Oregon redistricting fight is over, but fallout might linger

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Sept. 28, 2021 10:55 p.m.

A broken handshake agreement could have repercussions in the future, as leaders in both parties blame the other.

Even by the sour standards that often mark action in Salem these days, the Oregon Legislature’s freshly ended special session managed to stand out.

Many of the hallmarks Oregonians have seen frequently in recent years were accounted for: a Republican walkout, accusations of bullying, and partisan sniping about COVID safety among them.


But it’s a more novel aspect of the session that could linger longest.

On the first day of the special session, House Speaker Tina Kotek pulled out of a deal reached in April, in which she gave House Republicans an equal say in redistricting in exchange for their commitment to stop requiring bills to be read in full before passage.

That agreement yielded huge benefits for Democrats, who saw their agenda largely breeze through the House during this year’s regular legislative session. But Kotek’s decision to abandon the deal when it appeared Republicans would use their equal footing to block her party’s maps seems certain to have consequences going into the future.

Oregon House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner (left) and House Speaker Tina Kotek speak on the dais of the House floor as they await confirmation of a quorum Saturday, Sept. 25.

Oregon House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner (left) and House Speaker Tina Kotek speak on the dais of the House floor as they await confirmation of a quorum Saturday, Sept. 25.

Sam Stites / OPB

Republicans in the last week have questioned why they would ever make another deal to end tactics like requiring bill readings. Without such deals, legislative sessions could more and more resemble the scenes that played out earlier this year, when both the House and Senate resorted to having a computer program read bill language aloud for hours on end, while lawmakers accomplished nothing.

“As far as I’m concerned, we held up our end of the bargain as long as we could,” Kotek said Monday. “The challenge for us was, when it came a week out from getting everything done, what we were seeing from the House Republicans in particular was just not engaging at the level they needed to engage so we could reach consensus and compromise.”

Republicans insist they were cheated. The party was so incensed by Kotek’s decision that they stayed away from the Capitol on Saturday, refusing to grant Democrats a quorum to pass their proposals. When they returned on Monday, Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, put forward a motion to have Kotek formally censured.

“When she chooses to break an agreement made in good faith, she is harming the institution, creating greater division and impacting our ability to work together in service to Oregonians,” Drazan said. “She must be censured for this conduct.”

The motion, floated immediately after Democrats passed new political maps largely along party lines, was little more than an opportunity for Drazan to air grievances. Supermajority Democrats dutifully voted against disciplining their leader, who has her sights set on the governor’s office. Two Republicans opted to leave the chamber rather than participating. The motion failed on a 33-14 vote.

Drazan herself suggested that she would face reprisals for urging censure. “I recognize that there’s probably nobody who believes that I personally won’t face something for my decision to bring this forward,” she said.

The GOP leader was not alone in decrying Kotek’s decision. Time and again, Republicans rose Monday to oppose new maps for the state’s legislative and congressional districts, and to complain about the broken agreement.

“Now we can’t trust that deals are being brokered fairly,” said state Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook. “And I don’t know how we come back from that when we’ve lost so much of the trust and the leadership in this state.”

Many Democrats appeared to back Kotek’s decision, and the House speaker was praised on social media for playing a brand of political hardball more common in Republican-led states.


“I supported the speaker’s decision,” said state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, who led the redistricting effort for House Democrats. “The House Republicans were not playing ball.”

But that feeling was not universal, particularly among more moderate members of a House Democratic caucus that has grown increasingly liberal in recent elections.

During Monday’s debate, state Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, rose to announce that he would not run for re-election for personal reasons. With that decision revealed, he chided Kotek for breaking faith with Republicans.

“You cannot go back on your word,” said Clem, one of two Democrats who voted against proposed legislative district maps that should maintain their party’s edge in the House. “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.”

Clem said Tuesday that he’d grown tired of increasingly bellicose politics in Salem, where he said members in both parties are willing to go to increasing lengths to achieve their ideological goals. He said Kotek breaking her deal was one example of that, but he also criticized Republicans for attempting to censure the speaker.

“All of us are guilty of doing things,” he said. “You don’t have anything for currency in the Capitol, so you shake hands and you make a deal. [When you break a deal], especially when it’s public like that, it’s irreparable.”

A close-up image of a woman's face in profile.

Oregon House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, pictured in 2019. Drazan attempted to censure House Speaker Tina Kotek, after Kotek broke an earlier deal.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Fallout from the scuttled agreement also prompted one Democrat to make an announcement many had expected. State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, will once again pursue the House speakership.

“If the session proved anything, it’s that we need a reset,” Bynum wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday. “I’m not saying it has to be puppies and lollipops, but I think there’s lots of room for us to do better in terms of how we interact with one another.”

Bynum, who was preparing to challenge Kotek for the speakership earlier this year before reaching her own handshake deal with the speaker, said she’ll once again run once nominations are open. Under normal timelines that would not be until late 2022, but that could change if Kotek decides to step down from the role as she runs for governor. A spokesman said Monday she planned to remain speaker during next year’s one-month legislative session.

“We’re definitely going to have to do some repair work between now and then,” Bynum said Tuesday, when asked about how the redistricting fight could impact the 2022 session. “Otherwise I think people will decide not to run [for office]. It’s terribly frustrating to be caught in the middle of that and to feel powerless.”

For her part, Kotek declined to speculate on Monday about whether the frustrations from the redistricting fight were likely to bleed into future sessions. “I try not to project that far ahead,” she said. “I take one challenge at a time.”

But the speaker did not hesitate to place blame for the heightened tension that has marked the House in recent years, noting she’d led the chamber through nine regular and six special sessions.

“I’ve had my challenges with Republican leaders, but not to the level that I’ve had with Leader Drazan,” Kotek said. “I think you should ask her why she has such a difficult time succeeding for her caucus... I have a track record working across the aisle with everybody. My problem lies with her.”

How the interpersonal fracture plays out in the future is not clear. Asked about it on Tuesday, a spokesman for Drazan pointed to her statement advocating for Kotek’s censure.

If Republicans do seek to influence next year’s session with parliamentary delays or walkouts, it might be their last opportunity. A coalition of Democratic allies have begun pursuing measures on the 2022 ballot that would penalize lawmakers for blocking legislative action by walking away, and effectively eliminate their ability to require bills to be read in full.

The coalition, No More Costly Walkouts, currently has four potential measures in play, and has said it will decide which to put before voters based on official ballot language and polling.

“The coalition will move forward one or more of those but they aren’t ready to make an announcement,” said Patty Wentz, a consultant working for the group. She added the group is “holding firm on the fact there need to be consequences for walking off the job.”