Senate bids farewell to Peter Courtney, longest-serving president in Oregon history

Peter Courtney had one final message for his colleagues as he presided over his final Senate session Friday: Care for each other. 

The Senate’s stated reason for convening Friday was confirming two appointees to state boards, but the session’s true purpose was saying goodbye to Courtney, the eccentric Salemite whose 20 years as Senate president made him the longest-serving legislative officer in Oregon history. 

“In my 45 years of politics, I’ve been hurt,” Courtney said. “I’ve been angry. I’ve had nasty things done to me and I’ve seen a lot. But I must say along the way somewhere I got blessed.”

Courtney’s retirement at the end of the year marks the end of more than four decades of public service in Oregon, his adopted state. He stepped off a Greyhound bus in Salem in 1969 with a job offer to clerk for an Oregon judge, spent two years living in a room at the local YMCA and was elected to the Salem City Council in 1974.

He served in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1981 to 1999, minus a four-year stretch between 1985 and 1989 when he made unsuccessful bids for the U.S. House and Oregon Senate. He was elected to the Oregon Senate in 1998 and has been Senate president since 2003. 

Courtney told senators Friday that one of his biggest fears was that he wouldn’t be able to thank legislative staff, his family and others enough for how they helped him. 

“You can say thank you, but I can’t thank individuals or groups enough for what they’ve done for me,” he said. 

Courtney urged senators to remember a quote attributed to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, that the earliest sign of civilization in the fossil record is a femur that had been broken, then healed. A broken leg means death in the animal kingdom, and a healed femur means that another person cared for the one who fell.  

“We are all our best when we serve others,” Courtney said. 

Senators say goodbye

As Courtney and other senators spoke, loud thumps, clangs and the droning of power tools echoed from the closed hallways outside the Senate chamber. The Capitol is in the middle of a multi-year, $506 million construction project to prepare the 1938 building and its 1977 addition for an overdue earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. 

Courtney has long championed efforts to retrofit schools and emergency facilities for seismic activity, and he pushed for the Capitol renovations for years. Sen. Rob Wagner, a Democrat from Lake Oswego who fellow Democrats tapped to succeed Courtney as president, said lawmakers will think of Courtney and his work as they hear construction noises over the next few years. 

Wagner, who was a legislative staffer and lobbyist before he was appointed to the Senate in 2018, said he remembers how the phrase “Peter is going to speak” would bring staffers running to hear Courtney take the floor. 

“People would be stacked three-deep in the gallery just to hear the argument he was advancing and the way he approached his craft,” Wagner said. “All of us are better legislators, we are better human beings and the state of Oregon is stronger due to your leadership and service.” 

Senate Secretary Lori Brocker said her relatives in Norway have a phrase, “takk for alt,” that fit the day’s sad but grateful mood. It translates to “thanks for everything,” but in a deep and profound sense. It’s used to celebrate lives well-lived and people who have done much, she said. 

Brocker recounted testifying in front of a Senate committee that included Courtney in 1999, when she was a lobbyist for the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. The Legislature wanted to expand exemptions to public records law, newspapers wanted to stop them, and Brocker thought her presentation was going well until Courtney began asking questions. 

At first, Brocker said, his questioning made her sound like she had just flown in from Los Angeles with the goal of having paparazzi everywhere and eroding privacy rights. But Courtney ended up making Brocker’s case for her: The bill’s opponents were mostly small newspapers in Oregon who were just trying to do their part to protect democracy. 

“The good senator, in his inimitable way – funny, smart, incisive, politically savvy – made my appeal to the committee better than I had been making it myself,” she said. 

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, told Courtney he couldn’t thank him – but only because Courtney had joked that he would drop dead if he ever heard Knopp say “thank you.” Instead, Knopp said, he could say that it was a blessing to work with Courtney and that he hopes his remaining colleagues will emulate his service.

Courtney emphasized bipartisanship during his time in the Senate: His presidency began in 2003, when Democrats and Republicans were evenly split. Knopp said Republicans appreciate him for protecting the minority and ensuring their voices are heard. 

Knopp is one of only a few Oregon legislators born in the state: His family arrived on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Courtney was born in Philadelphia, was raised in West Virginia, Virginia and Rhode Island, graduated from college in Rhode Island and got his law degree in Boston, and Knopp said he’s one of Oregon’s best “adopted sons.” 

“This is your adopted home, and we are your adopted family,” Knopp said. 

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Beaverton, said Courtney’s most distinguishing characteristic is how much he cares for everyone around him. He knows the names of his colleagues’ spouses and children and learned staff’s college mascots. 

“Each of us, one way or another, whether Oregon is our native-born home or we’re Oregonians by choice, we’ll always have moments where we’re strangers in a strange land,” she said. “Peter understands more than anyone I know that we must always remember that fact about ourselves and recognize it in others, and we must always be welcoming and make their lives a little less strange.”

Senator Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said Courtney was one of the first people to call him when his home burned in a wildfire in 2020. Senate President Pro Tempore James Manning, D-Eugene, said Courtney was there for him when his wife, Lawanda, died last year. 

 Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, is retiring from the Senate and will take a post on the Oregon Transportation Commission. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Other departing senators

Five other current senators will leave in January. Democrats Rachel Armitage of Warren and Akasha Lawrence Spence of Portland were both appointed to finish the terms of senators who resigned in 2021 and didn’t run for full terms. 

Republican Bill Kennemer of Oregon City narrowly lost his re-election campaign to state Rep. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone. Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, opted to retire and endorsed state Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles to replace him. 

And after 31 years in the Legislature, Democrat Lee Beyer of Springfield chose to retire this year. Outgoing Gov. Kate Brown appointed him to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“Lee Beyer is probably one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever met,” Courtney said. “He’s something else, and as a public servant you can’t find any better.”

Beyer said his neighbors choosing him to represent them in the Legislature was the biggest honor he ever could have received.

“It’s so fulfilling when you get a constituent call and you can make their life better,” he said. 

Beyer urged his colleagues to remember that they represent not only their 140,000 constituents but the nearly 4.3 million people in the state. Urban and rural Oregonians don’t seem to understand each other now, he said, but that can change. 

Neither Kennemer nor Thomsen attended Friday’s session. 

Armitage began crying as she thanked her family and constituents. She said she remembered being in the House as a young staffer and hearing a speech about how U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield had said he would always return to Oregon, and she felt the same way.

“My senate term is over,” Armitage said. “I will look on this time with nothing but gratitude, and I will proudly stand with those who will always call Oregon home.”

Lawrence Spence, who was previously appointed to finish a term in the Oregon House, said a woman she spoke to early in her House term initially couldn’t believe that she was a legislator because she’s a young Black woman. She said she sought to represent not just her Portland constituents but hope and possibility for people who hadn’t historically seen themselves reflected in the Legislature or the bills it passed.  

“You all are tasked with a tremendous responsibility to represent not just the people who look like you and the people you know but the people you’ll never meet,” she said. 

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.