State Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, in the Oregon House of Representatives, Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Former state Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, is among a group of retired lawmakers looking to support centrist Democrats this year.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

It has been a subject of discussion in Salem for years: Centrist Democrats are becoming harder to find.

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Moderate state lawmakers have departed in droves in recent elections, complaining their voices are increasingly drowned out amid Democratic supermajorities dominated by progressives — particularly in the House. Their seats have often been filled by more liberal lawmakers, or even ceded to Republicans.

With the GOP also drifting toward the fringes, compromise has seemed increasingly difficult in Salem — and extreme maneuvers such as legislative walkouts ever more common.

“Without open primaries, each side is picking their hardest core people,” said former state Rep. Jeff Barker, a moderate Democrat from the Portland suburb of Aloha who left office in 2019. “It’s getting more divisive.”

Barker is now part of a group of six Democratic former lawmakers trying to reverse the tide. They’ve formed a political action committee they hope can temper forces that favor partisans in the upcoming May primary. Instead, they say, they’ll try to pave a way for lawmakers who crave compromise.

Organizers of the new PAC, “Oregonians are Ready,” filed their paperwork with the Secretary of State on Tuesday. The group is the brainchild of former state Rep. Brian Clem, a businessman and Salem Democrat who left office last year, and has loaned the effort $500,000 of his own money while he scouts out deep-pocketed donors.

“I’m committed to this,” Clem said in a recent interview. “I want to put my money where my mouth is.”

“The problem with supermajorities”

He’s joined by four former Democratic state representatives: Barker, Caddy McKeown, Betty Komp and Deborah Boone. Former state Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Coos Bay Democrat, rounds out the group.

In interviews this week, many of those former lawmakers worried that centrist and rural voices had become too easily ignored in a Democratic Party that boasts a 37-23 majority in the state House, and a 18-12 advantage in the Senate. While “moderate” can mean many things in the Legislature — and the list of who counts as a moderate can shift by the issue — all said Democrats who might tend to support business interests on tax matters or listen to rural interests in environmental debates were losing ground.

With Democrats running up the score in recent elections, they said, the need to compromise with Republicans has grown far less urgent, creating bruised feelings and ill will in the statehouse.

“Lately I felt like my party has been willing to take a 31-29 victory and be thrilled at getting 100% of what they want,” Clem said, “as opposed to getting 80% of what they want and not having other people pissed off.”

One notable example for Clem: former House Speaker Tina Kotek’s decision to rescind a deal last year that would have granted Republicans an equal say on how new congressional districts were drawn. Kotek opted to renege on that agreement, advancing a Democratic plan and outraging the GOP.

Democrats and Republicans appeared to have mended some fences in the recent legislative short session, but that didn’t prevent accusations of Democratic overreach, including from a sitting member of the party.

Roblan served as a co-speaker of the House in 2011 and 2012 when the chamber was equally split between Democrats and Republicans. In the years since, he said, progressive ideas such as a plan to reduce carbon emissions that Roblan helped kill in 2019 had come to dominate his party’s positions. That has hurt Democrats in rural areas like the coastal district he represented for 16 years, he said.

“That is the problem with supermajorities, because they just don’t need you,” he said. “We want to make sure that the Democratic Party really represents all the working people in Oregon. It is a deep feeling among us that there are people whose voices haven’t been heard.”

The partisan drift isn’t contained to the Democrats. As Republicans’ ranks in the Legislature have dwindled, members of the party have at times taken extreme positions, such as when 12 lawmakers urged Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to join a lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election. And nationally, both parties are enmeshed in serious debates about whether to advocate hyperpartisan ideas or present a more moderate platform.

Money for moderates

Centrist Democrats in the Legislature have often talked about how to counteract these trends. For years, a loose coalition of moderates including Clem, Barker and McKeown gathered weekly while the Legislature was in session, discussing how best to maintain influence even while handily outnumbered by a bloc of progressive lawmakers from Portland and other cities.

“We weren’t trying to form a rebel group,” Barker said. “We just wanted some input.”

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The discussions also led to a question, according to Clem: What defense do moderate lawmakers have if they take a stance that angers the left flank of their party?

“A bunch of us were talking about what happens if someone gets in a primary situation for what they believe is doing the right thing,” he said. “Who helps them?”

Such situations aren’t regular in state politics, but they do occur. In 2018, now-Secretary of State Shemia Fagan mounted a primary challenge against moderate Democratic Sen. Rod Monroe, based on his opposition to a bill to institute rent control. Monroe, who’d spent a combined 24 years in the Legislature, lost in a landslide.

Conservative Republicans have also found occasional success running to the right of established lawmakers, such as when now-state Sen. Kim Thatcher won election to the House in 2004, after knocking off a GOP incumbent who’d voted to raise taxes.

The idea for an organized effort to protect centrist Democrats was Clem’s. It mirrors a similar push to preserve moderate Democrats in Congress. But Clem says he took some inspiration from California, a state where Democrats also dominate, and where centrist Democrats have at times been able to force progressives to pare back their proposals.

In the Golden State, well-funded PACs supported by business lobbyists have helped moderate Democrats win office over more liberal options. But that arrangement emerged under a far different electoral system, where candidates from every party vie against each other in the primary and the top two vote getters advance to the general election. Because of that structure, Democrats representing different wings of their party sometimes go head to head.

In Oregon, Democrats and Republicans hold closed primaries that are only open to their own voters. They tend to favor candidates who are farther to the political left or right, respectively. Clem and the other former lawmakers behind Oregonians Are Ready hope they can make a dent in that dynamic.

“The main idea was that we could support moderate people and hopefully be able to raise some money for them through lobbyists who support the moderates, see if we can’t help get some people elected,” Barker said.

Plans for the May primary

There is evidence the idea could prove popular. Barker, who left the House in 2020 after 18 years, says he was recruited this year to run for a Washington County Senate district by members of the business lobby. They were hoping to find a moderate alternative to state Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, a progressive who is pursuing the seat.

A former Portland police lieutenant who often parted company with more liberal members of his party, Barker would have made a fitting candidate for the PAC he is now helping run. Instead the 78-year-old declined, opting to enjoy his retirement.

Where the new effort goes from here is still somewhat unclear. Clem said that he expects Oregonians Are Ready will support perhaps four Democrats in the May 17 primary, favoring those who he says will have a moderating effect on Salem. That likely will include two sitting lawmakers who face a challenge from the left.

State Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, is departing the rural district northwest of Portland he’s represented since 2005, and which favors Republicans after lawmakers rejiggered district boundaries last year. Witt has instead moved to a Salem district that appears primed to switch from Republicans to Democrats because of redistricting. He’ll face two Salem City Council members, Jackie Leung and Tom Andersen. Leung has received backing from prominent Democratic boosters like the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood.

“That one is a three-way dog fight where Brad needs to knock on doors and have money to make himself known,” Clem said.

A longtime resident of rural Oregon and a former employee at unions representing lumbermen and grocery store workers, Witt has been one of the more conservative House Democrats. He notably diverged from many of his colleagues in 2019, when the House passed bills to force reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and allow greater housing density in larger cities. He’s aligned with fellow Democrats on other high-profile issues, including raising the minimum wage, providing overtime pay for farmworkers, and a new business tax to fund schools.

Witt also came under fire last year, when a series of text messages to a Republican state representative led to a sexual harassment complaint. A legislative committee ultimately determined that Witt had not intended to harass Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson, but that she was justified in thinking he had.

Though he’s a sitting lawmaker, the fact that Witt is not an incumbent in the district he’s pursuing means he can’t count on support from House Democrats’ political action committee to help him get his name in front of a new crop of voters. The Oregonians Are Ready PAC expects to help fill that void.

“Witt’s voice in that caucus matters,” said McKeown, who represented a rural coastal district in the House for five terms. “He brings a very different perspective.”

The PAC is also expected to support sitting state Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, who is facing a primary challenge from the left in anesthesiologist Tammy Carpenter. As an incumbent, Helm will have support from House Democrats’ campaign arm to fend off the challenge. Clem and others say Helm is being unfairly targeted because of a perception he’s not liberal enough.

“I would say he is much more liberal than I, but he listens really well and takes in myriad ideas,” Roblan said.

And the new group plans to weigh into a race for the open Lake Oswego seat left by state Rep. Andrea Salinas, who is running for Congress.

The PAC will support Daniel Nguyen, a Lake Oswego city councilman and restaurateur. He faces a primary opponent in Neelam Gupta, an Oregon Health Authority employee and Lake Oswego School Board member. Gupta is a former participant in Emerge Oregon, a well-connected group that trains Democratic women to run for office. She also formerly worked for the state’s largest public-sector labor union, Service Employees International Union Local 503, a major force in supporting progressive candidates

What this new group amounts to beyond the May primary is another question. Clem says his hope is that a larger effort he’s calling “Renewing the Oregon Way” will evolve into a way to recruit and train moderate Democrats to run for office. He’s still researching a way to sustain such an effort.

“Our goal is to keep our big-tent downstate, mid-valley, [and] coastal Democrats in play,” Clem said. “Frankly, we think we’re doing our party a big favor.”

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