Rep. Mike Nearman was expelled from the Oregon House in a widely anticipated vote last Thursday, a first in state history. Only Nearman himself voted against the resolution, finding that he had engaged in “disorderly behavior” by facilitating the Capitol building incursion by armed far-right protesters six months ago. We get perspectives on what’s next for state GOP lawmakers and the Legislature, just a couple of weeks before the 2021 session wraps up. Our guests are: Jim Moore, director of political outreach at the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University; Eric Fruits, research director at the Cascade Policy Institute; and Kalpana Krishnamurthy, national field and policy director at Forward Together Action.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller.
For the first time in Oregon history, members of the state’s House of Representatives voted on Thursday to remove one of their own. Republican State Representative Mike Nearman from Dallas was expelled for what was technically called “disorderly behaviour.” Back on December 21st, Nearman led a group of protesters, some of them armed, into what was supposed to be a closed capitol. Video from that day has been publicly available since January, and Democrats have been calling for his resignation since then. Republicans were largely quiet. But a week and a half ago, a new video changed everything. It was taken five days before the incident at the capitol, and it showed now former Representative Nearman giving people his cell phone number, and telling them how he would let them in a side door. Within a week of that video becoming public, Nearman was kicked out of the Oregon House of Representatives. The vote was essentially unanimous, only Nearman himself voted against it.
So where do we go from here? I’m joined by Jim Moore, Director of Political Outreach at the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University, Kalpana Krishnamurthy is National Field and Policy Director at Forward Together Action, that’s an organization that advocates for paid family leave, immigrant rights and other causes. Eric Fruits is with us as well, former chair of the Multnomah County Republican Party, Research Director at the Cascade Policy Institute. That is a think tank that promotes free markets and limited government.
Eric, Kalpana, and Jim, welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Eric Fruits: Great to be back.
Jim Moore: Great to be with you.
Kalpana Kirshnamurthy: Nice to be back.
Miller: Kalpana first, what were you expecting from the vote on Thursday evening?
Krishnamurthy: I was hoping that Oregon lawmakers, we’re going to hold Representative Nearman accountable for his actions, and I was really glad to see that it was a nearly unanimous vote, of course, Representative Nearman voted for himself. But you know, the capitol building is where people work. We have staff members in the building, there are people from organizations advocating on behalf of Oregonians, there’s lawyers, there’s policy experts. Like any workplace, there ought to be basic standards of conduct, which are that you don’t harass people and you don’t put people in this workplace in danger. Those are the same rules that every Oregonian who goes to work has to abide by in their own workplace.
We finally said that legislators were going to be held accountable to that in 2019. So this was the first real opportunity for legislators to hold themselves accountable to thinking of the state capitol building as a workplace that needs to meet certain standards for Oregonians.
Miller: Eric, were you surprised that it was essentially a unanimous vote, given the partisan times that we live in?
Eric Fruits: Oh, not at all. I think that as that video came out, it was pretty clear that what he did was completely inexcusable. I don’t know what he was thinking on that day when he opened that door, I don’t know what he thought the end game was going to be and how that was going to play out, but it could have ended horribly.
In some ways, I think he was a coward for hiding behind that, and saying he didn’t know what he was doing, when it was very clear that he knew was doing. If he was truly a self perceived patriot and was proud of what he did, he should have walked through the front door and held the door open and said “I’m Mike Nearman, and I’m letting these people in.” Instead he was trying to hide it and trying to be too clever in his video.
And so I think that uh he got exactly what he deserved, and in some ways I hope the criminal charges play out too.
Miller: Right, he is facing misdemeanor criminal charges as well. House Minority Leader Christine Drazan was on the show on Thursday, just hours before the committee voted to send the expulsion measure to the full house. She told us that until that video came out, that second video that came out a week and a half ago where he made it very explicit, even if he was trying to build in some kind of plausible deniability, that deniability remained highly implausible, she said before that second video came out, she thought that Representative Nearman held the door open by mistake, inadvertently.
What did you make of that, Eric? I mean, you watched that first video, did you think this was just a mistake?
Fruits: Uh, no. Me personally, no, because there were some things that he posted on Facebook before the video came out that made it clear that he was making some sort of plans to do this. But by the same token, to give him the benefit of the doubt, I think that it needed to play out in a formal process. My preference would have been that once that video came out, he would have known that his goose was cooked and he would have resigned and saved himself and the entire legislature the hassle of having to go through this.
Miller: Jim, let’s get some historical context here. How has this never happened before?
Moore: There have been a number of times when legislators have been in deep trouble. My favorite was in the early nineties, when one of the legislators was actually convicted of a felony for campaign finance, but would not give up her State Senate seat. When this happens, we saw it earlier this year with Diego Hernandez, a Democrat in the House, some process starts. And as that process starts, the legislators see the writing on the wall, and they simply resign. That’s what’s happened over the past 162 years. What makes Mike Nearman unique, and and he said last week, boy, maybe he’ll be a Jeopardy question someday, is he’s the first legislator not to resign, not to take that route, and to actually go through the vote where he is expelled from the House or expelled from the Legislature at all.
Miller: That was on the Lars Larson show where he seemed to say proudly or jokingly or both, that he would be [a] Jeopardy question. How do you explain the fact that he seemed to, given the overall context, want to force his fellow lawmakers to eject him, rather than doing what so many other people have done before, which is avoid that stain? How do you explain it?
Moore: It’s hard to explain, but it’s clear to me, just from his statements, he gave a long statement on the floor as they were voting to expel him, his reading of the Oregon Constitution is that those meetings must be open, and he held that to be the ultimate standard by which he needed to be measured.
Interesting to me because, as he’s reading the Constitution and focusing on that particular part, he avoided the part where each house shall adopt rules to implement the requirements of this section, those rules we’ve been seeing. People can go in if they have real business there, but if they’re the public, then they can get in there with Zoom and all sorts of other electronic means, simply because of public health. So to me, he was basically taking a stand on his observation of the Constitution of Oregon. The fascinating thing to me is that, once it became clear with that December 16th recording that came out, saying “Here’s my phone number, use it,” he broke the bonds of what actually holds a legislature together, which is, it’s a bunch of people, and you have to trust each other. When one of his closest counterparts in the House, Republican Bill Post, said “He lied to me, he lied to the other members of this house”... the fact that that Mike Nearman did not resign then - I’m not sure why he didn’t. Because when that bond is broken, it doesn’t matter, the Constitution or anything, what matters is you can’t work in that building. They aren’t going to trust you. And I don’t know why he stuck around for those last few days.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the historic vote in the Oregon House of Representatives on Thursday. By a vote of 59 to 1, lawmakers expelled their Republican colleague, Mike Nearman, who had represented the Mid-Willamette Valley, and it was former Representative Nearman, who was that one against the 59. We’re talking with Jim Moore, Kalpana Krishnamurthy and Eric Fruits.
Eric, one thing I haven’t seen so far is evidence of Nearmann being lionized or celebrated broadly as a martyr. Do you think that could still happen?
Fruits: I doubt it. I think there was a chance of that before the video came out. Among a certain set of Republicans, he’s very popular. When I was chair of the Multnomah County Republican Party, there’s no Republicans serving in the legislature from the Portland region, [so] we invited him to come talk to our group, and people up here really liked him, they liked what he had to say. He came in on a Tea Party wave, and there’s still a lot of people in the Republican Party who have those Tea Party sympathies. I think there’s a lot of people who like him. I think that they were kind of tickled when this first thing happened in December. But I think, as it came clear that it was planned and that he actually did put a lot of people in danger, I think that people realize that’s a bridge too far.
Miller: Kalpana, let me ask you this, and then Eric I’d love to get your take on this as well. It’s hard to not talk about what happened in Oregon without noticing what hasn’t happened in DC. In DC, Republican senators have successfully blocked an independent commission that would look into what happened on January 6th, a day that was obviously more dangerous, more deadly, and with more far reaching consequences for our Republic. With that as the national context, Kalpana, how do you explain the fact that Republicans in Oregon did expel unanimously one of their own?
Krishnamurthy: This whole situation with Representative Nearman really emphasizes the pickle that Oregon Republicans, Republicans across the state, and Republicans nationally are facing. Part of this is state versus national politics. I think there’s a different weight in a specific state capitol. It’s a smaller number of people. There are 60 folks that needed to have a conversation, and it is easier to do that at the state level than it is at the federal level where the politics are so very polarized.
But, even inside of this moment, there’s been so much back and forth within the Republican Party, it really shows the splits that I think exist. In December, 12 Republicans, including Representative Nearman. signed onto a frivolous lawsuit challenging the results of the presidential election. And then after January 6th, when the state Republican Party put out a letter claiming that the December riots could have been a conspiracy, Republican House leaders had to distance themselves from that nonsense. And then in March, the Republican Party voted to unseat Bill Courier and replace him with Senator Dallas Heard, who has been aligned with some of the extreme elements of the party that Representative Nearman also aligns with.
There’s a real struggle happening right now inside of the Republican Party that is about the future of this party. Is it going to lean towards the extremist elements that are directly tied to racism, to white supremacy, to violence? Or is it going to find a different path?
Miller: Eric, one potentially interesting thought experiment is to think about the role that former President Trump could have played in this, because Republicans in Congress turned fully against a January 6th commission after Trump said he was opposed. What might have happened in Oregon if former President Trump had championed Representative Nearman?
Fruits: Oh gosh, I’m not sure. I think there should be some investigation. I don’t like the way that the so-called “independent commission” was really set up, because it was heavily weighted in favor of Democratic Representatives, which I think probably should have been closer to a 50-50 split.
But I think one of the issues that you have when you look at the party itself, the party organization, it’s true of Republicans, and I’m sure it’s true of Democrats, because I’m talking to the Democratic friends who are involved in the party, the party itself tends to be dominated by the fringes. And so when that happens, you end up with party positions that are very fringy, that may not necessarily represent the mainstream of the people who are registered voters of that party. For example, I consider myself fairly libertarian, and so I like to think of myself as mainstream, but people would say that I’m too much of a squish. I think that’s the real challenge we have across all parties, is that each party’s getting more and more heavily dominated by the fringes, when you look at the actual organizations of the parties themselves.
Miller: Jim Moore, can you remind us what the process is now going forward in terms of filling this seat, a process that, if I understand correctly, is the same, regardless of how the seat became vacant? So what happens now?
Moore: In the district that he represented, House District 23, the replacement must be from the same party as he, so it will be a Republican. The nominees for the seat, and you can self nominate, you can be picked by somebody, but it goes through the central committees of the four counties that make up the seat. They’ll put together a slate of 3 to 5 people. Then that slate goes to the county commissioners of the counties in that district. And there it’s a little bit different, because it’s weighted by the population of the district that’s in a particular county. So in this case, Polk County, which is the bulk of the district, 45% of the votes will be weighted to the Polk County commissioners, 20% to Yamhill, 20% to Benton and about 15% to Marion County. And those commissioners will pick from that slate, and then that person becomes the new representative.
There’s a deadline here, if they can’t make a decision basically within 30 days, then the governor will pick whoever holds the seat. The governor doesn’t have to go through anything from the slate, but it has to be a Republican. That happens rarely, but it has happened. I fully expect there to be somebody picked, and holding the seat by basically the end of July. The key issue though, becomes, could they pick Mike Nearman again? And actually, the law is ambivalent on that. Mike Nearman clearly can run for his old seat again in 2022, if he would like.
Miller: Kalpana, I want to go back to the reasons for what Mike Nearman did. House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, on our show last week, pointed out that while she fervently opposes what he did, she agrees with the reason that he did it. She argued, as have many Republicans, that the legislature should have been more opened up somehow to provide more ability for Oregonians to actually have their voices heard in person as they’re being represented. Just to put this in perspective, last month, something like 10,000 people were able to go to the last few Blazers playoff games at the motor center. Kids have been back in school all across the state, not every day, but for chunks of time. Stores have been opened the whole time. These are some of the examples that Republicans have brought up, in contrast to the still-closed legislature. Does it make sense to you that the rules set up for a session that started in January haven’t really changed in June when, because of vaccinations, the situation really is different.
Krishnamurthy: I feel like there’s two different things happening in this argument and it’s actually important to tease them apart. I know that COVID years and COVID days feel like dog years and dog days, but let’s remember in December 2020, I’m not even sure if the FDA had approved the vaccine at that point. We had a very different set of conditions, and when Mike Nearman decided to open the doors and let people into the building, that was risk to everyone inside of the building, it was just a shocking breach in protocol of how we understand safety inside of that space, let alone the armed nature of people that were coming into the building.
Now we’re in a different place, right? We’re getting close to 60% to 70% [vaccinated]. We anticipate the governor will be able to make different decisions, but we’re in a different moment, and there’s two weeks left in the legislative session. What I’m interested in is, how are the decisions moving forward about [the] online nature of the legislature actually going to happen beyond this legislative session? We’ve actually learned that Oregonians can testify using Zoom, that we don’t have to bring people 5 to 6 hours drive from their homes to Salem in order to testify. I think there are lessons we can learn for how we can actually make the capitol building more accessible, and we should be looking at how we can codify and crystallize some of those, so that even more people can be both inside the building and outside the building, talking about the policies that matter to everyday Oregonians with their legislature directly.
Miller: Kalpana Krishnamurthy, Eric Fruits, and Jim Moore, thanks very much for joining us today.
Fruits: Thank you.
Krishnamurthy: Thank you.
Miller: Kalpana Krishnamurthy is National Field and Policy Director at Forward Together Action, Eric Fruits is Research Director at the Cascade Policy Institute, and Jim Moore is Director of Political Outreach at the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University.
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