After recent talk of disaffection in their ranks, Oregon Senate Democrats on Friday tapped their longtime leaders to serve next year.
At a coastal retreat, the chamber’s Democratic caucus chose Peter Courtney, D-Salem, as Senate president and Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, as majority leader, the same leadership team that’s been in place since 2015.
They’ll have a slightly different supporting cast, including Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, serving as deputy majority leader, and Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, as majority whip.
The Democratic retreat had attracted more interest than usual this year, as word leaked that a segment of senators would push to change the way their caucus operates. Willamette Week first reported those rumblings Wednesday.
Courtney will technically need to be voted president by the full Senate on Jan. 14. The longtime senator has made a practice of only calling up bills for a vote that have enough support to pass. That has chafed some of the more liberal Democrats, who see value in forcing members to take tough votes.
“You can’t put the same people in charge — under the same rules, under the same caucus — and get substantially different results,” said state Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, a former state representative who’ll begin her first term in the Senate next year. “I’ve been very direct with them that I want different results out of the Senate.”
Burdick has been Senate majority leader since 2015. Courtney is already the longest serving Senate president in state history, finishing up his 16th year serving in that role this year. But the senator’s centrist style has drawn criticism from some members of his own party, who’ve seen favored legislation die under his leadership.
One example: A 2017 bill that would have allowed Oregon cities to implement rent control. The legislation passed the House, but never came up for a vote in the full Senate, likely because Republicans universally opposed it and some moderate Democrats had concerns.
“In my view [Courtney’s] approach has been: I want to get something accomplished, and I don’t want the Senate to look bad trying to get something accomplished,” said state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland. “I think he believes that the whole Senate works better when we work together, not just spend our time attacking each other.”
Democratic senators’ decision to stick with Courtney and Burdick mirrors House Democrats, who earlier this week tapped Speaker Tina Kotek and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson to continue on in their roles.
The same isn’t true for Republicans, who lost enough seats in the Nov. 6 election to give Democrats three-fifths supermajorities in both the House and Senate.
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Mike McLane confirmed this week that the Powell Butte attorney won’t seek to lead the caucus next year. McLane has served as minority leader since 2012. Names being floated to replace him have included Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, and Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer. Wilson confirmed Friday he will run for the job.
Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters also isn’t a lock to lead her caucus next year. A spokeswoman for Winters told Oregon Capital Insider that the matter was an “ongoing discussion.”