Earl Blumenauer to retire, dealing blow to Oregon’s seniority in Congress

Earl Blumenauer is calling it quits after 27 years in Congress, clearing the way for new federal representation for east Portland and dealing another blow to the state’s seniority in the U.S. House. 

Blumenauer, 75, has represented the state’s most Democratic district in Congress since 1996, after a decade on the Portland City Council and stints in the state House and on the Multnomah County Commission. He’s been active in politics for more than 50 years, starting when he was a junior at Lewis & Clark College leading Oregon’s effort to lower the voting age to 19 and testifying before a U.S. Senate committee for the first time. 

He plans to retire in January 2025, leaving a U.S. Capitol that he described as “really unnerving” and “pretty scary” because of the fractured Republican leadership. 

During a press conference in Portland on Tuesday, wearing his signature bow tie and bike pin combo, Blumenauer said he’s certain Democrats will regain control of the House in 2024 and that knowing that made it hard for him to leave. If he stayed, he could expect to serve as chairman of a Ways and Means subcommittee. 

“I would look forward to being back, being the chair of one of the Ways and Means Committees and being able to guide some of this stuff, but there will be colleagues that will step up and do it, and it was time for me to move on,” he said. 

Oregon has lost most of its seniority in the House in the past few years, starting when Republican Rep. Greg Walden stepped down in 2021 after 22 years in office. The state’s longest-serving representative, Democrat Peter DeFazio, retired in January after 36 years, and seven-term incumbent Democrat Kurt Schrader lost his primary last spring. 

That leaves Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, elected in 2012, as the de facto dean of Oregon’s delegation in the U.S. House. Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz took office in 2021, and the state’s three other congresswomen, Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer and Democrats Val Hoyle and Andrea Salinas, were elected last year and face tough re-election fights in 2024. 

Seniority is especially important for House Democrats because of how the party chooses leadership positions on House committees, said Chris Koski, a professor of political science and environmental studies at Reed College. 

“If we think about members of the House delivering benefits to Oregonians, I think it’s certainly true that we are not going to have the same level of say we would have on issues related to trade or to transportation policy as we had before,” Koski said. 

During a press conference Tuesday, Blumenauer acknowledged the recent exodus of Oregon congressional members.

“It was one of the things, frankly, that made my decision to leave difficult because I put together a position in the House of leadership, of seniority,” Blumenauer said. “It was making the decision difficult. Losing Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden, it’s making a difference.”

But he said he expects Hoyle, Salinas and Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Washington Democrat who represents the Vancouver area, to quickly gain traction in Democratic congressional politics. Oregon also still has U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, who has served in federal office since 1981 and the Senate since 1996, and Jeff Merkley, who has been in the Senate since 2009. 

“With the combination of working with the Senate half of the delegation and new people who are willing to learn and extend themselves, I think we’ll be all right,” Blumenauer said. 

Wyden spokesman Hank Stern said Oregon’s senators are well-positioned to advocate for the state, and Bonamici, Hoyle and Salinas are proven, talented and effective legislators.

“Senator Wyden expects a strong field of Democrats competing next year to replace congressman Blumenauer as well as an equally impressive field of Democrats competing in 2024 to win all the state’s House seats,” Stern said. “That current and future lineup doesn’t add up to pressure. That adds up to ongoing opportunities to keep advocating successfully for Oregon in Washington, D.C.”

Pacific University professor Jim Moore, who studies Oregon politics, said Bonamici will step into the role Blumenauer and DeFazio filled of bringing Oregon’s delegation together on statewide issues. DeFazio was a natural fit because his expertise was in transportation and federal lands, both big issues for Oregon, while Blumenauer made a case for his work on legalizing marijuana and advocating for bicyclists, Moore said.

“(Blumenauer) was well placed to say, ‘Hey, my expertise is now important. I should be the one helping the delegation to come to terms with what that means and what our response might be,’” Moore said. So (Bonamici’s) going to start to develop the expertise that she has and then see if that works in terms of big issues that are going through the House.” 

Bonamici told the Capital Chronicle she’ll miss Blumenauer, who has been a mentor during her years in Congress. She said he’s good at bringing people together in D.C., including through comedy events he hosted that featured politicians singing, telling jokes and performing magic tricks.

She said it’s still sinking in that she’ll serve as dean of the congressional delegation, describing it as a close-knit group. Bonamici, Bentz and Hoyle overlapped in the Legislature, as did Salinas and Bentz.

“We have a lot of great members doing great things in our delegation,” Bonamici said. “We will, of course, miss Earl’s leadership in sustainability and transit and those things, but there are other people who will take those over. And I think as a delegation, we’re going to be fine, but of course it’s big shoes to fill after after so many years and so much expertise and experience.”

Bonamici was the only female member of Oregon’s congressional delegation for 10 years, until Hoyle, Salinas and Chavez-DeRemer took office earlier this year. She noted that Oregon voters have the chance to elect an almost entirely female congressional delegation with Blumenauer’s retirement.

“If a woman wins the 3rd congressional district seat, it will have flipped from one woman and the rest men, to one man and the rest women, which is something that has happened over a pretty short period of time overall,” she said.

Race to replace Blumenauer

Blumenauer said he expects a crowded race to replace him. He’s not planning to endorse a successor, but he said he would make an exception if he thinks his endorsement would make a difference in the control of the U.S. House or if a candidate was being “destructive.” 

“There have been people who’ve been circling the seat for years,” he said. “Every time there was a change of administration, they’d come out to urge that I be selected as the secretary of transportation so there’ll be an open seat that they could run for.”

Hoyle, then the state labor commissioner, entered the race for the 4th Congressional District within hours of DeFazio announcing his retirement and quickly cleared the field, securing his endorsement well ahead of the Democratic primary. Political observers expect a more competitive field to replace Blumenauer, though Koski said he was surprised candidates hadn’t immediately declared in the day after Blumenauer let supporters know he planned to retire. 

“There are a number of other candidates in this district that have some level of elected office, just simply given the number of governments we have here and the stakes of those governments,” Koski said. “It seems to me that we will see at least a little more competitive field than we would see with Hoyle.”

But he said it will be interesting to see whether candidates who might have run for Congress in past years will focus on the expanded, revamped Portland City Council. Starting in 2025, Portland will have 12 city councilors, elected through ranked-choice voting from four districts. Councilors will earn $133,000, about $40,000 less than members of Congress, but they’d likely have an easier time getting elected and building power in office and would avoid a cross-country commute. 

Blumenauer said he plans to provide his successor with plenty of information about his goals and priorities, as well as a copy of a letter he gives to each new member of Congress with information he wishes he would have had when he was elected. He keeps adding to that letter, and it’s well over seven pages now.

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