Special Election Could Tumble Legislative Dominos

The legislature’s 2012 session is more than five months away, but already legislative leaders are making contingency plans for a possible shake-up in control and session management, hinging on who might prevail in the special election to replace Congressman Dave Wu.

Governor John Kitzhaber set January 31, 2012 as the special election date when the party nominees will square off, the day before the legislature convenes. If one of the sitting legislators running for Wu's seat wins, it could trip a series of changes that upset the balance of power in the Oregon Senate and House. Currently, Democrats hold a 16-14 margin in the Senate. The House is tied 30-30 with shared control by Democrats and Republicans.

Senator Suzanne Bonamici, D-PortlandDemocratic Senator Suzanne Bonamici is in a pretty good place to win the race.  A widely respected member from Beaverton, she is the only woman in the race for a district that hasn’t elected a Republican since 1972.

If Bonamici wins January 31, she would resign her state Senate seat to head to Washington, D.C. (Nancy Pelosi won’t let a new member linger in Oregon too long). That would shrink Senate Democratic control to a 15-14 margin until a replacement could be appointed, a process that could take about three weeks at best.  In other words, most of the shortened session.

The Oregon Constitution requires 16 votes to pass a bill in the Senate. Senate leaders would be unable to pass anything partisan in nature until Bonamici’s seat is filled.  This is true for Executive appointments, as well.  This is only the first potential problem for Democrats.

It gets even more complicated if Democratic Rep. Brad Witt wins the congressional seat or a sitting House member, such as Democratic Rep. Chris Harker from District 34, is appointed to fill Bonamici’s vacant Senate seat. Witt's election to Congress would lead to his resignation from the Oregon House, leaving Democrats with only 29 members. Harker's appointment to fill Bonamici would mean he resigns in the middle of the short legislative session.

In some strange bit of Oregon irony, it was then Rep. Suzanne Bonamici who was picked to replace Senator Brad Avakian who left the legislature after his election as Labor Commissioner in 2008. Avakian also is running for the open Congressional seat.  Bonamici was in the Harker House seat when she was elevated to the Senate. One could say District 34 is the direct pipeline to the Senate.

If Avakian wins the seat, another series of dominoes could fall, though the timeline for replacing the labor commissioner is not as stringent. Senator Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, is a strong candidate for labor commissioner, and Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland has expressed interest in replacing Rosenbaum if she leaves the Senate. If one or both of those appointments happen during the legislative session, Democrats would be looking at a hole in their numbers.

So here is the bottom line… Republicans may lose the Congressional District 1 special election, but in some respects “win” during the February session if Democrats are short-handed in the Senate or House.

This will all play out in five months or so, but already its top of mind with many legislative leaders in Salem.