Politics

Oregon US Rep. Earl Blumenauer will not seek reelection

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Oct. 31, 2023 12:19 a.m.

The Portland Democrat has spent five decades serving at all levels of elected office. He says Congress is no longer “the most productive way to be involved.”

Congressman Earl Blumenauer speaks during a presidential visit to Portland in 2022. After 27 years in the U.S. House, Blumenauer has decided not to seek reelection.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer speaks during a presidential visit to Portland in 2022. After 27 years in the U.S. House, Blumenauer has decided not to seek reelection.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer is calling it a career.

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The 75-year-old Portland congressman — for more than a quarter century a Capitol Hill ambassador of sorts for his hometown — announced Monday he will not seek reelection next year.

“I have concluded that my personal time and energy will be better spent not involved in campaigning,” Blumenauer told OPB, adding he wants to spend time instead focusing on his priorities at the local level. “I want to help put Portland back together.”

The decision caps a career in public service that has spanned more than two thirds of Blumenauer’s life. And it comes as some of the policies that he has fought most closely to pass are showing glimmers of promise if Democrats can retake the House next year

Blumenauer, known for taking on his share of long-shot proposals, says he’s coming off a major win in helping steer record investments in green energy as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, the signature climate legislation signed by President Joe Biden last year. He says he’s set the stage for some of his other top priorities, including loosening federal cannabis policy, to pass into law.

The past several weeks, Blumenauer said, have been “an opportunity to step back and reflect on what would be accomplished if I ran for reelection. Most of these things have been done or are in the pipeline.”

News of Blumenauer’s retirement would once have set off a frenzy of interest among ambitious Democrats. Rooted in deep-blue Portland, the 3rd Congressional District is a safe stronghold for the party, and likely to offer whoever win’s next year’s primary the prospect of a lengthy congressional career.

But as news of Blumenauer’s likely retirement gained speed in recent weeks, the list of potential candidates has so far remained fairly small.

Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal has hired staff with an eye toward a run. Jayapal’s sister, Pramila Jayapal, is a member of the U.S. House from Washington state and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Political observers believe those ties will give the county commissioner a leg up in raising funds and making connections. Jayapal has yet to announce a run.

Also considering a run is state Rep. Travis Nelson, a Democrat from Portland. Nelson told OPB last week his interest in the seat was contingent on Blumenauer retiring.

“I have some things I’d love to work on at the federal level,” Nelson said. “Medicare for all, the environment and union/income inequality issues are all things I’m passionate about.”

Gresham City Councilor Eddy Morales is also rumored to be considering a run. Morales didn’t respond to an inquiry.

Blumenauer says other Democrats have been eyeing his job for years, and he expects a crowded primary for the seat next year: “When it sinks in… I think there will be people coming out of the woodwork.”

Blumenauer was hosting a gathering with friends and supporters on Monday to mark his announcement.

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By the time his term ends in 2024, Blumenauer will have spent 51 years in elected office, a run that began when he won a seat on the Oregon House of Representatives at age 23. He moved to the Multnomah County commission five years later, and Portland City Hall nine years after that. Blumenauer won election to Congress in 1996, filling a seat that had formerly been held by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.

“He’s had an extraordinary career,” said former U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Springfield Democrat who worked closely with Blumenauer for decades before retiring last year. “I don’t know another elected official who’s served 50 years in Oregon.”

Blumenauer took office proclaiming many of the values that had been a success for him as a Portland city leader, including preaching the gospel of smart development, efficient light rail and environmentally friendly urbanism. His trademark bow tie has remained a staple, as has the congressman’s enthusiasm for bicycles, which he often praises as “the most efficient form of transportation ever designed.”

But Blumenauer has picked up other interests along the way. For more than a decade he has pressed for cannabis to be de-scheduled as an illegal drug, among other policies — a fight that led Politico to label him “the dean of marijuana legalization backers” on Capitol Hill.

That fight has not been particularly fruitful, but Blumenauer sees hope on the horizon. He has long supported a bill that would allow banks to work with cannabis businesses in states where the drug is legal. But while the proposal has passed in the U.S. House repeatedly, it’s been stopped up in the Senate. This year, though, a Senate bill being pushed by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is showing some signs of hope.

Some other Blumenauer priorities that haven’t come to fruition: Taxing billionaires who go to space, pressing President Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency, and fundamentally reshaping the nation’s agriculture system.

During a long career, Blumenauer did achieve influence on the nation’s trade policy. Before Democrats lost control of the House last year, he served as the chair of a tax subcommittee on the subject. It was an apt role for a politician from a state that relies heavily on international trade. Lately, Blumenauer has pushed for tightening exemptions on which imports pay taxes and duties, which he argues is being exploited by China.

“He has an educated, persuasive legislative style,” DeFazio said. “He goes to people with facts, and he goes back to them with facts and he tries to wear them down.”

Blumenauer has at times seemed to capitalize on his image as the quintessential Portland lawmaker: Wonky, eco-friendly, and obsessed enough with active transportation that he recently had a new bike bridge named after him.

Recently he has joined the chorus of people concerned about the city’s future. When announcing his 2022 reelection campaign, Blumenauer declared Portland was “broken.”

“There’s been kind of a spark that’s been missing,” Blumenauer told OPB last year, saying he was running for reelection in part to help rekindle the flame that once made Portland a national darling for smart growth. “Collectively it seems like we have challenges unlike any we have ever faced.”

Blumenauer’s concerns remain. But he’s concluded Congress is perhaps not the best place to address them.

While not the impetus for his retirement, Blumenauer says House dysfunction in recent weeks — as bitter intraparty feuding among Republicans left the chamber briefly leaderless — played a part.

“It did put a fine point on it,” said Blumenauer, who expects his party will retake the House next year. “With these people who are there… it just doesn’t seem like the most productive way to be involved.”

The longtime politician will instead use his connections over decades in office to work on his longtime priorities — “energy, transportation and bicycles,” he says — as a private citizen. He’ll spend more time with his family, who he says have been shortchanged by his decades in Congress. And he’ll offer advice to whoever eventually fills his seat.

“If I had it to do over again, I might not have taken on quite so many thorny issues,” Blumenauer said. “I might have been a little more focused and not [taken on] so many controversies. But the good news is I’ve done that, and stuff is ready.”

Editor’s note: Blumenauer’s wife, Margaret Kirkpatrick, is a member of the OPB board of directors.

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