The longest serving Senate president in Oregon history greeted a half-empty legislative chamber on the first day of the Republican walkout last week.
Senate President Peter Courtney’s shoulders hunched as he stood over the dais, his head hung in a defeated position.
Courtney, D-Salem, is known for his oratory skills, but his voice seemed small and weak, exhausted and demoralized as he announced that he wanted Oregon State Police to track down the missing Republicans and bring them back to work.
“This is the saddest day of my legislative life,” he said. “ … Pure and simple, my heart is broken.”
And then he straightened his shoulders, looked straight ahead and put his fondness for the dramatic on full display: He begged Republicans to come back.
His voice rose back to a boom, filling the chamber: “When we are chosen to be a state senator ... we are given, in my opinion, a spiritual calling, the most glorious, honorable, noble role that a citizen of this country, of this state, can possibly be given.”
Later, his voice dropped again: “This is not a good day for Peter Michael Coleman Courtney.”
It wasn’t a good day. And it hasn’t been a great year for Courtney.
Pulled in different directions by the changing nature of his caucus, emboldened Republicans and his own hard-won tendencies, the Senate's longest-tenured leader faces a dilemma: Does protecting the institution in the short term — by luring Republicans back into the building by agreeing to their demands in order to finish up work and adjourn — harm democracy and the dynamic of the Senate?
The stakes are high. In the short term, lawmakers need to approve budgets to keep Oregon's schools and prisons functioning. In the longer term, the walkout raises serious questions about whether everyone in Oregon feels represented by state government and whether constructive bipartisanship — Courtney’s signature — is dead.
“The pressure on leadership and the puzzle of what to do is, you know, superhuman,” said Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland.
He Could Have Retired In 2017, But ...
After the 2017 legislative session, Courtney openly considered retiring.
He often tells the story of how he spent two years at the Salem YMCA when he first arrived to town, shortly after he finished law school in Boston, sleeping on a murphy bed. In the 2017 session, he secured millions of dollars to renovate the YMCA building where he made so many memories. In recent years, he’s also pushed hard for seismic upgrades for schools and millions for emergency preparedness. He had a bridge named after him.
So he could have retired three years ago, his legacy cemented. Instead, he ran for reelection. It’s been rough since then.
On the first day of the 2019 session, Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, a rookie senator who'd upset a more moderate incumbent in the 2018 Democratic primary, cast a practically unheard of no vote against reelecting Courtney to his ninth term as president.
Then, not long after the first gavel dropped, the Salem Democrat faced intense scrutiny over the way he addressed allegations of sexual harassment at the state Capitol. As rumors swirled about a possible Democratic coup against Courtney, he took a 10-day medical leave to recuperate from an eye problem, which had the effect of easing the tension — temporarily.
In early May, GOP senators staged their first walkout to try to prevent a vote on the Student Success Act, a billion-dollar business tax for public schools. It wasn't Courtney who brought them back. Instead, Gov. Kate Brown jumped in to broker a deal. Later, the governor said, Courtney — a man who has carved out a reputation as a keen negotiator — "needed an assist."
Earlier this month, his dear friend and longtime colleague Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, died.
They were lawmakers from different political parties but the same era. And they helped each other cultivate trust across the partisan divide.
Into the mix came Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, who was once a good friend of Courtney’s. Everyone has a different theory as to why their relationship disintegrated. It could be traced back to how an employee in Courtney’s office was treated. Or over a tax bill that Boquist felt required a three-fifths vote, but Courtney pushed ahead without one. Or, some say, Boquist was angered about a pay equity bill.
Whatever the reason, Boquist seems to have targeted Courtney and his staff for criticism. During debate leading up to the Republican walkout, he addressed Courtney directly from the Senate floor, “If you send the state police to get me, hell’s coming to visit you personally.”
Courtney’s leadership was weakened at the start of the session. Since then, his relationships have frayed even more. And his caucus has split. It all adds up to a man who, in the past week, has looked and sounded, if not defeated, then at least at a loss over what to do next.
“It’s like when you’re a new draftee of a major football team, and you’re serving with a legendary quarterback, and you get on the team and all these people remember his best days,” Fagan said. “I get that he’s this legendary statesman. I get that he’s been an institution in Oregon … but he’s had better days.”
Putting The Institution Over Ideology
One of the most powerful lawmakers in Salem, Courtney has long valued what people in the state Capitol call “the institution.” Courtney is credited with cultivating a more bipartisan way of doing business. He favors, for example, bringing up bills up for a vote if they have Republicans in favor.
He’s often referred to as the backstop of the state Legislature: More progressive legislation would sail through the House and have the governor’s support, but die in the Senate.
Supporters see that as preventing overreach, quelling contention and thus keeping Democrats in power for the long run. Opponents, including some of his chamber’s more liberal Democrats, think he’s killed too much crucial legislation.
“He wants the institution to function so that it doesn’t go into disarray and anarchy,” said Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, who once presided as Speaker over a split 30-30 House. “And I think he is driven by vast experience and, like chess, I think he sees ahead at the kind of things that could happen.”
Courtney reminded his caucus last November, after their sweeping victory, that their supermajority still didn’t give them a quorum. The state constitution requires at least 20 members on the floor in order to conduct business, so Democrats need two Republicans to get work done.
If Republicans walked, Courtney warned, they could essentially shut the building down.
Initially, some seemed to brush that off as Courtney being Courtney — at times melodramatic and prone to bouts of public anxiety.
Now, with a Republican walkout stretching more than a week, Courtney appears prescient.
But some members of his own caucus say Courtney's missteps helped create this stalemate. Fagan said Courtney has failed to recognize fundamental changes in how the two parties now interact.
“He is a statesman. And he is used to negotiating with statesmen,” Fagan said. “This (Republican party) is no longer the party of Mark Hatfield or Tom McCall, and he’s failed to recognize that … (These Republicans) don’t want government to work.”
Some Stunned By Cap And Trade News
The controversial cap-and-trade bill, which prompted the second GOP walkout, was dead.
“HB 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor,” Courtney said. “That will not change.”
Democrats knew the bill was likely dead before Courtney got up to speak. But they weren’t prepared for his public remarks.
Members of his own party left the Senate floor visibly upset. Courtney supporters say he was sending Republicans a message: We can work together. But Senate Republicans have yet to return to the Capitol. And Courtney’s announcement made him an immediate target.
Outside the Capitol that day, young climate activists shouted, “Hey hey, ho ho, President Courtney’s got to go.”
After this legislative session, some can’t help but wonder if he doesn’t feel the same.