Empty chairs in a formal government chamber

The House floor was empty at the Oregon Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 21, after legislators halted in person meetings following news of a COVID-19 exposure the previous day.

Sam Stites / OPB

Members of Oregon’s House of Representatives are set to return to Salem on Saturday for what could be the final hashing out of a weeks-long debate over how the state will redraw legislative and congressional maps.

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It could also result in a complete breakdown of the process, kicking the responsibility of drawing new maps to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and a five-member panel of Oregon judges, selected by Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters.

Oregon’s constitution says lawmakers are expected to complete this task once every 10 years, meaning that redistricting could have a colossal effect on the state’s power balance — or lack thereof — for the next decade.

The Legislature has a deadline of Sept. 27 to get the job done before it’s taken out of their hands. The House will convene at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

The Oregon Senate fulfilled its obligation on Monday, approving the two sets of Democrat-drawn maps via party-line votes.

The proposed federal map would likely give Democrats a 5-1 district advantage, including the new sixth congressional seat Oregon gained due to population growth over the last 10 years. The legislative maps would also probably lead to Democrats retaining majorities in both the House and Senate.

On Monday, House Speaker Tina Kotek reneged on a deal to share power with Republicans in a crucial redistricting committee, bringing a dramatic end to the day’s floor session.

Kotek revised the makeup of the committee by creating two separate committees to consider the congressional and legislative maps separately: one retaining an equal number of Democrats and Republicans for state maps, the other with a 2-1 advantage favoring Democrats.

The move essentially cleared the way for both maps to reach a floor vote in the House. It also sparked harsh rebuke from Republicans who felt they’d been cheated out of having a voice in the process.

Democrats returned on Tuesday in hopes of finishing the job.

But notice of a positive COVID-19 case within the Capitol delayed proceedings that many expected to result in a Republican walkout to block the process from moving forward. Lawmakers were initially planning to come back to the floor on Wednesday to either vote or see themselves denied the two-thirds quorum required by the state’s constitution for legislative business to be conducted.

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Neither situation occurred.

Instead, Kotek’s office notified legislators they’d be given a couple of days to get tested for COVID, with time enough to get results by Friday afternoon, ensuring the body can safely return to the Capitol Saturday morning.

Four members of the House Republican caucus filed absence requests stating they’d been exposed, and two others filed requests stating they had “family matters” to attend to.

Allegations of gerrymandering have been hurled back and forth by both sides in recent weeks as they take aim at each other’s maps.

Speculation has run wild over whether Republicans would prefer legislative maps created by Fagan and Congressional districts drawn by judges over the Democrat’s proposal.

Fagan has initiated a process to create an advisory committee known as the “People’s Commission on Legislative Redistricting,” which would be comprised of Oregonians from all over the state.

House Republicans hosted a town hall meeting via teleconference Thursday evening. They invited constituents to learn about where things stand and give comment on what they feel the caucus should do: attend Saturday’s floor session and allow a vote for the Democrats maps to be pushed through, or deny quorum and let the backup plan kick in for Fagan and Oregon’s court system to take over.

“Aren’t you worried that Secretary of State Fagan, like [former Oregon Secretary of State] Bill Bradbury, will be able to draw out our state leaders,” asked a caller from Newberg who used the name “Jack.”

“They absolutely could draw us out of our districts,” said House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, a Canby Republican.

“I’m hopeful that Secretary Fagan has created the People’s Commission, that if she’s authentically invested in listening to Oregonians, there’s a chance that she won’t be as partisan as her predecessors have been in that role,” Drazan said. “I am hopeful that it will be accountability from Oregonians that prevents that.”

Thursday night’s town hall also saw members of the public amplifying their support for Republican lawmakers to hold firm and deny Democrats the chance to pass their maps.

One caller who identified himself as a former member of the Clackamas County Planning Commission named “Ron,” said he feels lawmakers in Salem have little regard for what their constituents tell them, and only vote how party leaders tell them to.

“We need to hold these people accountable for what they’re doing to us,” Ron said. “It’s absolutely unbelievable to me that we’ve allowed this to happen. I’m just frustrated with it.”

Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, responded to a few questions regarding what members of the public can do to further support House Republicans as they oppose the Democratic supermajority.

“Everybody who’s listening right now: The Capitol is open,” she said. “If we’re in session on Saturday, come on up. If you want to know what’s going to bolster us, showing up in the Capitol in support of what we’re doing and making your voices heard on a Saturday morning, that would be a great suggestion.”

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