In an unusual sign of tension between two of Oregon’s most powerful Democratic officeholders, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio wrote a blistering letter to Gov. Kate Brown saying she appeared to mislead him on a controversial environmental issue.
DeFazio is a key congressional champion of recovering wolf populations that were once hunted to the point of extinction. In his June 9 letter, he criticized Brown and her staff for the way they handled a bill in the Oregon Legislature that could weaken protections for wolves.
DeFazio told Brown that a batch of newly disclosed emails from her aides “contradicts statements you made to me about your involvement with this legislation.”
DeFazio also fumed that a Brown staffer had belittled his opposition to the bill by saying the congressman was focused on the “non-farm, ranch” portions of his district.
“I do not appreciate your staffs’ misrepresentation of my district and my advocacy on behalf of my constituents,” he wrote.
A DeFazio spokeswoman, Beth Schoenbach, said the congressman wouldn't comment on the letter, which OPB obtained from an environmental group that has been critical of Brown.
“It was a private letter," Schoenbach said. "And we don’t have anything further to say about it."
Bryan Hockaday, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement that Brown spoke to DeFazio after receiving the letter and the two had a “positive discussion” about the issue. While the statement sought to smooth over any hard feelings, the governor’s actions on the wolf bill continue to trouble many environmentalists.
“Congressman DeFazio’s comments fit into a larger frustration that folks in the congressional delegation, folks in the conservation community, have with Gov. Brown,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director of the advocacy group Oregon Wild.
His organization obtained more than 100 pages of emails and other documents Brown's office through a public records request. Separately, the group also was given the DeFazio letter.
Pedery charged that the governor and her staff tended to see environmental bills as “trading stock” they could use with Republican lawmakers to gain support on other issues.
The legislation, approved in the February session, blocks court review of the state’s decision to remove the gray wolf from the state’s endangered species list.
Brown has said she was neutral during legislative deliberations over the bill. In a session-ending news conference, she said her office was not involved in drafting the measure and would review it “very carefully” before she decided whether to sign it.
She signed the measure on March 14, saying she was confident the state had adequate protections for wolves even if they're removed from the endangered species list.
In his letter, DeFazio said Brown told him she was not advocating for the bill either publicly or privately. But DeFazio said the emails uncovered by Oregon Wild showed that one of her natural resource aides, Brett Brownscombe, worked closely early on with eastern Oregon legislators who were drafting the bill.
When DeFazio opposed the legislation early in the session, Brownscombe sent an email to supporters of the measure – including a lobbyist for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association – dismissing the congressman’s concerns.
“FYI – seems the Representative continues to feel strongly about this issue and is focused on the non-farm, ranch, other portions/interests in his district,” he wrote. Not surprisingly, that drew the ire of the veteran congressman. In his letter, DeFazio told Brown there is only a small wolf pack in his district. And he said he has not had a single complaint of wolf attacks from farmers that he represents.
“I do not appreciate your staffs’ misrepresentation of my district and my advocacy on behalf of my constituents,” DeFazio wrote.
The issue has been particularly important to legislators from eastern Oregon, where sheep and cattle ranchers are deeply concerned about the growing wolf population.
During the session, Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, included the wolf bill as one of the key pieces of legislation he wanted passed if Republicans were to cooperate with Democratic leaders on bringing the session to an orderly conclusion.
Ferrioli could not be reached for comment. But he told The Dalles Chronicle in March that Republicans had to accede to several other bills to get the wolf measure passed.
“It wasn’t good policy, but we had to leverage to get that bill passed,” he told the newspaper.
Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, a key supporter of the wolf bill, said “there was a whole package of bills, not just this one,” involved in late-session dealmaking.
Hansell said he wasn’t surprised Brown signed the bill. He argued that the measure essentially upheld the work of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is appointed by the governor. And he said her support for the measure showed that she was following through on her commitment to be governor “for the entire state.”
Pedery, of Oregon Wild, said that Brown’s decision continued to upset environmental groups who have long seen the courts as a key layer of review. Oregon Wild advertised on the streaming music site Pandora this spring calling on the governor to do more for the environment.
“You had a Democratic governor helping design a bill to restrict the civil right of Oregonians to challenge their government,” Pedery said.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, another Democratic congressman from Oregon, said he also fought against the bill. Blumenauer, who has worked closely with the Humane Society of the United States, argued that voters increasingly support animal welfare issues.
In his letter, DeFazio said he would continue to work on the wolf issue in Oregon – and he said he wants to work with the governor. However, he added, "this communication must be based on trust."
Hockaday, Brown’s spokesman, said the governor “appreciates Congressman DeFazio's passion for the wellbeing of gray wolves, and ongoing concern for Oregon farm interests.”
Hockaday added that the two politicians “concluded their discussion with a pledge to remain engaged and continue the collaborative spirit as the Oregon Wolf Plan review moves forward.”