SALEM — Legislators who have played key roles in Oregon public policy in recent years are heading for the exit.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, might author another book.
Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, is yearning for some “alone time.”
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, is aiming for Capitol Hill.
And Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, has rolled out a familiar political trope: leaving office to spend more time with his family.
So far 10 lawmakers have announced that they won’t seek reelection in 2020, and another six are seeking new office or running for the seat they were appointed to for the first time. That means 16 seats will be up for grabs next year.
Several lawmakers cited age as a reason.
“It’s my ninth session and I’ll be 85 in March,” said Greenlick. “It’s time.”
Monnes Anderson, a retired nurse, decided she wouldn’t run again after her most recent election to the Senate in 2016.
“You know, I’m in my 70s and I put my heart and soul in being a legislator and campaigning,” Monnes Anderson said. “And it was just getting too much.”
Others cite the rancor and partisan divisions they feel have come to characterize the Capitol.
“The saddest thing I’ve seen happen over the 12 years I’ve been at the statehouse is the steady erosion of bipartisanship,” said Bentz, “And it’s one of the reasons I’m leaving.”
Yet Bentz, an Ontario lawyer, is leaving the Capitol for what is almost certainly the most divisive building in the country: the U.S. Capitol, where he hopes to represent Oregon’s massive Second Congressional District in the House.
He is one of several lawmakers who have announced plans to leave the colorfully carpeted chambers of the Legislature to pursue other offices.
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, and Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, are not seeking reelection to their seats in hopes of being chosen as the Democratic party’s candidate for secretary of state in the May 2020 primary.
And then there’s Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, who after 13 years in the Legislature, is eager to work on the local level once more. She’s seeking election the Linn County Commission.
“The closer you are, the greater your ability to impact is,” Sprenger said.
“I’m 76,” said Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha. “I’ll be 77 next year. So it’s kind of time to move on anyway. But my caucus kind of moved on away from me and it felt more like D.C. than Oregon last year.”
Barker, the longtime chair of the House Judiciary Committee and former police lieutenant, felt slighted when he was told that Speaker Tina Kotek would give the committee chairmanship to Williamson for the 2019 session.
“That made the decision a little easier,” Barker said.
“I’d made the decision before the real divisive session last (time),” Monnes Anderson said. “But that’s certainly something that I don’t like. It’s not me. It’s not my personality. I like bringing people together and trying to work out a solution.”
Alongside Monnes Anderson, Bentz, Sprenger, Roblan, Greenlick and Barker, lawmakers exiting the public arena in 2020 also include Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham; Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay; former House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass; and Rep. Greg Barreto, R-La Grande.
Having recently returned from a trip to Maryland to see his grandchildren, Roblan, a Coos Bay Democrat, said he didn’t want to spend another summer on what’ll likely be an expensive campaign defending his seat, in a district where he bested the Republican by just 349 votes in 2016.
Roblan, who will be 72 when his term expires next year, said that he’s accomplished many of his goals around education and coastal issues during his nearly two decades in the Legislature and it’s time to give someone else a chance.
“I think there are times when you look back and you think, ‘Okay, I came here to do certain things and I’ve gotten a lot of those accomplished,’” he said.
Among the departures are lawmakers who have been influential in shaping state policy: Roblan helped lead the charge for a massive $2 billion business tax increase to fund schools this year. Bentz and Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay, who is also not running for reelection, were instrumental in getting the Legislature to pass a landmark transportation bill in 2017 that will fund projects for a decade.
Greenlick and Barker were longtime committee chairs; and Monnes Anderson served as the official stand-in, or Senate president pro tempore, when Senate President Peter Courtney couldn’t be at the dais.
While the impact of their departure on policymaking may be felt, some say the exodus is nothing new.
“This doesn’t feel to me like an unusual year at all,” Greenlick said.
“Given the nature of the citizen legislature, we routinely see about 25-30% turnover every cycle,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said in a statement.
For Republicans, who mostly represent more rural areas of the state and have to travel further to get to the Capitol in Salem, that distance can “have greater impact on their personal and professional lives,” Kotek said.
“Some of them, just really, they’re done,” Courtney said. “They’ve served on city councils and county commissions. They don’t care to go on being an elected official.”
From accord to discord
Roblan, a Democrat who has represented his district on Oregon’s south coast for nearly two decades, recalled a relatively recent time of bipartisan harmony.
In 2011, the Oregon House was evenly split 30-30 between the two major parties. Roblan, then a representative, shared speaker duties with Republican Bruce Hanna.
“Speaker Hanna and I got along very well, and we fought out a lot of things quietly realizing that you have to work together,” he said.
Democrats then took back control of the House and the 2018 election gave the party supermajorities in each chamber.
Roblan, elected to the Senate in 2012, said that the Democrats’ lopsided majorities meant they no longer needed the minority party to get things done.
“The expectations from your base become greater that you will move more progressive legislation,” he said.
He said that some legislators have asked themselves, “Am I getting things done that I care about in this environment?”
Barker was elected to the House in 2002, when Democrats were in the minority. He served when the House was split equally between Democrats and Republicans in 2011.
“But it just seems more divisive this year,” Barker said. “I think the national (politics) has bled down a bit, you know, where people are having trouble listening to each other and it’s just like, my way or the highway. And I don’t like that. I mean, I don’t think that is good for Oregon.”
Monnes Anderson also points to the influence of national politics, saying that in comparing notes with colleagues from other state legislatures, political circumstances are just as toxic in Montana and Idaho.
Greenlick, for his part, described the House as “collegial” during the 2019 session.
Bentz says about 80% of policymaking in Salem is driven by consensus.
“It’s work that needs to be done,” Bentz said. “The everyday stuff. But the 20% that remains is almost always really big stuff, the cutting edge of politics. It’s there that if you’re going to be successful at all you need an ‘all together’ approach to politics. That’s not happening now, and it’s extraordinarily frustrating to us who work really hard in trying to make sure our state is a collective effort, not an urban driven, city-centered thing.”
Barker, a self-described moderate, thinks that the two major parties opening their primaries up to all voters — not just party members — could temper partisanship. As things are, he said, primaries often see the most liberal Democrat and the most conservative Republican clinch the nomination.
Monnes Anderson said that Oregon politics are more fraught.
“We are becoming more fractured even within our own caucus,” Monnes Anderson said. “…I miss working with the Republicans.”
The 2019 legislative session ended in acrimony.
With supermajorities in both chambers and control of the governor’s office, Democrats attempted to push through an ambitious agenda that included a controversial bill to set up a state-run system to cap carbon emissions.
The bill faced a backlash over how it could impact rural economies.
It never made it to a vote in the Senate after Republicans walked out, denying Democrats the quorum needed to vote.
Threats, formal complaints and two recall attempts against Gov. Kate Brown followed.
Contact reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 503-363-0888. Jake Thomas is with Salem Reporter and Sam Stites is with Pamplin Media.