redistricting maps from Democrats harm Oregon’s democracy, Reschke said Sept. 27.

Reschke had won his House District 56 seat three times, twice by margins above 70%. Redistricting had now chopped up his territory on the political map.

"District lines meander in and out with little rhyme or reason, splitting the City of Klamath Falls in half," Reschke said in his statement.

But giving Fagan a free hand would be worse, Reschke said.

By last Friday, Reschke had muted his dismay and come to accept the new political topography. He announced he'd seek the new House District 55 seat.

A sweeping north-south swath, the new district starts at the southern end of the Bend city limits and includes the Deschutes County areas of Deschutes River Woods, Sunriver, Three Rivers and La Pine. The district then mostly follows U.S. Highway 97 through Klamath County to the California border.

Reschke's move was just one of a chessboard full of recent political maneuvers.

Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, had been co-chair of the House Redistricting Committee that decided where to place Oregon's new 6th congressional district the state received because of population growth over the past decade. Once the maps were approved, Salinas announced her intent to jump to Congress in the open seat. Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, is also looking at the race.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, has filed to run for governor as an independent. The move not only caused Democratic leaders to strip her of her committee assignments, but set off a small cascade of political moves in the area around Astoria in the northwest part of the state.

Freshman Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, said she would run for Johnson's seat. Her political neighbor, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, won a narrow re-election in 2020 and under redistricting would face a pool of voters with additional Republicans. He said to count him out for a re-election bid in 2022.

Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, opted to not seek another term soon after local Democrats passed him over for an appointment to fill Fagan's seat following her election as secretary of state.

Political friendships came into play with the new districts. Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said he would not run in 2022 in a primary that would have pitted him against his friend, Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland.

Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, resigned due to family health issues. He had already signaled his intent to not seek re-election in a district that would have pitted him against his colleague, Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem.

Veteran lawmakers simply decided the changing of the political guard was a good time to exit. Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, and Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said they would end their long careers in Salem.

Thomsen's decision was well-timed for the career of Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles. Redistricting lopped off most of his old political territory, which once stretched south to the northern edge of Deschutes County. He'll try to make the jump to Thomsen's seat next year.

Rep. Mark Meek, D-Oregon City, is also looking to switch chambers.

Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R- Prineville, has lived on a farm that's been in her family for five generations. She didn't move, but her district did. She's now in House District 59, which will have no other incumbent. The rapid growth of Central Oregon has her constituency contained in just Crook, Jefferson and a slice of Deschutes County.

Bend gets a little bent

The new districts that Iverson and Reschke find themselves seeking to represent are largely the result of the explosive growth centered around Bend in Deschutes County. The area has grown by more than 20% since the last redistricting in 2011. That means districts with more people covering less acreage.

Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, is one of the few central Oregon lawmakers who hasn't seen the ground shift much under his feet. House District 54 is entirely within Bend, though its circle of citizenry is even tighter. Many of the new residents to the district have been Democratic-leaning voters and redistricting cements Kropf's seat as the Democratic "blue" stronghold in an otherwise Republican "red" swath east of the Cascades.

Beyond House District 54, the growth has set off a mapmaking mania in Central Oregon. The biggest impact has been on House District 53, the "doughnut district" surrounding Bend. The bottom end of the district stretching from Deschutes River Woods to La Pine is now in the 55th district seat sought by Reschke, the lawmaker from Klamath Falls.

What's left is smaller and more Democratic-leaning.

Rep. Jack Zika's announcement that he will skip the 2022 race would be a quiet ending to a tenure that began in a near electoral meltdown.

In the 2018 GOP primary, Zika defeated conservative activist Ben Schimmoller of Bend by just two votes. Zika then went on to win the Republican-leaning district's general election race in 2018 and 2020.

As of Tuesday, two Democrats and a Republican have filed to run in what would be an open seat that is competitive for both parties. There could be more. Candidates have until March 8 to file to run for office,

Notably, Schimmoller, who lost the 2018 primary to Zika, now lives in Redmond, within House District 53.

Could he take another shot at the job?

"Haven't made a decision at this time," Schimmoller said in a text Saturday.

He's not alone. Candidates can create campaign finance committees with the secretary of state and designate which seat they are seeking. But no one can officially file for the House or Senate until Jan. 1, when the districts become official.

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