As the Oregon Legislature takes a collective breather from this year’s up-and-down session, a question hangs over everyone’s heads: Who will be in charge next year?
The answer has two parts.
First, the Democrats are likely to retain control. Democratic lawmakers wrote the redistricting plan that reconfigured legislative districts to account for population changes under the 2020 Census.
But who knows what will happen in the next seven months leading up to the Nov. 8 General Election?
Republicans are likely to make some headway, especially in the state House. Democrats currently hold a 37-23 majority over Republicans in the House and 18-10 in the Senate, with two other senators caucusing as independents.
Surveys, as well as coffee shop talk, underscore that Oregonians are in a foul mood about our state’s direction, the economy and other matters. Those attitudes could hurt the majority party at the polls – actually, the kitchen table or wherever the mail ballot is being filled out.
Actually, the majority party in the Legislature isn’t the majority among voters. As of March 18, Oregon’s 2,967,631 registered voters included 1,022,556 who chose no party affiliation. That could be because they have no interest in any political party – or no interest in voting at all.
The largest party remains Democrats with 1,019,668 voters, followed by Republicans with 723,728 and the Independent Party with 139,674. The remaining voters are spread among smaller parties.
Second, the practicality of “who’s in charge” comes down to the presiding officers, who control everything from committee assignments to the route that legislation takes.
When the 2023 Legislature convenes, the Senate will elect its first new presiding officer since 2003. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, is retiring from that role and from the Legislature. The House already elected a new House speaker this year after Tina Kotek, D-Portland, resigned to focus on her gubernatorial campaign.
Oregon is not unique. Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Montana also are losing both of their top legislative leaders. A number of other states are seeing at least one presiding officer leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which says such turnover is typical in an election year.
Courtney and Kotek both hold those roles longer than any predecessor. It had been the norm, especially in the House, for a presiding officer to serve only a few years. There is precedent for Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, to continue in 2023 but also for the House to choose someone else. Of course, first he must be re-elected in House District 16. Democrats do hold a 3-1 advantage among registered voters there.
Each chamber selects its presiding officer. The party in power decides whom to nominate. An intriguing factor in the House is that at least a third of the members are being elected for the first time this year, although some have been serving through appointment.
In the Senate, it will be a free-for-all for presiding officer. The list of potential candidates runs long, with a heavy emphasis on urban liberal Democrats. Centrist Courtney no longer will be a moderating force. Under Courtney, it was sometimes said of the Oregon Senate, “a place where progressive bills go to die,” although his influence diminished in recent years as liberal Democrats grew in number.
Regardless of who is in charge, the personalities and politics will be different. Of the three powerbrokers in the Oregon Capitol, there at least will be a new governor and a new Senate president.