As the Oregon Legislature wrapped up the 2021 session last month with historic investments in just about every area, lawmakers agreed on one bold reality: This year’s “freshman” class might be the most effective in recent memory.
In reviewing all that they’d accomplished over five months and looking at the impact first-term lawmakers had on the process, veteran legislators agreed that the rookies made an immediate difference.
In the post-session press conferences that followed the end of the session, Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, lauded the work of Democratic Senators Kate Lieber, Deb Patterson and Kayse Jama, all three of whom came into their first session and took over important committees such as housing and health care.
They worked on bills helping juveniles to more easily expunge their court records, requiring loan officers to receive training on implicit bias, and establishing a prescription drug affordability board. Endeavors by newly elected Democrats this year represented a clear shift to the left in an effort to expand services and offer more protections to a wider range of Oregonians.
“It speaks well to the Oregon Legislature that we’re sort of breaking down some of those historical hierarchical structures where we were told that you’re supposed to come in, sit on the back bench and not say anything,” Wagner said.
In the House, Majority Leader Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, noted how freshmen such as Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, came into their first session and helped push bills like “Cover All People,” a law that expands healthcare access for adults who would qualify for Medicaid regardless of immigration status — an effort Oregon Democrats who have majorities in both chambers have had on their radar for years, according to party leaders.
Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard, played a crucial role in supporting Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, in passing this year’s big wildfire package; it provided nearly $200 million to bolster firefighting and fire mitigation efforts.
Other House members, such as Rep. Khanh Pham, D-East Portland, helped pass legislation to curb the state’s carbon emissions by 100% by 2040. She also sponsored a bill with Jama creating a new office under Gov. Kate Brown to support immigrants and refugees, as well as another that would have looked at changing mandatory minimum sentencing and fundamentally changed how police interact with the public if it had passed.
That bill — HB 2002 — didn’t pass, but the effort by Pham and other sponsors dominated discussions in the final weeks of the session. Democrats including Pham have recommitted to bringing the effort back for consideration in 2022.
No longer ‘seen, but not heard’
Although it’s not unusual for a first-term lawmaker to suggest and go after big policy ideas, veteran lawmakers will tell you that there’s a radically different tone in terms of how newcomers are treated when they bring those ideas to the table or seek to take up controversial topics.
According to Sen. Lew Frederick, D-North Portland, the idea that freshmen are “seen, but not heard,” is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.
Frederick joined the Oregon House in 2009. At the time, he was also the only Black member.
He said one thing that’s contributed to a greater sense of respect for first-term lawmakers is that many of them represent voices that have been traditionally marginalized in Oregon. He’s excited by the buzz created by a large number of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) candidates elected to the Legislature in recent years and the experiences they bring with them at a time where BIPOC communities are becoming increasingly involved in the political process.
“I think that the Legislature grew up, quite frankly,” Frederick said. “We have some absolutely incredible freshmen, certainly in this BIPOC caucus, who were not going to be treated as children. So we made it very clear that was not going to be the case, and a number of us who have been there a while recognize that was an impediment to getting some real change to take place.”
Building on community activist roles
For Smith Warner, the effectiveness of this year’s freshman class highlights the fact that Oregon has a “citizen Legislature,” meaning that most if not all lawmakers have full-time jobs outside of their work in the Capitol, and they bring those experiences into the building with them.
Pham, for example, helped found and led organizing efforts in the campaign for the Portland Clean Energy Fund Initiative. The program, approved by voters in 2018, taxes large corporations on their Portland sales to provide a pot of funding for nonprofits looking to start projects aimed at advancing both climate and racial justice.
Pham most recently served as the interim director at the climate action advocacy group Oregon Just Transition Alliance, and also worked as the environmental justice manager at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO).
Campos remains a case manager at Family Promise of Beaverton, where she works to stabilize the lives of children and their families who are experiencing homelessness.
“We have more people coming from a community organizing and a community activist background, and that is what makes a difference,” she said. “When you bring those kinds of folks into the system, they look for opportunities to use those organizing skills and the work and engagement they already have in the community to make meaningful policy change. That has been really fun to watch.”
Republican first-timers made waves too
But it wasn’t just rookie Democrats bringing their experience to Salem to help drive the agenda for 2021. Republican first-term lawmakers also had an impact, particularly in the House.
Rep. Jamie Cate, R-Lebanon, worked with her Senate counterparts to carry two bills making it easier for people who lost homes to wildfires to rebuild and allowing counties to forgive some taxes on destroyed property.
And Rep. Lily Morgan was made vice chair of the House’s committee on housing and used her experience from a long career in parole and probations to help shape conversations around funding for behavioral health programs and criminal justice reform. She also helped pass a bipartisan bill to regulate the production and sale of delta-8 cannabis products, a cousin to traditional THC products that in recent years has found its way onto the open market.
House Republican Leader, Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, commended the ability of freshmen lawmakers like Morgan to come into the building and push major bills while navigating virtual meetings with stakeholders, lobbyists and other legislators.
“I had a unique depth of experience in my freshman class to speak to those issues and engage on those issues on behalf of Oregonians,” Drazan said. “Our folks came into the process with a lot of confidence, a lot of experience in their local communities, and transitioned really smoothly, into being very effective legislators despite the circumstances.”
Drazan noted one difference she perceives between her party’s newcomers and Democratic rookies: bona fide experience as elected officials and with “more formalized engagement with their communities.”
She points to Rep. Suzanne Weber, a business owner and former mayor of Tillamook, and Rep. Boomer Wright, a longtime school administrator from Coos Bay, as examples where leadership experience played a role in their ability to offer expertise in areas such as the budget and tax revenue.
Drazan noted that House members, who serve two-year terms, are only afforded two legislative sessions — one only a month long. And if a lawmaker waits too long on the sideline before diving in, they’re missing opportunities to advocate on behalf of their communities.
“For my caucus, it was less ideologically driven and more how to operate practically,” Drazan said. “I don’t think it’s strange that a freshman would step up and take on responsibilities that are well-suited to their background and their abilities. I mean, I became caucus leader as a freshman.”
Freshman Republican Sen. Dick Anderson, the former mayor of Lincoln City, also made his mark in 2021, ushering a bill through to eliminate unreasonable delays in the reporting of Oregon patients’ test results by medical laboratories. Another bill he sponsored will allow the state to grant municipalities the ability to contract out building code enforcement to help streamline construction processes in rural cities.
A year marked by crisis after crisis and a pandemic forced much of the Legislature’s work onto virtual platforms.
Lawmakers weren’t able to physically meet for daily caucus meetings or carpool with other legislators whose districts share borders. So more experienced lawmakers said they found the work this year’s freshmen accomplished — and the expertise they showed — doubly impressive.
Former state representative Jennifer Williamson served as House majority leader from 2015 to 2019. She now works as a government and public affairs consultant for Strategies 360.
Williamson said that freshman legislators were at a disadvantage this year given that virtual technology dominated their work. She said remote work could have hindered the ability of freshmen to connect with more veteran lawmakers, identify mentors and learn by observing the process and asking questions. But that wasn’t the case.
Williamson said she believes the online organizing skills of many of the first-term legislators who come from community organizations and have adapted to a digital world probably played a role in their ability to connect with stakeholder groups and other lawmakers to pass big policy initiatives.
She also noted that the lack of physical interaction behind closed doors could have also played a part in freshmen feeling empowered to go after their goals. Williamson said that virtual caucus meetings don’t lend themselves to the traditional environment where the hierarchy and inner politics of legislative bodies often plays out.
“Coming off of several special sessions, knowing that they’re going into a special session for redistricting — which is probably going to be also a difficult topic — they’ve met challenge after challenge, and so I think in that sense, there isn’t a freshman class who compares,” Williamson said.
First-term lawmakers such as Campos and Pham said the virtual dynamic wasn’t really a barrier or an advantage. Despite not having a frame of reference about what in-person caucus meetings are like, they were able to foster relationships with more seasoned policymakers like Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego and Rep. Teresa Alonso-Leon, D-Woodburn, to partner on bills and glean useful tips from their experience in pushing legislation.
Getting help from the veterans
According to Pham, the 12-member BIPOC caucus also provided a space for her and others to seek guidance and support for their measures. She said the guidance she received from the caucus allowed her to operate inside the Capitol with more ease than she would have if she didn’t have that network of support.
“It was just really invaluable to have this place where as first-year legislators we could go to to ask questions, get support and just have a framework that we could advance a collective agenda together,” Pham said.
Campos said that while her organizing background and digital experience did play a role in her success this session, she’s also excited to see what the Capitol looks like when things fully return to “normal.” She also said she doesn’t fear that “normal” actually means a return to business as usual, where those driving the ship are navigating without taking the voices of newest members into account.
“We came in hungry for change, and that’s going to continue moving forward,” Campos said. “I think being able to meet in person is just going to stoke that.”