Think Out Loud

Moderate Republican Oregon lawmaker explains views and votes, sometimes at odds with party

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
May 31, 2023 1:07 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, May 31

Earlier this month, Oregon Rep. Charlie Conrad (R-Eastern Lane County) was the sole Republican state lawmaker to vote in favor of HB 2002, which would protect access to abortion and expand insurance coverage for gender-affirming care. It would also allow minors to obtain abortions and teens 15 and older to receive gender-affirming care without parental consent. The bill is one of two cited by Republican state leaders who staged a walkout four weeks ago, effectively grinding legislative votes in the Senate to a halt.


The Capital Chronicle earlier reported on why Conrad shifted his stance from opposing to supporting HB 2002, including by researching medical guidelines on gender-affirming care and talking with the parent of a transgender child. Conrad is a freshman Oregon lawmaker who represents House District 12 which covers Eastern Lane County. He joins us to talk about his support for HB 2002, and being a moderate Republican whose views on abortion and other issues sometimes put him at odds with his party and constituency.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, State Representative Charlie Conrad from Eastern Lane County was a sole Republican to vote in favor of House Bill 2002. The bill would protect access to abortion and expand insurance coverage for gender affirming care. It would also allow minors to obtain abortions, and teens 15 and older to receive gender affirming care without parental consent. The bill is one of two cited by Republican state senators who began a walkout four weeks ago, effectively grinding the Senate to a halt. As the Capitol Chronicle reported recently, Conrad actually shifted his stance on HB 2002. He initially voted against it when it was in committee.

Charlie Conrad joins us now to talk about all of this, including what led him to change his mind. It’s great to have you on the show.

Charlie Conrad: Thank you very much. It’s good to be here.

Miller: I gave a short version of House Bill 2002. It’s actually a pretty long bill. But what do you see as the most important provisions that it contains?

Conrad: It is, you’re right. It is a very long bill. I think there are 50+ sections to it covering a number of different things, including what you talked about: the abortion side of it, reproductive health care overall. And that includes gender affirming care and includes contraception. It includes student health centers. It includes quite a bit… protections for health care workers that provide reproductive and abortion services.

And what it does broadly that I truly support, it codifies what our current practices are. The laws that we currently have that were built on the foundation of Roe v. Wade, when Dobbs overturned that, that foundation became shaky. And so what this bill does, it goes through and it codifies what we are currently doing. And it clarified some ambiguities.

One of them with the age of when a girl could get an abortion, it was uncertain. There is law, and it’s been the state law for quite some time, that kids 15 or older could decide to get their own health care. They could determine that. And that comes down from the Supreme Court which said that a parent doesn’t have the sole right to decide a child’s health care future and the services that they can receive. And this goes ahead and it codifies what we are currently doing based off of that.

Miller: You are talking now as somebody who supports this bill. And in fact, as I noted, voted for it. But the first time you voted on the bill, when the question was whether or not it should clear one of the committees that you’re a member of ‒ the Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee ‒ you voted against it. Why?

Conrad: It was tough. And the comments that I made when I voted against it in committee were very specific to the gender affirming care side of it. I am not transgender. I don’t have any close friends or family that have gone through that process. And there was some uncertainty in my mind about what that process really looks like. And after that vote, I didn’t sleep well for a while because I was uncertain if that was the right decision or not.

So based off of that, I continued looking into that, researching it, thinking about it, talking to people about it to see if I can verify one way or the other if that was a good provision in there or if my vote was correct, or if I should change my vote…

Miller: Can I interrupt just one second? So you literally did not sleep well after that first vote?

Conrad: Correct. I did not because I was uncertain if that was the right decision to make on it or not.

Miller: When you said you then sought out more information, more people to talk to, you’re not just talking here about, say, asking questions in public testimony from experts? You actually sought out information on your own?

Conrad: Correct. Afterwards, I sought out people that I could trust their confidence, you know, given the path that I was going down of possibly being a Republican. I didn’t campaign on being pro-choice, but I made it known that I was pro-choice during my campaign time. And one of the things that is really important to me, is not to be a hypocrite. And if I was going to vote no on this bill, I wanted to have a solid foundation for that no. And if I was going to vote yes, I wanna have a solid foundation of why I’m voting yes on that bill.

In order to come to peace with my vote, and ultimately what I would choose to do on the floor given that it is a very partisan bill as, I think, we all understand, I wanted to be confident with my vote one way or the other. And that I could articulate it and explain it knowing that however I voted, there are gonna be people that weren’t happy.

As you said, the outset of my district is eastern Lane County. But I also have a portion of the south hills of Eugene. There were voters in my entire district that were contacting me beforehand, voicing support and opposition to the bill. And they’ve done that afterwards as well. So I knew I needed to be on solid ground with whatever my vote was going to be.

Miller: Can you give us a sense of ‒ obviously without naming names ‒ the people that you turned to that you thought would actually help give you the information you needed to make what was the right decision for you?

Conrad: I went to people that I felt I could trust their confidence, first off. But also that they had the requisite knowledge that I was seeking, which a lot of it for the gender affirming part of it was: what actually happens? How does that process play out? What are the decisions that are made? How are the decisions made? And through that process, and delving in and verifying the information I was given; going back to the WPATH standards and looking at those in depth; comparing that to what I was told were the practices in the exam room of the process of how things play out; and how the multidisciplinary team works in making those gender affirming decisions and what is best for the patient. That is what I was looking for, and I was able to find folks that were able to give me that information.

Miller: You mentioned WPATH. That’s the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, their standards of care. So, what did you actually learn specifically that changed your mind?

Conrad: One of the key things for me was getting that better understanding of the process that a person goes through when they’re having gender dysphoria, whether it’s truly diagnosed as gender dysphoria or whether there are some other issues going on. And we’re talking juveniles at this point in time ‒ folks that are under under 18 and probably under 15 ‒ that need some assistance. It is that it’s a process. There is a spectrum of care beginning at things that are reversible: changing your pronouns, dressing differently, those are things that are reversible. Then there is a continuum of care that slowly progresses from that depending on what a person needs to feel comfortable and to resolve the issues that they’re having. A lot of that comes down to the mental health and behavioral health side of things, and getting the care that they need.


In combining that with the WPATH-8 standards ‒ and these are the standards of care that practitioners follow ‒ it is talking about kids, juveniles, that have the maturity to make the decision that there’s been persistent dysphoria ‒ so, something that’s been going on for a while ‒ they have the maturity to actually make that decision, and that all other mental health or behavioral health issues have been resolved and taken care of. Those things right there, combined with a multidisciplinary team, combined with having a support system, whether it’s family or friends, relatives, whoever it might be to help people progress through that so that, on the backside of it, that they’re stable, that they can be happy that they can enjoy their life, and they get the support and help that they need. So all those things combine together.

Because those things resonate with what I did as a police officer for 14 years. I’ve talked to many people that had issues, that had concerns, that had family disruptions, and that weren’t getting along with parents. So the ability for juveniles to have a support system and at the same time, get the medical care and the mental health and behavioral health care that they need, to me that’s integral to hopefully having a happy and productive, healthy life as an adult.

Miller: This was actually, to me, one of the more interesting aspects of a letter that you wrote following your vote to actually help pass this bill out of the House. You referenced, as you did just now, your time as a police officer and the way in which it sort of … I’d rather hear your version of this, but complicated your understanding of the necessity and the value of parental consent. Can you help us understand that?

Conrad: Parental consent is one of the issues that has come up in opposition for this bill. And for me, parental consent, it begins in the involvement of parents, begins when a child is born. And it’s developing that relationship, continuing to nurture that relationship, so that as a child progresses through their various stages, that they know that the parents are there to support them. That they know they can reach out to them and contact them and get that support. But given that families are comprised of people, that doesn’t always work out for whatever reason.

Sometimes they’re short term. Sometimes there are various stages or various stressors in families that juveniles run away, that parents kick their kids out, that they have disruptions. And it’s during those times that very poor decisions can be made, that there are things that can happen. And this goes to the abortion and the health care and the reproductive health care side as well, that I know because I’ve been to many of these calls, that sometimes the kids run to their best friend’s house and they rely on the parent of their best friend to help them out. This bill will allow the parent of a best friend to help them out to ensure that they’re getting the health care that they need when they need it while they work out those family stresses.

And a lot of times after a month or so, they’ll go back. The family will resolve whatever issues that they were having. Sometimes not. Sometimes there are kids out on the streets for extended periods of time and they need to be able to have that ability to get the health care that they need as well.

Miller: I don’t think I mentioned this yet. You are a freshman lawmaker. This is your first term. You’re ending your first legislative session soon. How common do you think it is for lawmakers from either party to take their own time to seek out first-hand information on issues that they do not have a lot of existing familiarity with?

Conrad: I’m glad you asked that, because that actually has been one of the pleasant surprises of being a freshman legislator. It is the fact that many legislators do that. A lot of the work that is done, it is done not in a public hearing and not in a work session when we’re voting a bill out of committee. It is done in the in-between times. That’s when we meet with lobbyists and stakeholders and do the research. And we have conversations among legislators ourselves to see where we’re at and to have those discussions. So, that happens a lot, particularly with freshmen legislators.

For me coming from 23+ years in general government, local government experience, I knew quite a bit. But to get in-depth on some of these issues, particularly even as a police officer for 14 years, being on the judiciary committee, there are so many topics that I hadn’t really considered, and the depth and the magnitude of a yes or a no vote can be significant. So, it is a lot of research, and thinking, and discussions, and meeting with folks that can provide some of the depth of information that you need to be able to answer the questions. And as you know, there are other legislators in my caucus that do a lot of research. We arrive at different conclusions to a policy, but they do research nonetheless and get in-depth in the issues.

Miller: Well, speaking of arriving at different answers, as I noted, you ended up casting the only Republican vote in favor of this bill. Did you give the minority leader a heads up? Is that the norm?

Conrad: It is. And I did, and we had several discussions. It’s one of the things that, again, coming from my experience, I try to keep people aware of what’s going on and what my thoughts are, and particularly with this because I knew it would be noted that a Republican voted in favor of [HB] 2002. And I knew I was gonna be the only one. I just wanted her to be able to know that that was going to be the case, and that they could plan the strategy and the media releases, the press releases, accordingly. And that there were no surprises.

To me, that’s just the way that business should be, no surprises. Have those discussions, let everybody know where you’re at, and go forward from there. Because we agree on so many bills. We agree on so many topics. They’re just a couple such as this one that I have a different take on it.

Miller: You ended up writing a three-page letter explaining the reasons for your vote. Did you consider instead, or in addition, giving that reasoning in a speech on the House floor?

Conrad: I thought about it. But for me, I wanted to be courteous, because I knew that my caucus ‒ the other folks in the party ‒ were going to be speaking in opposition, and that it was gonna be fervent opposition. I wanted to be courteous and enable them to have the floor to be able to have that discussion without me arguing against them. I wanted to hear what they had to say, and I didn’t want to detract from what they had to say. So, I wanted to be courteous and polite and give them that opportunity. So, I opted not to do that knowing full-well that I would have the letter written and it would be submitted so anybody that wanted to see why, they would be able to go and look at that.

Miller: You said that you knew that, however you voted on this particular bill, there would be some angry constituents from your district, and some gratified or happy ones. It seems like that is indeed what’s happened. I saw on your Facebook page … maybe that’s where the angry people go, because few people take the time to say nice things on social media in our world. But I’m just curious, broadly, not even just related to this bill, how much you pay attention to either of those kinds of responses to criticism or kudos from constituents?

Conrad: I do pay attention. You take it with a grain of salt, both of them. Trying to understand where they’re coming from, particularly on some of these partisan issues. One of the quotes that I often recite in my head, and I think about particularly in this position, it’s always been attributed to Stalin. It’s ‘the death of a soldier as a tragedy. The death of a million soldiers is a statistic.’ That’s important to me because it talks about the lens and the scope. So, if we are passing legislation statewide, it’s important to remember that it impacts people’s lives. And when I get those emails, it helps me remember that the decisions I make actually affect people’s lives, that they have ideas, they have thoughts, and to try and keep those two things in perspective so that I can hopefully make better decisions. And with my district being such a wide constituency based wide on the political spectrum, there are very few decisions that I will make that will make everybody happy. But it’s important for me to read those and to know that, and when people put forward solid arguments one way or the other, to take that into account and try to learn from that and pay attention to those.

Miller: A few decades ago. It was not uncommon for there to be some more liberal Republicans and more conservative Democrats. There were also Republicans representing the larger metro areas and Democrats from some of the more rural areas. At this point, all of that is getting close to unheard of. What do you think has been lost?

Conrad: You know, it’s tough to put my finger on what has been lost. So much recently, at least in my minimal perspective, it is the hyperpartisanship and the news and the media even nationwide. So not even just looking at Oregon, but looking nationwide. It is always one side or the other. It’s either this or it’s that, and I think what has been lost, it’s the the middle ground. Most of us ‒ and this is what I found out talking to people on the campaign trail, and in my personal life as well when I talk to people ‒ we’re all pretty complex. Most of us might side with one side or the other on 80% of the issues. But the other 20%, we might have a little different perspective that might not be strictly party line. And everything right now, it’s all one or the other. It’s that middle ground and the voices in the middle that aren’t being heard. And it’s unfortunate that that’s the case.

And that’s really one of the reasons why I ended up running and I decided to run is because that’s who I am. I’m in that middle group. I’ve always been a registered Republican, but given some of my voting record now, it’s clear that I’m not 100% party line. There are some good policies out there that really help people, and that’s where I want to focus on, is really helping people and passing the good policies, and not necessarily going down just the party line side of things. And it’s unfortunate that’s the case. I think some of what that does is it chills good, solid discussion about the pros and cons of policies and where we want to go as a state.

And some of that might be attributed to a lack of statewide leadership. Recently, over the last, call it five, ten years, we haven’t had somebody that’s been a uniter, or somebody that can reach out and get 60 to 70% of the vote and bring people together and understand the issues and have good public policy discussions about where we want to go as a state. And some of that is showing up in some of the surveys that are out there about how dissatisfied Oregonians are in the direction they think the state is going. And something’s got to change. People want it to change. But unless we have good, solid public policy discussions and have leadership, I don’t think it’s gonna change anytime soon. And that’s unfortunate.

Miller: What went through your mind when you realized that one of the bills that you took the time to learn about and eventually supported is one of the most commonly cited reasons for the Republican walkout in the Senate.

Conrad: That one and [HB] 2005 are the two most commonly cited. And [HB] 2002 is one of them. And I knew that would be the case. Going into, again, the vote and why I changed my vote, and why I let the minority leader know what my vote was gonna be, because I knew it was gonna be contentious. I didn’t know that they were gonna walk out based off of it, but I knew that there was a lot of energy in opposition. Again, I watch and pay attention to what’s going on. I listen to the arguments. None of them resonate with me in terms of wanting to change my opinion or thinking that I voted incorrectly. Sitting here today, I stand by my vote. I sleep well. I’m happy with the way that I voted. I think it was the right thing to do. And if it came on the floor again tomorrow, I would vote the same way.

Miller: Charlie Conrad, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Conrad: Thank you very much. It was great talking to you.

Miler: Charlie Conrad is a Republican state representative from Eastern Lane County. It’s House District 12.

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