Months of political obstruction may have given Oregon's Republican minority the upper hand in reshaping the next decade of politics in the Beaver State.
Of all the dilemmas facing Oregon lawmakers in 2021, the most complicated has been the prospect of fulfilling their constitutional duty of redrawing the state's legislative and congressional districts. The decennial process, called redistricting, was upended by the U.S. Census Bureau's decision to release its 2020 population count months after Oregon's constitutional deadline to forge a redistricting plan.
On Friday, the Oregon Supreme Court gave state lawmakers until September 27 to submit a redistricting plan to Gov. Kate Brown, effectively waiving their prior July 1 deadline. Should they fail to do so, it will be up to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to submit a plan of her own by October 18.
A new deal struck between House Democrats and Republicans may ensure state lawmakers' plan will be the one on Brown's desk. Announced Wednesday night by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, the agreement seats an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the House Redistricting Committee as co-chair.
In exchange, House Republicans have agreed to waive bill readings which have slowed floor action to a snail's pace, keeping state lawmakers in the chamber for hours longer in a pandemic. The readings have been important political weapons for House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, who will now join her Democratic colleagues the House Redistricting Committee.
Even if Republicans decide not to play ball with their peers on the committee, the process still falls to Fagan, a progressive Democrat, whose agenda may not sit well with her former colleagues in the state legislature. An October redistricting plan may realize Fagan's fears of delaying Oregon's 2022 midterm primaries, however, giving Republicans at least one trump card to play.
Oregon is the lone state on the West Coast to have no independent redistricting commission which Republicans have called for repeatedly. Democratic lawmakers have given the indication they intend to change that this year.
The stakes are high for Oregon which stands to pick up a sixth U.S. House seat in Congress. Population projections point to it going to a lawmaker with a D next to their name, a scenario the Oregon GOP may have little taste for after decades of watching their power in Salem atrophy under the state Capitol's Democratic majority. Democrats hold a 18-12 majority in the Senate and a 37-23 majority in the House. Combined with their failure to block a corporate activity tax, a cap and trade program, and a gun control bill backed by Democrats, Oregon Republicans have been under more pressure than ever from their restless base to make good on their promise to stop Salem's Democratic agenda.
"It’s sad, it serves no one, and ultimately, it’s a losing strategy," said state Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard. "Shame, because I believe there are some good principled people 'on that side' who I think don’t feel this is right but are held hostage by their party."
In the Senate, Republican signaled their intent to do exactly that with a one-day walkout protest which stopped a vote on a gun control bill. Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, now faces a recall petition from a constituent who says he should have seen it through longer. The petition needs 8,922 signatures to advance to the November ballot.
Oregon state lawmakers have until June 28 to come up with a redistricting plan before they adjourn. Otherwise, a special legislative session will be in order.