Two prominent House Democrats will vie this weekend for their party’s backing to be Oregon’s next speaker of the House, in a vote likely to dictate who holds one of the state’s most powerful political jobs.
According to several House lawmakers, Reps. Janelle Bynum and Dan Rayfield are planning to put their names forward in a closed nomination vote on Sunday. The victor will likely have unanimous support from Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the chamber, when the House elects a new speaker on Feb.1.
House speakers in Oregon wield enormous power over the flow of bills, which lawmakers serve as committee chairs, budget priorities and more. For nearly a decade, the job has been held by Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat who is resigning from the Legislature next week to focus on a run for governor.
Bynum, who lives in Happy Valley, has been broadcasting her intention to run for speaker since September. She considered challenging Kotek for the job in 2021, but backed off as part of a deal that saw Democrats dedicate new resources and a position in leadership to lawmakers of color. Bynum also has said she secured an agreement at the time that Kotek would support her in a future bid for speaker, something Kotek has denied.
As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Bynum has been a driving force in shaping police reform and racial equity bills that lawmakers passed in recent years. The three-term lawmaker, who is Black, also chairs the Legislature’s BIPOC Caucus and recently joined the powerful budget-writing committee.
Central to her bid for speaker is Bynum’s insistence that lawmakers of color have not been offered enough opportunity to hold top leadership positions in Oregon government. Her challenger for the speakership, Rayfield, is white.
“If communities of color want to be at the decision-making table, we have to build a bench, and those of us in power have to carry ourselves in a way that inspires, challenges, and moves the needle,” Bynum said in 2020, as she prepared to challenge Kotek.
A small businesswoman and restaurateur, Bynum is considered more moderate than many in the Democratic caucus, and has said she can unify a House chamber that has grown increasingly fractious in recent years. Since 2019, Republicans in the chamber have increasingly used delay tactics and walkouts to slow Democratic priorities.
Rayfield, of Corvallis, is a four-term lawmaker and personal injury attorney. As one of two chairs of the legislative budget-writing committee, he holds one of the most powerful positions in the Capitol, and is known as a detail oriented lawmaker who’s grown into an expert on the budget in a short period of time.
Rayfield is considered more liberal than Bynum, but has also won respect among Republicans. Rep. Greg Smith, a Heppner Republican and the longest-tenured House member, told OPB this week he is “doing everything I can to support Dan Rayfield as speaker.”
“There’s only a handful of people who know more about the budget better than I do,” said Smith, who chairs a budget subcommittee. “In his six years, he knows it better. He’s the real deal.”
Rayfield declined to discuss his potential candidacy this week, saying in a text message that he wanted to “honor our caucus and chamber election process.” But four House lawmakers told OPB they had learned he is pursuing the job.
Another legislator rumored to be interested in the speakership, Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene, told OPB on Thursday she would not run. Fahey is said to be considering the job of House Democratic Leader, which Rep. Barbara Smith Warner has told colleagues she will give up.
Sunday’s vote will be held in a closed meeting of House Democrats, and conducted by secret ballot. Whichever candidate gets most votes in the 37-member caucus will be named the party’s nominee when the full House votes next month, and Democrats are expected to vote in lockstep for that person.
But there’s always room for the unexpected. In 2021, Bynum did not seek her party’s nomination for speaker. She instead planned to challenge Kotek for the job on the House floor, forcing Democrats to be public about their allegiances and potentially drawing support from Republicans who favored bouncing the incumbent speaker. Bynum abandoned that plan after she reached a deal with Kotek.
At least one House Democrat thinks the expectation the entire party must vote for its nominee is unwise. State Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, sent fellow Democrats an email this week urging them to rethink the practice.
“The practice of voting as a block gives the (prospective) Speaker no incentive to talk to our Republican colleagues,” Wilde wrote. “I do not mean to suggest that the candidate should promise anything substantive to them. However, I believe the only way to build the trust necessary to stop the endless cycle of bill reading and frivolous motions is for us to prove to them that they will get a fair voice in the process.”