Oregon lawmakers met in Salem this week to fulfill their constitutional duty of redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative district maps.
New maps are drawn every 10 years, meaning the effort this week by Republican and Democratic legislators could set the tone for state politics for the next decade.
Should Democrats get their way, Republicans could be facing even more of an uphill battle over the next few years as they’ve struggled to win back seats in former suburban strongholds.
How did we get here?
Over the past two weeks, lawmakers on two redistricting committees representing both chambers received more than 1,600 individual pieces of written and verbal testimony from constituents across the state.
Both Democrats and Republicans suggested maps that favored their party.
But the Democrats hold majorities in both the Senate and House. They moved forward with slightly tweaked versions of their preferred legislative maps, and a Congressional proposal that didn’t change at all from its initial form.
The Congressional map would likely lead to Democratic control of five of the state’s soon-to-be six House seats. The proposed legislative maps could reaffirm the Democratic Party majorities in both legislative chambers.
After Oregon’s Senate approved the two proposals on party-line votes on Monday — the first day of what was expected to be a two- to three-day special session — negotiations within the House broke down.
House Speaker Tina Kotek pulled back from a deal that gave Republicans equal weight on a crucial redistricting committee.
Instead, she established separate committees to approve Democratic proposals on Congressional and state legislative maps. Both committees were structured in a way that gave the bills containing the maps a clear path to a vote on the House floor, where Democrats hold a 37-23 advantage.
The move led to an intense moment in the House when several Republicans rose to criticize Kotek’s decision. They said it “lacked integrity” and signaled to them that she never intended to seriously take their concerns into account.
“I now realize that all along the plan was to, in fact, get gerrymandered maps through this body no matter what,” said House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby. “Oregonians do not deserve this.”
The two House committees met Monday evening and narrowly approved the Democratic proposals; Heppner Republican Rep. Greg Smith aligned with Democrats to pass state maps by a 5-3 vote.
Does another walkout loom?
On Tuesday, Democrats arrived back in the Capitol unsure of whether their Republican counterparts would even come to work. Staying away would deny legislative leaders the two-thirds quorum required by the state’s constitution for the Legislature to conduct business — effectively blocking the process from moving forward.
Walking out has become a common tool used by Oregon Republicans to block votes. Democrats also walked out to block redistricting in 2001 and send the process to former Democratic Secretary of State Bill Bradbury.
Kotek delayed the start of Tuesday’s floor session by three hours before announcing that there had been a COVID-19 exposure within the Capitol, forcing lawmakers to halt their work.
The Speaker originally planned to bring lawmakers back Wednesday morning to vote on the proposals, but four House Republicans filed absence requests saying they were exposed to COVID-19. Two others listed “family matters” as the reason for their absence.
An email from Kotek’s office late Tuesday explained the floor session would be postponed until Saturday, with COVID-19 rapid and PCR tests being made available in Salem Thursday for members and staff who were potentially exposed to the virus. The email explained that delay would allow for test results to be returned by Friday afternoon in order to meet Saturday.
Neither Democratic or Republican leadership has said who tested positive for the virus Monday and whether that person was a lawmaker, staffer or member of the public. House Democrats have touted their 100% vaccination rate among caucus members.
The state Capitol was closed to the public until July 12 because of COVID-19 concerns.
Where are we now?
It’s unclear whether state and CDC guidance will allow for a quorum of lawmakers to meet on Saturday if the vaccination status of those exposed requires them to quarantine. Time is running out.
In normal redistricting years, Oregon lawmakers are supposed to confirm new political boundaries by July 1. But due to delays in publication of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 count data, they challenged their constitutional deadline in court. That challenge was successful, and they were granted an extension until Monday, Sept. 27, to approve the maps.
Should they fail to meet that deadline, the responsibility to draw the state’s legislative districts will fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan — a former lawmaker and liberal Democrat.
Fagan has promised to create a “People’s Commission” made up of residents from across Oregon’s political spectrum to advise her if she’s called into action. She announced last week the commission received widespread interest with more than 760 Oregonians applying.
According to Carla Axtman, communications director for Fagan, her office will not be announcing appointments to that commission until Sept. 28 at the earliest, when it is clear the Legislature failed.
The drawing of Congressional maps, which include a new sixth U.S. House seat, would be handled by a five-member panel of state judges assembled by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters.
Republicans have noted that the process falling into Fagan’s hands is an incentive for them to keep the effort within the Legislature, but Kotek’s move to realign the committees in the Democrats’ favor has obscured what the preferred outcome is for the minority party.
The COVID-19 pause will give both sides a couple of extra days to cool off after the drama on the House floor on Monday as they continue negotiating the future direction of Oregon politics.