Republican lawmakers on Wednesday refused to attend a hearing of a high-profile legislative committee, initiating a showdown with Democratic leaders over conduct by a senior member of their party.
In an announcement, the House Republican Caucus cited “an inflammatory and disrespectful atmosphere” as reason for its members’ decision not to attend an evening hearing of the Joint Committee on Capitol Culture. The new committee was created in the fallout of a sexual harassment scandal in Salem and has been taking up policies to make the Capitol a more welcoming environment.
House Republicans are going further than a one-off boycott. In an interview with OPB, Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said he’d called on House Speaker Tina Kotek to remove state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, as chair of the House Health Care Committee.
Female Republican representatives this session have twice singled out Greenlick, a Portland Democrat, for being discourteous.
The most recent instance occurred Tuesday evening. The other incident occurred in a House Health Care meeting Feb. 5.
In the more recent incident, Greenlick laid into a representative of the pharmaceutical industry testifying against a bill that would require drug companies to give 60 days’ notice before increasing prices.
After forcefully pressing for reasons why the 60-day provision would harm the companies, Greenlick said: “I’ve been listening to your guys’ comments for 16 years. Generally, you’re not stupid. In this case, you appear to be stupid.”
A short while later, Greenlick apologized for losing his temper. State Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Clackamas County, pressed the matter.
“I would just like to say that we have been through extensive training about equity and a respectful workplace,” Drazan said. “What I have seen today troubles me deeply … . What I saw today was an expression of power in a way that demeaned other people … that I feel is absolutely inappropriate.”
Greenlick responded that he would prefer Drazan expressed her concerns in private rather than “showboating.” The meeting quickly came to a close.
Greenlick’s leadership of the committee was also criticized earlier this month, after a hearing in which he asked state Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, to cut short her comments on one agenda item so the committee had time to call up a bill she supported.
Boles spoke about the incident on the House floor two days later.
“I understand that I’m part of a 22-member Republican caucus … but I have to tell you what I didn’t expect was that my ability to represent 67,049 in my community would try to be silenced,” Boles said. “And I certainly didn’t expect that as a female leader in this state, part of this esteemed body, that I would effectively be shushed by my committee chair. “
Republicans’ protestations led to a private meeting Wednesday morning between Greenlick, Kotek and state Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, a vice chair of the health committee.
Hayden declined to describe the meeting when asked Wednesday, but Wilson, the House minority leader called it an “opportunity to clear the air.” Greenlick didn’t answer questions about the meeting when asked Wednesday.
Following the meeting, Kotek’s office said she wouldn’t change out Greenlick for another committee chair. Not long after, House Republicans demanded that she do just that.
“We’ve been talking about workplace safety here — people feeling safe and secure in the Capitol,” Wilson told OPB. “Our concern comes when we have an experienced chair who disregards all that and takes this committee in a direction that is basically stomach-turning.”
The demand apparently led Kotek to reconsider Greenlick’s chairmanship.
“Throughout the day I have been meeting with members from both parties to gain information on the incident,” she said in a statement. “I take this matter very seriously and believe that any response needs to be made with thoughtful consideration.”
Workplace culture at the Capitol has been front and center this year, stemming from a sexual harassment scandal that began in late 2017 and reverberates to this day.
Legislative leaders early in the session touted improved anti-harassment training led by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That training came under fire, however, when some Capitol staffers described an instructors’ comments they felt were insensitive and offensive.
Lawmakers attended training with a different instructor last week.
Greenlick has been a state lawmaker since 2003 and has chaired the House Committee on Health Care since 2007. He was re-elected to his post last year and has signaled he will not run again in 2020, a fact he alluded to when addressing Drazan on Tuesday.
“I’ve apologized and that’s all I can do,” he said. “If you’d like me to resign as chair, that’ll happen soon enough anyway.”