Oregon’s Legislature lurched to life Tuesday, convening a 35-day legislative “short” session expected to touch on pandemic recovery, worker protections, the state’s fractured mental health system and far more.
It’s a biannual sprint, during which lawmakers hope to see their priority bills and budget requests cross the finish line by early March. And on Tuesday morning – past newly installed metal detectors and Xray machines – all eyes were on the House as the chamber elected state Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, as its first new House speaker in nine years.
With that move the chamber set a somewhat hopeful tone for the session. Former Speaker Tina Kotek, who stepped down last month to focus on a run for governor, had seen once-professional relationships with Republicans curdle in recent years, as the GOP repeatedly used walkouts and other tactics to delay Democratic priorities they said would do harm.
Rayfield pledged to use the relationships he’d developed as the chamber’s top budget writer to try to ease that strain during what he called “the most important short session” the state has ever had. The abbreviated even-year sessions began in 2012, and Rayfield suggested COVID-19 had left the state in a particularly tenuous place this time around.
“We are all here because we want to do good for Oregon,” Rayfield said during a speech after his election. “It is important to me that we give the measure of grace that comes from recognizing that in all of us.”
Rayfield was broadly expected to win the speakership, and had already begun to move into the large office behind the chamber dais prior to the vote. But he faced opposition in the floor vote. As is typical, Republicans put forward their caucus leader, Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville, for the position. Also up for consideration was Rep. Janelle Bynum, the Happy Valley Democrat who went up against Rayfield for her party’s nomination last month. Despite losing that contest, Bynum was put forward on the floor as a potential speaker by Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond.
Bynum wound up attracting four votes, three from members of her own party. Breese-Iverson got 18 votes from Republican members. Rayfield won the contest with 32 votes, one more than necessary to become speaker.
If the outcome was expected, the details of Rayfield’s speech were perhaps not.
Rather than simply calling on his colleagues to unite in the face of shared challenges, Rayfield reached back into a childhood split between Oregon and southern California, in which he was physically abused by a step-parent and watched his mother grapple with addiction.
“The chaos of my childhood followed me,” Rayfield said. “I struggled with ADD. I did not graduate high school on time because I failed an entire term for not showing up… I drank, I experimented with drugs when I should have been focused on school.”
Rayfield would be arrested four times, he said, and ended his first stint in college after two terms. He got a job at Disney World, as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride, but said he was fired “because my jokes were so bad.”
“Everybody has their own rock bottom,” he said. “That was mine.”
Rayfield wound up graduating from Western Oregon University, and got a law degree from Willamette University. Today, he is a trial attorney, a month away from his 43rd birthday. But he said Tuesday his past had helped him better understand the challenges people in the state are facing.
“There are so many Oregonians that find themselves where I was 20 years ago,” he said. “I stand before you as someone who has been in that dark place… I also stand before you as living proof that the worst moment in our lives doesn’t have to be our destiny.” He also acknowledged that his experience in the criminal justice system would have been different if he was a person of color.
Rayfield first won election to the House in 2014, after running unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in 2010.
He moved up the ranks of Democratic leadership with uncommon speed. Following his first session in 2015, he was named House majority whip. Three years later, then- Speaker Tina Kotek put him atop the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, making him one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Capitol.
Rayfield has spent his entire time in the Legislature working on budget issues, and has said he worked hard over the years to develop a mastery that few other lawmakers had.
He also built a reputation for putting forward good governance bills that sometimes went nowhere. In 2017, he attempted to create transparency rules on lobbying in the Capitol, but was unsuccessful. Two years later, Rayfield proposed a new system of campaign contribution limits that passed the House, but died in the Senate. Oregon remains one of a handful of states without any such limits. It’s not clear that several proposals that have been introduced this session will have a better chance with Rayfield in charge.
Politically, Rayfield holds broadly similar views to Kotek, his longtime progressive ally. But he said recently he will seek to avoid toxic relationships that have festered in the House in recent years, with Republicans repeatedly engaging in delay tactics or walking out to stymie Democratic priorities they say would be harmful.
Rayfield said his approach to politics was informed by his parents’ sharply divergent views during his youth. His father, an insurance executive and Air Force reserve colonel, was conservative. His mother was liberal.
“There just was an appreciation that both of them…they’re coming at life from a different perspective and they’re just trying to get to the same result in a different way,” Rayfield told reporters in January. “That’s kind of the way that I’ve approached my leadership style, and will continue to approach my leadership style.”
Rayfield’s bipartisan vision is likely to be tested repeatedly in the coming 35 days.
Already Tuesday, signs of potential disagreement emerged in the House. Several Republicans stood to decry a Democratic bill, HB 4002, that would grant overtime pay to farmworkers, a step they warn will put small farms out of business. A similar bill was put forward last year, but was shelved because lawmakers could not find agreement on a way forward.
“This is a short session, but an important and complicated conversation,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany.
Lawmakers also showed signs of strain over an ever-present point of contention in the statehouse: masking requirements. Several Republicans rose to complain about the state’s rules, among the strictest in the country, requiring Oregonians to wear masks while inside public spaces. Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, and others in his party also chafed at chamber rules requiring them to wear masks while speaking on the House floor.
“Wearing a mask indefinitely for fear that you might get sick may have caused more harm,” said state Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass. “It’s time for us to move on. It’s time for us to counter the Oregon Health Authority making these rules permanent.”
The comments prompted a retort from Rep. Lisa Reynolds, a Portland Democrat and pediatrician, who pointed out that the number of Oregon children hospitalized with COVID-19 recently reached an all-time high.
“I am tired,” she said, “of the minimization of this deadly disease.”
Disagreements over the state’s pandemic response threatened to become disruptive later in the day, when participants in a rally protesting masking requirements attempted to enter the Capitol.
Dozens of maskless protestors squared off with state troopers at one of the building’s entrances for the better part of an hour, demanding to be allowed inside without face coverings. Oregon state troopers blocked most but did grant entrance to a handful of people who claimed medical exemptions to mask rules. The standoff eventually dissipated peacefully.