The recently concluded redistricting special session at the Oregon Legislature was marked by a broken deal, a Republican walkout and accusations of “cheating” that have reignited tensions on the state House floor.
And the fallout from the special session may linger, bleeding into next year’s legislative session.
“It seems extremely likely to me that (the last special legislative session) indicates heightened tensions, polarization and likely more extreme maneuvers — particularly from Republicans — in the state Legislature in the next year,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University.
The 2022 regular legislative session was already looking like it would be filled with friction, as the division between political parties has expanded in recent years. While the majority Democrats are hoping to continue work on bills surrounding racial equity, police reform, immigrant rights and economic recovery following the pandemic, they will need enough Republicans to show up in Salem for them to conduct business.
And right now the GOP is in no mood to accommodate the party that they feel double-crossed them.
“The most valuable thing we have here is our word,” Republican Rep. Suzanne Weber said on the state House Floor on Monday. “So when the deal was broken ... I lost trust, and when trust is gone I genuinely don’t know how this institution can work.”
The most controversial moment of September's redistricting session was when House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat, rescinded a power-sharing deal with GOP lawmakers. The agreement, reached in April, had given House Republicans an equal say in redrawing political maps in exchange for them to stop blocking bills with delaying tactics.
The even split on the House redistricting committee essentially granted the minority party veto power over the state's new political boundaries, which included a sixth U.S. House seat.
But Kotek — who announced she is running for governor in 2022 — voided the deal on the first day of the special session, saying Republicans weren't engaging constructively. “As far as I’m concerned, we held up our end of the bargain as long as we could,” Kotek said following the conclusion of the redistricting session.
Republicans say they were cheated, as Democrats cleared the path to pass maps they wanted.
“She lied and broke her promise not just to us but to Oregonians,” Minority Leader Christine Drazan said.
Republicans initially walked out, denying the House a quorum to vote on and pass maps. However, GOP lawmakers returned Monday at which point Drazan 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,” Drazan said after Democrats passed new political maps largely along party lines.
Drazan's motion failed, 33-14, with Democrats voting against disciplining their leader and two Republicans opting to leave the chamber.
But hurt relationships and broken trust have some wondering if frustrations on the House floor will impact next year’s legislative session.
Kotek declined to speculate, saying “I take one challenge at a time.” But the Democrat did not hesitate to place blame for the heightened tension that has marked the House in recent years.
“I’ve had my challenges with Republican leaders, but not to the level that I’ve had with Leader Drazan,” Kotek said, noting she has led the chamber through nine regular and six special sessions.
Drazan said in an interview with The Associated Press that if “divisions get greater and majority and minority status gets more and more separated” then it's “going to hurt Oregon." But the exact effect the special session will have remains unknown.
“It seems to me, that every indicator right now is that it’s going to be a much more heightened and tense environment. And much more politicized — even more than it has been, increasing the likelihood of walkouts and the likelihood of allegations of bullying and unconstitutional behavior,” McKnight Nichols said.
The divide in Oregon's legislative chambers have been expanding over the past few years — as the minority party says they are not being heard and Democrats argue Republicans are not willing to compromise.
Republicans have relied on delay tactics and walkouts, halting action at the state Capitol in recent years.
In May 2019, a series of walkouts by Republican senators began to block a school funding tax. They returned after Democrats scrapped bills on gun control and another that would have limited religious exemptions from vaccines. The next month, Republicans again did not show up to the Capitol in order to stop a cap-and-trade bill.
Walkouts and delay tactics continued in 2020 and 2021.
If Republicans do seek to influence next year’s session with parliamentary delays or walkouts, it might be their last opportunity, as 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.
While Republicans criticized Kotek's broken deal, the fallout also prompted State. Rep Janelle Bynum, a Democrat, to announce she will once again pursue the House speakership, saying “repair work” needs to be done.
“If the session proved anything, it’s that we need a reset,” Bynum wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday.
Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.