Senator Peter Courtney, the longest serving Oregon Senate president, is facing a recall attempt for the third time in a long political career that stretches back to 1980. The drive, which started collecting signatures over the weekend, may represent spillover hard feelings from the 2016 legislative session.
Courtney's critics are perturbed about successful Democratic legislation in the short 2016 session to phase out coal power and raise the minimum wage. They also are upset that Courtney didn’t push through the resolution to ask voters to approve setting aside 2 percent of Oregon Lottery proceeds to help veterans.
The coal-to-clean bill, which was hammered out as a compromise between electric utilities and environmentalists to avoid a more aggressive ballot measure this fall, created political tension during the short session. House and Senate Republicans demanded that bills be read aloud in their entirety, which slowed down session progress and jeopardized passage of several major bills, including the coal-to-clean legislation.
Some of the venom of the short session landed on Courtney, who played a lead role in convincing Oregonians to amend the state Constitution and permit annual sessions. Skeptics said it was unlikely lawmakers would stick to minor housekeeping legislation and budget tweaks in the 35-day, even-year session. The 2016 session was packed with high-profile bills, including multiple minimum wage bills, several marijuana industry measures and significant energy and environmental legislation.
Matt Geiger, a Woodburn business leader who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2014, is spearheading the Courtney recall. Geiger was planning to make another run for the House, this time as an Independent, but dropped his plans to pursue the recall.
Geiger said the higher minimum wage will harm the agricultural and small business sectors. The utility-environmental compromise on coal, Geiger said, would drive up electricity rates without real environmental benefits in Oregon. He also questioned a bill introduced by Courtney that would allow mass transit districts to impose a payroll tax. That bill never made it out of committee during the 2016 session, largely because Courtney let it sit in deference to the bill’s critics.
“It’s time we remove from office someone who is clearly out of touch with the needs of his community and who only seems to care about which special interest is writing him a check,” Geiger said in a press release.
However, Dick Hughes, editorial page editor for the Statesman Journal, wondered aloud in a weekend column why Courtney is being targeted. The recall pecks at the coal-to-clean bill that passed, but it fails to mention the California-styled cap-and-trade energy bill that Courtney blocked, to the frustration of many Democrats.
“Peter Courtney is an odd target,” Hughes wrote. “I’m befuddled. The liberalist liberal among legislative leadership is House Speaker Tina Kotek, not Courtney.” It was Courtney who brokered the deal between Republicans and Democrats that allowed the rancorous session to end smoothly and early.
Courtney became Senate president in the 2003 session when there were 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans. He was the only Senate Democrat who Republicans trusted enough to hand him the gavel. He has held the post since then.
Courtney won re-election in 2014 and hasn’t given any firm indications of whether he will run again in 2018 when he will turn 75. The two previous recall efforts against him failed to gather enough signatures. In Oregon, the last 10 recall petitions have failed to receive enough valid signatures. The last successful recall election occurred eight years ago with the ouster of a Wheeler County district attorney.