Meet the man who makes Oregon’s Senate work

Obie Rutledge is passionate about Willamette University’s salad bar.

It might not rank among Salem’s finest establishments, but Rutledge recommends it to people new to working alongside him at the Oregon Capitol. The dining hall ticks many of the boxes for busy staff and legislators during the buzz of the legislative session: all-you-can-eat, healthy, walking distance, and of course, cheap.

“It’s not free, but it’s like $9-something,” he said, with a conspiratorial grin.

Having that sort of local knowledge is one of many unofficial duties for Rutledge, 47, who was sworn in as secretary of the Senate at the start of the 2024 legislative session after more than 23 years working in the House Clerk’s office.

“His consistent professionalism and objectivity in advising members and staff about those rules and procedures is unparalleled,” said Sen. Kate Leiber, the Senate majority leader, when nominating Rutledge.

She referred to him as a “rules nerd.”

“Throughout his tenure in the legislature, he has been known for more openness and positive energy and he has helped everyone to enjoy and appreciate the honor and privilege of working in this building,” she said.

Rutledge’s job is crucial to the functioning of the legislature.

He is a parliamentarian, responsible for ensuring the Senate follows the state Constitution and its own rules when conducting sessions and passing laws. That means making sure bills get posted so the public can view them, coordinating committee schedules, and having a front row seat when legislators debate the top issues affecting the state.

Rutledge’s eyes light up as he speaks about his work.

“For me, who loves who appreciates policy, and loves process and rules, it’s a bit intoxicating,” he said.

Rutledge came to the Capitol in 2001, starting as a reading clerk in the House. He was 24, interested in politics and thought the job might help him make connections.

“I walked in the door. And I never looked back,” he said. 

He discovered he had an aptitude for process and ensuring things worked smoothly.

While there, he worked under eight House speakers, including current Gov. Tina Kotek and now-U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.

“As a long-time, dependable presence on the House floor, Obie was a constant source of institutional knowledge and common sense thinking, not to mention someone with a great sense of humor (especially needed at the end of a session). And he could read with speed! The Senate is so lucky to get him,” Kotek said in an email.

The role requires far more than memorizing rulebooks — though coworkers and legislators said Rutledge’s ability to do so is near-legendary. 

It takes a deft hand with people: advising legislators on how they can accomplish their aims and sometimes fielding complaints about mundane topics like legislators wearing flip-flops on the House floor or parking assignments. 

“He could recall things off the top of his head that had happened decades before. It’s not simply a question of what the rules are. Anybody can read the rules and memorize the rules … It’s also a question of how they’ve been interpreted, and what exceptions have been made in certain times,” said House Clerk Timothy Sekerak, who supervised Rutledge for nine years.

Lacy Ramirez, who worked under Rutledge in the House Clerk’s office, said her former boss could find humor in any situation. He knew every member’s biography in detail – where they worked before becoming a representative, their preferences and their key issues.

He held speed-reading contests with his counterpart in the Senate.

“People thought that I read fast. I’m like, ‘No, Obie was on a different level,’” she said.

When issues became tense, Ramirez recalled he’d refer to “our sweet little members” to break the ice.

“He just has a way (of) having a good relationship with everybody,” she said. 

Rutledge sees himself as a guide, helping legislators understand and follow the process.

It’s a strictly nonpartisan job. For him to be effective, he has to be someone legislators can trust, regardless of party. That means he doesn’t post about politics on social media or discuss issues socially. He’s registered to vote unaffiliated with any political party.

Rutledge was among the Capitol workers who weighed in when the House contemplated expelling then-Rep. Mike Nearman in 2021 after he let rioters into the Capitol. The Oregon Constitution says legislators can expel a member, but they’re silent on the mechanism.

Rutledge consulted with colleagues in other states and advised legislative leaders to pursue a formal resolution in writing, rather than a spoken motion on the House floor. That meant the decision would be clear, accessible to the public, preserved for posterity – and it set a precedent that expulsion motions shouldn’t be a spur-of-the-moment action.

“We were sort of looking further down the line of trying to help prevent the House finding itself in a place where it could be weaponized,” he said.

Legislative leaders took his counsel and ultimately voted 59-1 to expel Nearman, with the expulsion target the sole dissenting vote.

Rutledge last year achieved a longtime goal, being named to the Mason’s Manual Commission. The national group comprises parliamentarians from around the U.S. who work to revise the manual that guides legislative procedures in most states.

Rutledge said updates for the 2030 edition are adding clarity to processes guiding censure, expulsion and other ways to deal with legislators’ bad behavior, an issue that’s come up more frequently in recent years.

Top parliamentarian jobs, like secretary of the Senate, are rare – there are about 100 in the U.S. Once someone’s in the position, they commonly stay for decades.

Rutledge said he doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.

The Senate chamber, he said, is “the center of political gravity in Oregon when we’re in session. Being at the front desk is like being in the eye of that storm. It’s all swirling around you and you’re privy to all of it.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.