A Democratic fight for control of the Oregon House is over

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Jan. 4, 2021 5:52 p.m.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, says she’s ending her bid to become House Speaker, in exchange for pledges of change from House Speaker Tina Kotek.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, right, speaks with House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, right, will not challenge House Speaker Tina Kotek, left, for leadership of the House of Representatives after the two lawmakers reached a deal over the weekend.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB


State Rep. Janelle Bynum is setting aside her plans to mount a rare floor challenge to be the state’s speaker of the House, after reaching an agreement with current Speaker Tina Kotek over the weekend.

In exchange for a number of changes she hopes will make it easier for lawmakers of color to pursue top leadership, Bynum said Sunday evening she would not submit her name for consideration when the House meets to elect a speaker next week.

One of those changes would ensure a space is reserved within the ranks of House Democratic leadership for a lawmaker of color. Bynum, who is Black, said she could well be the choice for that new position, but that she would discuss it with other members of the Legislature’s People of Color caucus.

Other changes would give members of the POC Caucus their own staff “to develop their capacity and support their efforts,” according to a draft release on the plan, along with creating a special legislative committee to propose changes that would “encourage more diverse representation and leadership.” Among those ideas could be a push for increased pay for lawmakers.

“I want real movement on: How do we really build a bench” of lawmakers of color, Bynum, D-Clackamas, told OPB. “I didn’t want it to be an anomaly the next time a person of color stepped up to run for a really big role.”

The deal, which Bynum said she worked out with Kotek and House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, averts a leadership challenge that had been the subject of intense speculation for nearly two months.

In a private November vote, Kotek was unable to gain the support of the minimum of 31 House Democrats that would have granted her a majority in the 60-member House and would have assured her another two-year stint atop the chamber.

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Bynum did not put her name forward in that vote, instead announcing that she would seek election to the speakership on the floor. Lawmakers in both chambers have wondered for weeks what sort of coalition Bynum might be able to cobble together in the attempt to unseat Kotek, the longest-tenured speaker in state history. Such a move would almost certainly require the support of most of the chamber’s 23 Republicans, and could’ve further sundered a Democratic caucus that has looked restless recently.

Instead, Kotek appears to have locked in another term without the potentially wrenching spectacle of a floor challenge.

In a statement obtained by OPB, Kotek and Smith Warner acknowledged the state’s racist history and the Legislature’s overwhelming whiteness, and called Bynum “a leading voice in the Legislature for confronting and dismantling the structural legacies that have kept BIPOC Oregonians out of positions of power and influence.” BIPOC stands for “Black, Indigenous and people of color.”

“For years, Rep. Bynum has refused to accept the status quo systems of power in the state,” the statement said.


Along with ensuring a space for lawmakers of color in Democratic leadership, creating a new committee and providing additional staff to the POC caucus, Kotek and Smith-Warner say they’ll push to provide translation services in the Capitol. They also pledged to prioritize “BIPOC and other communities most impacted by COVID-19, the wildfires, and the economic recession” in budget and policy decisions.

“Individually, these are modest steps,” Kotek and Smith Warner said. “Taken together, and with an eye toward future bold ideas, we believe these actions will begin the process of transforming the Oregon Legislature and the decisions that emerge from it.”

Some of the changes proposed in the agreement will require the approval of House Democrats at large.

Bynum said the package was a start, and did not rule out running for leadership in the future.

“The struggle for me was that it was never about me in particular,” she said. “It was more about the conversation… and the demand that the caucus and the party move in a direction toward real inclusion and real power.”

She pointed to a number of ways the package Kotek and Smith-Warner put forward could do that.

Leadership positions within party caucuses are often partly tied to how much fundraising a member can bring into the caucus’ political war chest. Bynum said that can rule out lawmakers forced to run competitive campaigns or who represent less affluent districts. The agreement to hold a leadership position for people of color would be untethered from those monetary considerations, she said.

Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Lake Oswego Democrat and member of the Legislature’s POC caucus, currently serves in Democratic leadership as the House majority whip.

While the Legislature has its share of smaller caucuses — for instance a caucus of lawmakers representing coastal districts, and a caucus of younger lawmakers — they are not given extra staff, as members of the POC caucus would be under the plan. Bynum said the proposal acknowledges an additional burden placed on lawmakers of color.

“What happens is not only do we take care of our own district, but anybody Black or anybody Latino, they come to us,” she said. “All these cultural[ly]-specific activities, we don’t get extra staff for that.”

Bynum, who recently won her third term, took on increasing prominence in 2020. As the state grappled with issues around race and policing, she helped lead a special committee on policing that put forward reforms passed in two special sessions. She is also the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, an influential body that will take up further reform proposals in the legislative session that begins Jan. 19.

Kotek has served as the House’s most powerful lawmaker since 2013. In that time, she has presided over the chamber as Democrats gained a dominant majority that helped her muscle through progressive policies.

But amid those successes, Kotek has taken criticism from lawmakers and Capitol figures who believe she does not tolerate public dissent and at times demands that lawmakers fall in line. Legislators have also questioned her decision to call for the resignation of state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, last year, after multiple women stepped forward with claims of harassment.

The substance of those claims is not widely known, and an investigation into the matter has yet to be made public. Hernandez, a member of the POC caucus, won reelection in November despite not campaigning.

As Kotek prepares for a record fifth stint as speaker, those issues are not likely to disappear, though Bynum said Sunday she hopes relations among House Democrats improve moving forward.

“I would say part of leadership is pushing people just a little bit farther than they thought they could go, without pushing them to the brink of resentment,” Bynum said. “There’s so much farther we can go and need to go.”