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A while ago, a friend mentioned that he didn’t care for Peter Courtney.

“Why,” I inquired, expecting a diatribe about the Senate president’s over-the-top personality. Salem politician Peter Courtney is an acquired taste, from his love of the limelight to his oh-poor-me persona.

“His politics,” my friend responded.

That stopped me. I had to ponder. What, exactly, were Peter’s politics? I could cite the ideology of then-House Speaker – and now Gov.-elect – Tina Kotek. I could pigeonhole Gov. Kate Brown and countless other politicians. But Courtney’s political pragmatism, coupled with his off-the-wall personality, outshine his solid Democratic roots.

That conversation with my friend kept coming to mind during Courtney’s final months as the longest-serving legislator and Senate president in Oregon history. It did so again Tuesday afternoon during a two-hour retirement celebration hosted by the Salem YWCA at its brand-new building just down the street from the Oregon Capitol.

I hadn't planned to write about the party. I had a different topic in mind for today’s Capital Chatter and I expect to soon write about Courtney’s tenure and what’s next. However, as I was doing my other research, I was struck by a comment that lobbyist Darrell Fuller posted on social media after the event: “A true legend of selfless public service is retiring … . His unscripted oratory prowess is always self-deprecating, incredibly humorous, and authentic to his core. His retirement is well-earned. But I worry the Legislature will be unable to work without him.”

Therein lies the challenge.

For the record, Courtney probably would be classified as an old-school, moderate Democrat who in recent years reluctantly bent to the demands of the increasingly progressive Senate Democratic Caucus.

Yet Republicans knew they could work with him. That he was a man of his word. He was first elected Senate president in 2003 when the Senate was split 15-15 between D’s and R’s. Sen. Jackie Winters, a Salem Republican, convinced her colleagues they could trust him. Under a unique power-sharing arrangement, Democrat-turned-Republican Lenn Hannon served as president pro-tem.

Courtney collaborated behind the scenes with lawmakers who had to oppose him in public. For example, he was careful not to overly praise then-Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons, with whom he had a good relationship despite their disagreements on individual legislation.

On the surface, the upcoming era appears less promising. Senate Republicans don’t trust Lake Oswego Sen. Rob Wagner, whom Senate Democrats will nominate next month as the next Senate president. 

Wagner was Senate majority leader. As Gary Warner reported last week, Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp of Bend responded to Wagner’s selection with a denouncement that included: “Senator Wagner has shown he is untrustworthy, deeply partisan, and doesn’t have the necessary skills to run the Senate in a bipartisan fashion.”

Not surprisingly for a retirement celebration, partisanship was absent from Courtney’s shindig. That absence seemed genuine. The hundreds of guests who crossed the political and societal spectrum included Republicans Knopp, Girod and Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer; Democrats Wagner, State Treasurer Tobias Read and former state Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson of Gresham; and many other legislators, judges, lobbyists, legislative employees, Y staff and others.

Gov. Kate Brown read her new executive order declaring that the Salem campus of the Oregon State Hospital be named for Courtney, who “has long been known as a champion for mental health services.” Brown quipped that she expected this would be her last executive order – but who knows, given all that’s been happening.

Other speakers were Oregon Supreme Court Associate Justice Chris Garrett; Salem lawyer Keith Swanson; and former Courtney chiefs of staff Betsy Imholt, director, Oregon Department of Revenue; Connie Seeley, chief administrative officer and chief of staff, OHSU; and Phil Bentley, president and CEO, Oregon Health Care Association.

Bentley drew hoots from the crowd when he read presumably fake comments from politicians describing the excitable, moody and eternally pessimistic Courtney as “calm,” “like drinking a warm cup of chamomile tea” and “the most positive, optimistic person I’ve met.”

Imholt and Seeley shared such Courtney sayings as, “Animals will always treat you better than people” and “Be a plowhorse, not a showhorse.”

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission provided advice beforehand that lobbyists and legislators would not break state law by attending the party or by contributing toward its cost, and neither would the Salem Y for hosting it.

During his time in the Legislature, Courtney steered millions of state dollars to the Y and other Salem-area projects. The Y’s 34-unit veterans housing project, currently under construction, is named for him.

When Courtney first came to Oregon from the East Coast in 1969 to work as a law clerk, he lived in Room 206 of the old YMCA for two years, pulling his Murphy bed from the wall each night. 

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.comFacebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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