Former Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno files suit to challenge Dems’ congressional redistricting map

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Oct. 12, 2021 12:37 a.m.

Clarno is one of four Republican plaintiffs in a suit alleging that Democrats’ plan amounts to illegal, blatant gerrymandering.

Former Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno and three other Oregon Republicans have filed a challenge to new congressional districts recently passed by state lawmakers, arguing the plan amounts to blatant partisan gerrymandering that is unconstitutional and contrary to state law.

The suit, filed Monday in Marion County Circuit Court, is the first such attempt to alter the six-district map that Democrats pushed through during a contentious special legislative session last month.


That session nearly ended in a Republican walkout after House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, reneged on a deal to grant the GOP an equal say in new congressional and legislative maps. Instead, Republican lawmakers showed up on the last possible day and allowed Democrats to pass a map that could lead to Democratic control of five of the state’s now-six seats in Congress. Oregon picked up an additional U.S. House seat because of population gains recorded by the recent U.S. Census.

“The result of this highly partisan process is a clear, egregious partisan gerrymander, as has been widely acknowledged both in Oregon and across the country,” the lawsuit reads. Later it notes: “Democrats are projected to win five of the six of Oregon’s congressional seats in a typical year, results that are not even arguably justified by the Democrats’ overall political support in this State or the political geography of the State.”

Clarno, the secretary of state until this year, was joined by three other former Republican officials: Gary Wilhelms of Portland, a former House Republican leader; James Wilcox, former mayor of The Dalles; and Larry Campbell of Eugene, a former House speaker. They argue that Democrats’ handling of the process harms them “by frustrating their ability to vote for and campaign for congressional candidates who share their values, and who share their views on issues such as gun rights, transportation, and water rights.”

Current Secretary of State Shemia Fagan is named as defendant, which is required by state law.

To make their case, the litigants are making a variety of claims that range from technical arguments about how census tracts are carved up to more inflammatory allegations.

In the former category, the suit notes that four of the state’s six new congressional districts include part of the Portland area, which they say is a sign Democrats improperly stocked the districts with left-leaning voters. The plaintiffs argue the lines don’t properly abide by laws requiring districts to use existing political boundaries and transportation links. As an example, they point out that the new fifth Congressional district, held in its current form by Democratic U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, stretches from Portland to Bend. Republicans have repeatedly criticized that as nonsensical.

Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno on the campus of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Former Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno is challenging new congressional districts passed by Democrats last month.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB


In the latter category, the plaintiffs allege that Democratic political strategists leaned on Kotek to back out of her deal with Republicans; that “Democrat-aligned special interest groups” actually drew the maps Democrats ultimately put forward and passed; and that a new, sixth congressional district was drawn with the specific intent of allowing Democratic state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, to win a seat in Congress.

OPB has confirmed that Salinas, who led House Democrats’ redistricting effort, has informed colleagues she plans to run for the seat, a fact first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Neither Salinas nor Kotek immediately responded to requests for comment.

Clarno and her fellow plaintiffs argue the partisanship Democrats showed in drawing maps violates a state law against creating districts in order to favor a single party or person, and also runs afoul of state and federal constitutional provisions that don’t allow gerrymandering.

They have asked the court to block the plan and draw its own, along with awarding the plaintiffs attorneys fees.

The court challenge to Oregon’s congressional map will be the state’s first time operating under a new system for resolving such conflicts. Under a law passed in 2013, a panel of five judges — one from each of the state’s current five congressional districts — are the arbiters of the dispute. That panel has until Nov. 24 to decide whether to dismiss legal challenges to the new congressional maps.

To make their case, the plaintiffs have hired Shawn Lindsay, a former Republican state representative who had a leading role in crafting new political maps during the last redistricting effort in 2011. Lindsay declined to comment on the suit Monday, instead forwarding a statement from Clarno.

“Oregon Democrats broke their word to their fellow legislators and then broke the law,” the statement said. “Oregon law has very clear protections against partisan gerrymandering that our legislature chose to violate. My hope is that the judges reviewing this case will uphold the law, say no to gerrymandering, and say yes to the fair representation Oregonians deserve.”

In this April 2, 2019, file photo, Sen. Shemia Fagan smiles at a fellow lawmaker on the Senate floor. Fagan will be the Democratic candidate in the race to become Oregon's next secretary of state.

In this April 2, 2019, file photo, Sen. Shemia Fagan smiles at a fellow lawmaker on the Senate floor.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

Democrats have consistently used the same phraseology to defend their political maps, calling them “fair and representative.” Lawmakers including Kotek and Salinas, expecting a court challenge, have also said the maps will be upheld as legal.

Online tools that attempt to measure partisan advantage drawn into redistricting maps have suggested that the congressional plan Democrats passed is heavily weighted in their party’s favor.

Tuesday is the deadline for parties to file court challenges to the new congressional maps. It was unclear Monday whether additional challengers will emerge.