Marty Wilde says he’s on a solo mission to expose the hypocrisy of his fellow Oregon Democrats.
Last year, the two-term state representative from Eugene picked a high-stakes fight with members of his party over legislative redistricting and lost. Wilde wound up being drawn into a political district he cannot win. So in what is likely his final legislative session, he’s spent much of his time engaging in a head-turning scorched earth campaign.
As lawmakers have worked through their even-year short session, Wilde has ceased meeting in private with other Democrats to discuss upcoming bills. He embraced Republicans on the chamber floor as “the party of democracy” and penned an op-ed sharply critical of what he says is a top-down Democratic power structure. He has repeatedly stood to call out his party leaders for not supporting what he says are principles of good government.
“Fear is contagious,” Wilde said on Feb. 16, in a speech that strongly suggested House Speaker Dan Rayfield had turned his back on democratic principles he’d once supported. “Once someone starts running away, others will follow. If we don’t see you standing up for the people, no one else will either.”
Wilde’s behavior has become a curiosity in the fast-expiring short session — delighting minority Republicans happy to have an assist in skewering their rivals and maddening Democrats who are not used to one of their own so thoroughly bucking the script.
But just as Republicans often see their protests fall flat, this prodigal Democrat has found himself largely shouting into the void.
Four separate attempts by Wilde to rescue bills that were trapped in committee have gone nowhere, with even Democrats who in theory support the proposals unwilling to back his procedural maneuvers. Wilde has been undeterred, and in a year when a growing list of lawmakers have signaled they will not seek re-election, he is perhaps ensuring he will be least missed by his party colleagues.
“Rep. Wilde is just exposing the dark corners of the process that the public doesn’t really see or understand,” said Rep. David Brock Smith, a Port Orford Republican who is no stranger to the kind of eye-poking Wilde has taken up of late.
State Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, a Portland Democrat who has been a Wilde target, offered a sharper take. “You can’t spell ‘martyr,’” she said, “without ‘Marty.’”
Redistricting and the aftermath
It is true that Wilde feels like a sacrificial lamb.
Last year, as lawmakers were preparing to rejigger boundaries for the state’s 90 legislative districts, Wilde parted company with others in his party by insisting that his Eugene House district had been gerrymandered in Democrats’ favor a decade before. The jutting boundary of House District 11, he said, unnaturally tied liberal and populous Eugene to more rural areas, effectively disenfranchising conservative voters who would be stuck with a Democratic representative.
Wilde rallied citizens to testify in favor of new boundaries that would still have left him still in a safely Democratic seat but likely would have given nearby conservative areas to a GOP lawmaker.
He got half of what he wanted.
Democrats passed a new legislative map that will likely ensure those rural areas have a Republican representative — and Wilde’s house is in it. The lawmaker joined an unsuccessful court challenge to the new district, arguing the new map was retribution both for speaking out and for his vocal intentions to challenge Democratic Sen. Floyd Prozanski.
Now Wilde says he won’t run for re-election in a district he can’t win.
“I’m not bitter,” he said recently. “I just have limited time, and it’s time to do the things we care about.”
High on that list, for Wilde, has been shaming his caucus into making more decisions in public forums. In his recent op-ed, Wilde laid out his reasons for refusing to meet with other Democrats in private caucus meetings where the party, which holds a supermajority in the House, makes decisions about which bills will live or die. Among his claims: that the Democratic leadership team in the House had taken to instructing members on how to vote on bills, without going into detail about their internal discussions.
“In effect, the content and direction of legislation for all of Oregon was decided by a group of 10 or fewer people picked by their ability to raise money, in secret,” Wilde wrote. The dig was aimed largely at past House leadership, including former House Speaker Tina Kotek, who stepped down this year to run for governor, and Smith Warner, the former Democratic leader.
Wilde has been more diplomatic about the new speaker, Rayfield, but he’s continued to lob verbal bombs.
Wilde rose earlier this week, for example, to decry leading lawmakers making budget decisions out of the public eye. “We don’t know what set of beliefs guided our budget, because it continues to be a document entirely developed outside of the public view,” Wilde said of roughly $2.7 billion in new spending lawmakers are preparing to approve. “The Oregon Constitution requires the public’s business to be conducted publicly, however inconvenient that might be.”
Other action items on Wilde’s list, he says, are things that Democrats say they support but haven’t passed: preventing partisan gerrymandering, creating limits on political donations, and exercising more authority over the emergency powers of the governor.
“These are all things that earn support of 75% or better of the electorate but the institutional party keeps fighting against them,” Wilde said.
A Democrat, treated like Republicans
Wilde’s fellow Democrats have typically treated the lawmaker’s maneuvers as they do similar tactics from Republicans: with public indifference and private criticisms.
In four separate instances this session, Wilde has attempted to use a procedural move to pull a bill out of committee and directly onto the House floor for a vote. All four failed, with Wilde winning support from between one and four fellow Democrats.
One Democrat has joined with Wilde on three attempts. State Rep. Paul Evans, a moderate lawmaker from Monmouth, says he supported the underlying proposals that Wilde was trying to rescue: resolutions that would ask voters to create an impeachment process for the governor and create a nonpartisan redistricting commission, and a bill to offer tax benefits to volunteer firefighters.
“I can’t speak to what his strategy is,” Evans said Tuesday. “I would like to believe he believes he is using his time in the Legislature to advocate for a principle-driven agenda.”
Other Democrats are not as charitable. Wilde, an attorney and colonel in the Air National Guard, is seen by members of his party as a smart and hard-working lawmaker who nevertheless too often assumes his views are correct.
“Unfortunately, in the bills that he’s presented and the ideas he’s pushing he doesn’t allow people the space and time to provide input,” said state Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie. “It seems like he already knows what the right answer is and he’s just going to try to make it happen by himself. Legislating is not a solo endeavor.”
Power and others bristle at Wilde’s attempts to force votes on bills that they believe haven’t been thoroughly vetted. Wilde’s retort is that they haven’t been vetted only because majority Democrats have declined to make the time.
One target of his ire is Smith Warner, who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee, which takes up bills relating to elections and other nuts-and-bolts issues of governance. Wilde has pressed since 2021 for a law change to rein in the governor’s authority to declare a state of emergency that lasts for years, as Gov. Kate Brown’s declaration on COVID-19 has.
Wilde says Smith Warner agreed to take up the matter in this year’s session, then backed off. “Rep. Smith Warner declined to hear it even after promising she would,” he said. “For too long, we’ve let individual lawmakers stand in the way of progress…”
Smith Warner acknowledges changing her mind. “I told Marty at the end of the ‘21 session (and all throughout) that we could discuss emergency powers once we were through the pandemic, which in June 2021 seemed imminent,” she said in a text message. “As we are still in it now, I continue to believe that we need to be through it before we can give it reasonable analysis.”
Rayfield, the new house speaker, said recently that the issues that Wilde has raised “are important to highlight.” But Rayfield pushed back on Wilde’s suggestion that he has turned his back on passing campaign finance limits this session. The speaker argued there was not enough time in the 35-day short session to pursue an issue he has unsuccessfully pushed in past sessions.
“Rep. Wilde made a choice for whatever reason to stop attending caucus this entire session and even beyond that,” Rayfield said. “He’s not in tune with caucus conversations.”
Some of Wilde’s fellow Democrats see more than angst in Wilde’s actions, suggesting he might be positioning himself for a future political run. They note that he recently changed the address where he is registered to vote to his parents’ home in Eugene. That home is within the safely Democratic district of a fellow House member, Rep. Paul Holvey.
Wilde acknowledged recently that he does not live at the home, but said he is planning to move there as his parents’ age. He also said he will not challenge any sitting lawmaker; he made the change as a hedge in case sitting lawmakers who represent the district decided not to run.
One thing Wilde will not say is that he’s done with elected office, even though he acknowledged that his tactics in the current session have not won him many friends in the state’s majority party.
“Bravery is easier,” he said, “when you’ve got nothing to lose.”