Shemia Fagan’s bid to unseat longtime lawmaker Rod Monroe from the Oregon Senate was fueled by the ire of tenants' rights advocates who blamed Monroe for blocking progressive housing laws.
On the campaign trail, Fagan frequently shared the story of visiting her mother when her mom was homeless and, at one point, living under someone’s porch. Housing issues dominated the Democratic primary. And when Fagan resoundingly beat Monroe, who happens to be a landlord, she felt the voters had given her a clear mandate to tackle the state’s affordable housing crisis.
At first, it seemed legislative leaders agreed.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, put Fagan in charge of a newly created housing committee. But Fagan recently learned that what is expected to be the most controversial and weighty housing bill this session — calling for rent increases across the state to be capped at 7 percent, plus inflation — won't be going through that committee. Instead, it's been diverted to the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland.
“It certainly would be nice to be involved in this signature policy issue that I ran on,” Fagan said, adding she was “taken aback” by the news. “My expectation is a fully baked bill. Where is the opportunity for me to have the input and keep the trust of people I was elected by to protect the rights of tenants?”
The Oregon Senate has long been seen as the backstop in the state Capitol. More progressive policy issues that sail through the House often flounder in the Senate.
Courtney, who leads the upper chamber, has a reputation for only bringing bills to the floor if they have bipartisan support. But this session, a crop of new legislators, including Fagan, hope to join other current more progressive lawmakers in the Senate to push the more moderate upper chamber to the left on everything from campaign finance reform to criminal justice issues to housing.
The move to bypass Fagan’s housing committee could be the first of many tensions created by the new dynamic.
Jeff Golden, who represents Southern Oregon in the Senate, said he’s gearing up for some tough battles when it comes to changing the state’s campaign finance laws. Even though the Democratically controlled Legislature has pushed for campaign limits in the past, it’s never happened.
“I don’t want to be holier than thou, but I think we’ve been chasing our tails on this for 30 years knowing how bad campaign finances is because the blue team and red team each have their own political action committees,” Golden said.
Golden didn’t accept any money from political action committees in his race, a decision that put him at odds with labor groups. Unions are typically huge power players and give hefty donations to Democratic candidates in Oregon.
“I’m not totally heeled with labor on this, and I support organized labor,” Golden said. “I will defend their rights, but I don’t want their money.”
Golden said he foresees some of the major obstacles being “current leadership.”
Top legislative officials, Golden said, have risen through the ranks, in part thanks to hefty donations, and they are used to the infrastructure that’s been created. He noted that Democrats often don’t accept corporate donations in the name of campaign finance reform.
The practice of Democrats turning away corporate donations is seemingly disingenuous, Golden suggested. Democrats may not take big donations from corporate donors, but they do receive large donations from other special interests, such as labor groups or environmental organizations.
“I don’t hold out much hope for the future for progress on climate, economic justice, housing and health care unless we can diminish the power of special interests in politics," Golden said. "To me, this is the linchpin issue."
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said he sees the 2018 election — in which Democrats took supermajorities in both legislative chambers — as a mandate from the voters to come up with more progressive solutions to problems.
Prozanski, who has long served in the Senate, said he’s hoping more bills are brought to this floor this session to allow for a more robust discussion. He’s hoping lawmakers have the chance to vote on a slate of bills reforming the state’s criminal justice system even if there isn’t bipartisan support for some.
Burdick, the Portland Democrat who will oversee the controversial housing bill in the Rules Committee, said the reason the bill was placed under her purview rather than Fagan's is simple: She had been working on it in previous session, so the legislation has a better chance to move swiftly if in her committee.
In a statement, Courtney echoed Burdick saying he thought placing the legislation in Rules was the "most expeditious" way to move it forward.
The bill, which would make Oregon the first state to adopt statewide rent control, has the governor's support. It would also prevent a landlord's ability to evict tenants without cause after they have lived in the building for a year, though the bill also expands the "for cause" reasons landlords can issue an eviction notice.
“We got very close last session, and I was the one involved with it," she said. "I didn’t request it, but I’m happy to do it."
Burdick has served in Salem for 22 years. She had this to say about the notion of newcomers trying to push the Senate to the left: “Each one of us has one vote and all of us are equal. I’m very pleased [Democrats] increased our numbers.”
The 2019 legislative session starts Jan. 22.