Oregon lawmakers pass plans for new political maps, after Republicans end boycott

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Sept. 27, 2021 4:52 p.m. Updated: Sept. 27, 2021 10:57 p.m.

The GOP opposed the Democrats’ plans, but feared what could happen if responsibility for legislative districts moved to the secretary of state.

Oregon House Republicans reversed themselves Monday, showing up to the Capitol to allow passage of redistricting plans they’ve argued are rigged to ensure Democratic dominance.

Two days after nearly all of their membership refused to attend a House floor session to take up the maps, enough Republican members arrived in Salem to establish a quorum, allowing Democrats to pass their proposals on the last possible day.


Bills to rejigger the state’s 90 legislative districts and to give Oregon a sixth congressional district passed the House largely along party lines. Gov. Kate Brown signed the bills Monday evening, making Oregon the first state to pass a congressional redistricting plan this year.

Related: Oregon lawmakers are taking up political maps. Here’s what you need to know.

Passage of legislative plans was hailed by Democrats as a triumph over logistical issues posed by COVID-19 and a tight deadline. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is concerned with congressional maps, called Oregon’s plan “a compromise that accurately reflects the makeup of the state as a whole and took into consideration the diverse input from members of the public.”

Republicans and their allies were universal in their disdain, guaranteeing court challenges and accusing the majority party of acting in bad faith. “The law requires us to keep communities of interest together in the redistricting process,” Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, said in a statement. “The only community of interest this map seeks to keep together are Democrat voters.”

With their change in tactics, Republicans opted for certitude — particularly in maps redrawing legislative districts. If lawmakers had failed to pass a legislative plan floated by Democrats, the job would have gone to Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. Many in the GOP feared what a Fagan-drawn map could look like.

“These are difficult decisions,” said House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, when asked what had changed between Monday and Saturday.

A large open government meeting room with a mural on the wall, in which a handful of people are standing or sitting at desks.

A handful of senators talk on the floor of the Oregon state Senate on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, as the Oregon Legislature conducted a special session to consider redistricting. The aim of the session was to pass new legislative and congressional district maps, which the state will use for elections.

Andrew Selsky / AP

As the House passed the two plans, enshrined in Senate Bills 881 and 882, the Senate returned to action. Democratic senators quickly passed both bills a week ago over Republican objections. But in the time since, Democrats updated their proposal for drawing a new congressional map, and the amended bill needed Senate approval after passing the House. Senators approved the plan on an 18-6, party-line vote.

Rather than an initial plan that would likely have guaranteed Democrats will hold five of the state’s now-six congressional seats, Democrats offered a somewhat softer proposal over the weekend. That map includes four seats that are either safe Democratic or lean in the party’s favor, one safe Republican seat, and a sixth district that could be a tossup.

But that swing seat is currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep Kurt Schrader, who is likely to ride his incumbency to reelection. The district also includes fast-growing Bend, which should give it a more Democratic lean in future years.

Online tools that analyze redistricting plans found Democrats’ final offer was not as biased in their party’s favor as their first plan, but still favored Democratic candidates. Republicans on Saturday suggested the maps would lead to the same result as Democrats’ initial proposal — a 5-1 Democratic advantage — and opted to boycott the session rather than allow passage.

“At the end of the day this is the same outcome, maybe just a little more dressed up than the previous blatantly gerrymandered map,” said state Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, in a committee hearing to take up the new proposal Saturday.

The final congressional boundaries approved by the Oregon Legislature on Sept. 27, 2021.

The final congressional boundaries approved by the Oregon Legislature on Sept. 27, 2021.

Oregon Legislature

In debate on the House floor Monday afternoon, Republicans continued that criticism. Many said they wrestled with whether to come to the Capitol, accusing Democrats of forcing a partisan plan that did not sensibly split up the state into six congressional districts.

“The minor changes that came after a mountain of public pressure were so minor that they were almost offensive and they didn’t address the real problem that Republicans, Independents and Democrats around the state have pointed out,” said state Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook. “You can’t have four congressional districts spider out from Portland and honestly believe that the maps are fair.”

State Rep. Jack Zika, R-Bend, ripped into Democrats for drawing a district that extends from Portland to his central Oregon city, a move he said illegally united areas with little in common.


“I have received thousands of emails from my constituents that said that they do not want to be represented in Congress in Washington, D.C., by somebody from Portland,” Zika said. “I’m deeply concerned that this map divides the communities of common interest, ignores existing geographical boundaries and cuts through the existing political boundaries.”

But Democrats insisted their proposals are “fair and representative”, laying out extended rationale for how they came up with their plans, and insisting they would stand up to legal scrutiny.

“As we all know, change can be uncomfortable, and these have been challenging conversations,” said state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, who led the Democrats’ redistricting effort in the House. “But our state’s growth and changing demographics requires a careful redistricting process that includes the voices, needs, and stories of all Oregonians, including those who have traditionally been shut out of the political process.”

It was much the same when lawmakers took up SB 882, the Democrats’ plan for legislative districts.

Republicans repeatedly accused Democrats of moving lines in order to press their existing advantage while representatives in the majority party listed reasons they believe the maps were fair. In one case state Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, spoke against changes to her own district, which will ensure it favors a Democrat.

“These current redistricting maps have an obvious goal to remove all obstacles to Democrat power, and they are a blatant play for one party rule in Oregon,” said state Rep. Christine Goodwin, R-Roseburg, the chamber’s newest member.

Also critical of the process was state Rep. Brian Clem, a Salem Democrat, who announced in a floor speech that he would not be running for re-election next year. Clem cited personal issues in his decision, but also tore into House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, for breaking a commitment to grant Republicans an equal say in redistricting.

“You cannot go back on your word,” Clem said. “It was supposed to be bipartisan or nothing. The change in the process is more than I can stomach... This is not okay and I just can’t dignify it with my vote.”

House Republicans’ decision to ultimately allow the maps through is the result of what the party saw as a no-win situation. If the GOP blocked congressional maps it deems unfair, it would also kill a set of new legislative maps that analyses suggest are more even-handed.

Those legislative plans would likely still enable Democrats to hold majorities in the House and Senate, but might not yield the three-fifths supermajorities the party currently holds in both chambers. There was no guarantee Republicans would get a better deal from Fagan.

“Many of us are only here because we don’t trust the Secretary of State to draw these maps, either,” Weber said.

The last-minute legislating marked the end of a frenzied week-long special session that included a shattered political deal, at least one positive case of COVID-19, and a Republican boycott.

Not long after lawmakers first convened in Salem on Sept. 20, Kotek announced she’d be reneging on a deal she made with Republicans earlier in the year. Under that deal, Kotek granted GOP members equal say on the House Redistricting Committee, theoretically giving the party veto power over proposals it believed were not fair.

But with Republicans vowing to block Democrats’ proposals, Kotek severed her commitment, arguing the party had not approached the redistricting process in good faith. She instead announced new redistricting committees designed to speed through Democrats’ plans.

The maneuver enraged Republicans — so much so that Drazan unsuccessfully attempted to have Kotek censured by the chamber on Monday. It also seemed to guarantee the GOP would give up on the session and go home. But before their decision became clear, COVID-19 intervened. A Republican lawmaker tested positive for the virus on Tuesday, prompting Kotek to recess the chamber until Saturday morning.

In the meantime, senior leaders in both parties continued talking. When Senate Democrats proposed a plan for reshaping their initial congressional proposal, the two sides neared an agreement Friday night, according to people in both parties. But by Saturday, Republicans evidently decided the new map wasn’t good enough, and refused to attend a floor session.

With the GOP absent, Kotek kept Democrats on the House floor for more than four hours before adjourning until Monday morning. She warned at the time that if the chamber had not reached a quorum by 9:30 a.m., she would end the session -- and the Legislature’s ability to pass political maps.

The redistricting process occurs every 10 years following the U.S. Census. Since its results help dictate which party will lead the state for the next decade, it’s a major focus for lawmakers. But the legislature has had little success over the years.

Since 1910, Oregon lawmakers have succeeded in passing new plans that went into law just twice, most recently in 2011. In other years, plans either failed to pass both chambers, were vetoed by the governor, or were altered by the courts.

With Republicans still angered over the maps passed Monday, a court challenge appears likely. Objections to the congressional map lawmakers passed are due by Oct. 12. Challenges to the legislative maps must be filed by Oct. 25.

By passing maps, the Legislature pre-empted Fagan, who had planned to take input from a “citizen’s commission” if she was tasked with redrawing legislative maps. If lawmakers had failed to pass a new congressional plan, the job would have gone to a panel of five judges selected by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters.