Democrats Run the Table in Oregon…Again

While observers thought things would be closer, Democrats surged to a working majority in the House, but retained a nearly tied Senate. With a Democratic Governor in the middle of his third term, the results from last night will put to the test the skills Democrats and Republicans gained while working with a 30-30 House now that one party has the opportunity to control the organization of both chambers.

  • In the legislature, Democrats decisvely take charge of the House by 34 votes, not a supermajority, but clearly a working majority. Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, the current majority leader, will be named Speaker within the next few days.
  • It appears that freshmen Republicans in several suburban races loss — Democrat Ben Unger beat Rep. Katie Eyre in the Hilllsboro area, Democrat Shemia Fagan edged Rep. Pat Sheehan in Clackamas County, Democrat Chris Gorsek took out Rep. Matt Wand in East Multnomah County, and Democrat Joe Gallegos upset Rep. Shawn Lindsay in the Hillsboro area. In another race, Republican Rep. Julie Parrish turned back a challenge from former legislator Carl Hosticka.
  • In the Senate, Democrats retain control by a 16-14 margin. The race that had been deemed to be the closest — Democrat incumbent Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson vs. Republican challenger, Scott Hansen — turned Monnes Anderson's way. In the other seat that some said could be close, current House Co-Speaker Arnie Roblan succeeded in moving over to the Senate against a challenge from Republican Scott Roberts.
  • In the Secretary of State race, incumbent Democrat Kate Brown is headed for a second term, beating Bend physician, Knute Buehler, perhaps the strongest Republican candidate for the seat in years.
  • In the Labor Commissioner race, a non-partisan position, incumbent Brad Avakian, a long-time Democrat won over current Republican State Sen. Bruce Starr. Starr will return to the Oregon Senate for the final two years of his current term.
  • Two other statewide candidates, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Treasurer Ted Wheeler, had convincing wins.
  • On statewide ballot measures, the real estate tax pre-emption won, the kicker reform won, the death tax failed, the two urban casino measures failed, the gillnet measure failed and the marijuana measure failed.
  • Portlanders elected Charlie Hales as the new mayor by a huge margin after what started out as a tough fight against Jefferson Smith, but Mr. Smith imploded in the last week's of the campaign. City Commissioner Amanda Fritz survived a strong challenge from State Rep. Mary Nolan.
  • And, Portlanders passed largest school bond measure in Oregon history by a wide margin — a school bond measure that will impose tax increases on all residents of the district.

What does all this mean for the development of public policy in Oregon?

Well, no one knows for sure. But Democrats are on the ascendancy in Oregon and will control both the House and the Senate, as well as the governor's office. How they use that control and how they involve Republicans in the formation of policy could tell volumes about whether House veterans learned anything when they were split 30-30 in the 2011 legislative session.

What does seem clear is that the Governor Kitzhaber's agenda will move forward, though it also is true that he convinced both Democrats and Republicans to support his proposed reforms in the 2011 legislative session. Much work remains to be done to improve the health care system, early learning and education reforms, as well as to begin work on prison sentencing changes. Lurking in the background is tax reform and the governor's stated intention that he intends to move on that usually unresolvable issue. The fact that Democrats did not get to supermajorities — 36 votes in the House and 18 votes in the House — means that Democrats and Republicans will have to work together to find middle ground.

Meanwhile, when election results are final and ratified in a few days, legislative leaders — the likely House Speaker Kotek, D-Portland, and the likely Senate President Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Keizer (he will be taking his sixth term as Senate President) — will get about the business of organizing their caucuses. One of the first orders of business — one that will affect any organization, union, company or individual interested in legislative policy — will be to decide which committees exist, which legislators will chair them, and which legislators will be appointed to each. Any action taken by the Oregon Legislature must be handled first by a committee, so appointments matter to everyone for such committees as Revenue, Ways and Means, Business and Labor, Health Care, Human Services, Education, Environmental Regulation and General Government.

For those of us who deal with the legislature every day here in Oregon, one of the most interesting outcomes of this election will revolve around this question: Will legislators who fought hard on the campaign trail, sometimes engaging in acrimony and name calling, be able to work together to solve pressing state public policy problems? Earlier this week, national political commentator Steven Roberts put it this way: Elections don't often lead to good governing. Elections emphasize differences. By contrast, governing emphasizes similarities.

Time will tell if the newly elected Oregon public policy makers can focus on their similarities after spending so much time on their differences.