The small troop of dogged Republicans still serving in the State Legislature were finally released the evening of Monday, July 6th – too late to truly celebrate Independence Day. After six months in Salem, the 25 House and the 12 Senate Republicans were sent home with their tails between their legs, whimpering that it was the “most partisan session in recent history.”
2015 saw a Legislative Session that liberals now laud as one that “put opportunity for working families first,” as characterized by Speaker Tina Kotek (D- North Portland) after adjournment last week. For a handful of Democrats who represent more conservative districts, however, the figurative red fern now sprouts where their political power once ran. Indeed, the fall of 2014 also ushered in the fall of former Governor John Kitzhaber. Before his unprecedented fourth term could even begin to take shape there was an explosion of transgressions and troubles emanating from the Executive Office.
Then First Lady of Oregon, Cylvia Hayes, found herself the centerpiece of his final reelection efforts – for all the wrong reasons. The shared vision for Oregon that these two had nurtured for years was shattered when Ms. Hayes’ missteps proliferated publicly – jeopardizing his legacy in a story line a kin to Fred Gipson’s classic American tale. Kitzhaber’s historic resignation was made public immediately after Oregon’s 156th birthday, February 14th; hardly the Valentine’s Day gift anyone expected. As the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board noted in their open letter to flummoxed Oregonians: We’ve lost a mess of governors to the seductions of money, cronyism, clout. We never lost one to love.
In a transition that some Salem insiders describe as “bizarre” and “tragic,” the gates were then thrown open for Secretary of State Kate Brown to assume the Governorship. An unabashed liberal Democrat, Governor Brown struck a contrasting figure to her predecessor, raising further hopes for the newly energized majority in both chambers. Emboldened, Democrats pushed several key votes in the first days of this long Session, setting an initial tone of partisanship – some even asserted malfeasance. Daily there were public remonstrances and complaints by Republicans in the Senate and the House for what would amount to an overall charge of a hostile work environment.
Democrats, however, maintain they felt the squeeze of Realpolitik. Stuck between obstinate progressive interests and the looming election cycle (yes, already!), some felt their position difficult at best. In an attempt to thread the needle, leadership often indicated that they were concerned that a reach too far risked the very majority that allowed them to pass a slough of liberal, labor-and-lawyer focused legislation. Working to protect members under the Democratic Big Tent and honor perceived electoral commitments was unfortunately only seen by many social justice, environmental, education and union advocates as a slight and indefensible excuse for not being willing to exercise their majority to the fullest.
Oregon maintained its status as foremost in the nation for issues ranging from access to women’s reproductive health care and firearm reforms, to fending off global warming and mandating paid sick-leave. Some issues, such as a comprehensive deal on much needed transportation funding, increase in affordability and attainability of working-family housing were staved off by powerful special interests who were able to leverage their relationships with some members of the middle. A hot-list of policies around the implementation of recreational marijuana, banning toxics from being sold in Oregon and the installation of an Earthquake Tsar were handled, though not gracefully, satisfactorily for another six month. Finally, other issues such as minimum-wage hike were left for another day, with the anticipation that the Democrats will not lose control of every branch of government – or just perhaps the U.S. congress will function.
Although matters of the day in Salem are now complete, the short, 35-day February Legislative Session is right around the corner and there is much to be done … and probably some to be undone, too.