Oregon Democrats tap Majority Leader Julie Fahey as next House speaker

House Majority Leader Julie Fahey will likely be the next speaker of the Oregon House following a private vote among Democratic lawmakers on Monday evening.  

Current Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, plans to continue serving through the 35-day short session, which begins Feb. 5. Democrats envision a formal vote to replace him as one of the last acts of the session.

Rayfield is running for attorney general, and some fellow Democrats were clamoring for a leader who would be dedicated to defending and expanding the party’s legislative majority without the distraction of a statewide campaign. The last House speaker, current Gov. Tina Kotek, initially planned to serve through her final short session but stepped down in early 2022 to focus on her campaign for governor. 

“I’m deeply honored to have earned the Democratic caucus’s nomination for Speaker of the House. Right now, we’re 100% focused on ensuring that our February legislative session delivers real results on the issues Oregonians care most about,” Fahey said in a statement. “My commitment is to serve the people of Oregon with respect, common sense and collaboration as we tackle the biggest issues we’re facing across this state.”

Fahey of Eugene grew up in Illinois and graduated from the University of Notre Dame. She has focused largely on housing and homelessness during her time in the state House.

She beat out Rep. Tawna Sanchez, who represents Portland and is the chair of the powerful budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee. Legislative leadership positions often favor lawmakers who are good at fundraising and contribute large sums to the caucus’s political action committee. 

Fahey raised more than $460,000 in 2022 and more than $112,000 last year. Her campaign committee has contributed more than $600,000 to Future PAC, the political action committee that works to elect Democrats to the state House, since she took office in 2017.

Sanchez raised $225,000 in 2022 and $45,000 in 2023. She has given almost $300,000 to Future PAC since she took office in 2017.

As majority leader, Fahey worked closely with Future PAC during the challenging 2022 election, during which Democrats fielded candidates in 55 of 60 seats. Republicans picked up two more districts in the House, narrowing Democratic majorities from 37 of 60 seats in 2021 to 35 currently. But Democratic victories in close races in Deschutes and Clackamas counties dashed Republican hopes of further narrowing the divide and gaining more power in Salem.

Democrats are more optimistic about 2024, with a presidential election likely to drive turnout among young voters and other less engaged groups who tend to support Democratic candidates when they do vote. But ongoing malaise with the state’s direction – about half of Oregon voters say the state is on the wrong track in recent polls – leaves Republicans a chance to gain legislative power in this year’s elections. 

House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, panned the early speaker vote in a statement earlier Monday. House Republicans have had few issues with Rayfield, and after a token attempt to install their own leader as speaker last year agreed to reelect Rayfield on a unanimous ballot.

“While warring factions of Democrats jockey among themselves for political power, Republicans remain focused on solving the problems facing Oregonians, like ending the drug crisis caused by Measure 110,” Helfrich said. “This needless speaker election shows you where the majority’s priorities are, and they aren’t with the people.”

House Democrats haven’t yet decided who will succeed Fahey as majority leader, but they selected Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, as their new assistant majority leader in the same meeting. Rep. Maxine Dexter, a Portland Democrat who had held the role, is now running for Congress and chose to step down from her leadership position.

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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.