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Constitution changes by the dozen

Lawmakers face 38 proposed changes to the state constitution this session.

Few will pass. Massive and drastic change is something to be wary of when it comes to altering the state’ core governing document, though the voters do approve changes from time to time.

But the proposals do carry messages, including of Republican frustrations in Oregon.

Constitutional amendments are introduced as joint resolutions (a form also used to create interim committees and take some other actions) which, unlike bills, require no action by the governor for passage.

There are two bipartisan proposals. Senate Joint Resolution 10 would shift control of the legislative and congressional redistricting process from the Legislature to a new Citizens Redistricting Commission, along the lines of those in the states bordering Oregon. Early in the decade-long cycle before the next remapping effort would be the optimal time for passage. And the sponsors, Sens. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook; Jeff Golden, D-Ashland; Bill Hansell, R-Athena; and Reps. John Lively, D-Springfield; and Greg Smith, R-Heppner; are split between the parties.

Two alternative Republican proposals, SJR 9 from Republican Sen.  Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, and SJR 25 from Sen.  Fred Girod of Stayton, have a similar goal.

Another bipartisan proposal, House Joint Resolution 8, lists seven Republican sponsors and one Democrat (Sen. Lew Frederick of Portland), and is aimed at requiring citizenship for voting.

Democrats contributed three amendment proposals. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan asked to allow same-day voter registration (HJR 4). Sen. Chris Gorsek of Troutdale asked for expanded uses for motor vehicle tax revenues (SJR 2). Rep. David Gomberg of Otis proposed a simple word change (HJR 14), replacing “declaration of emergency” in referring to bills intended to be effective quickly, replacing that with “early implementation date.” Only Fagan’s measure seems likely to generate much discussion.

All the other ideas were  proposed by Republican legislators, and one of their biggest concerns is the Legislature itself. Some Republicans have not made peace with the relatively recent addition of regular, short legislative sessions in even-numbered years. Sens. Art Robinson of Cave Junction (SJR 4) and Fred Girod of Stayton (SJR 24) proposed amendments to eliminate them.

Other legislation-limiting proposals were suggested. Two (SJR 16 and SJR 20) would require two-thirds vote for passage of certain bills in even-numbered sessions.

Rep. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, urged in HJR 6 that the supermajority or three-fifths requirement on revenue-raising bills cover more subjects, and Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, proposed SJR 1,  which would raise the 60% supermajority to two-thirds. Measures deemed an emergency would need a two-thirds vote under an amendment (HJR 11) from Reps. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem, and Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, and another (SJR 5) from Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer.

The executive branch, under Democratic control yet again, has come in for attention in ways large and small. Proposals would allow the Legislature to overturn administrative rules by resolution (SJR 18), skirting a gubernatorial veto, or go further in requiring legislative approval before any rule could take effect (SJR 21).

A budgeting proposal from Girod (SJR 22) would “limit increase in state governmental appropriations for general governmental purposes in biennium to least of percentage increase in projected personal income, percentage increase in projected population growth plus inflation or percentage increase in projected gross domestic product of Oregon for biennium.”

Some are more specific, requiring legislative approval for some specific spending decisions (SJR 15), road tolling (SJR 19) or even Senate signoff on gubernatorial pardons (HJR 10 and SJR 11).

The state’s pandemic experience led to a proposed amendment “to place durational and other limitations on declarations of emergency by governor” (SJR 14 and HJR 9), the latter drawing 10 Republican legislative sponsors, the most of any proposed amendment. Yet another is more specific (HJR 7), prohibiting Oregon’s executive branch from “requiring medical procedure or vaccine or type of vaccine to be administered to any individual or class of individuals, unless legislative assembly has enacted law that expressly identifies medical procedure, vaccine or type of vaccine and individuals or classes of individuals for which medical procedure or vaccine administration is required.”

Oregon is the only state that doesn’t provide for impeachment of elected officials, and Senate Republican leader Tim Knopp of Bend offered a corrective (SJR 13) to provide that “officials could have been impeached for malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crimes or misdemeanors.”

Substance as well as process has turned up as some of the more intriguing ideas. Some are simply constitutional versions of normal Republican legislative ideas, such as carrying concealed firearms (SJR 3 by Robinson), enacting a Right to Work labor law (HJR 15), legal provisions concerning aggravated murder (HJR 3), and property tax help for owners who live in their residences (SJR 6, SJR 17, and SJR 8, the latter aimed at seniors).

Another would establish a right to hunt and fish (HJR 5), but does allow for legal restrictions, which raises the question of what its effect would actually be. Even more explanation might be useful for SJR 7 from Sen. Cedric Hayden of Roseburg, who proposed a “constitutional right to subsist,” which would include a “right to save and exchange seeds and grow, raise, harvest and consume food of one’s own choosing.” Depending on what this might mean on a concrete level, it might get either a lot of support at the Legislature, or very little.

Good thing the Legislature has about half a year to work: Lots of paperwork has piled up already.

This article first appeared in the Oregon Capitol Chronicle.

 

Decriminalizing effects, or not

This makes for a simple and compelling storyline: Since Oregon has loosened its marijuana and other drug laws – through ballot measures in 2014 and 2020 – law enforcement agencies have been reporting massive seizures in the state of illegal pot and large-scale illegal operations in rural parts of the state. The implicit message is that drug abuse is exploding.

Some of the seizures are massive, amounting to more than 105 tons in the state so far this year, much more than just three years ago.

Beyond those headlines, however, the connections aren’t so simple, and some perspective is needed.

One way to approach this is through the organization that is the source of the 105-ton figure; it is especially useful because of the way the group is set up: a little counter-intuitively. This is the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, a little odd as an integral unit both for geographic reasons and because Oregon and Idaho have such different drug regimes and issues. The contrast is also useful, because the differences between the two help shed a little light on the challenges each of the states face.

The task force focuses its efforts on 16 counties (a dozen in Oregon) and four Indian reservations (two in each state). Most of these house local-regional “initiatives.” Statewide, Oregon reported a drop in arrests over drug offenses from 10,684 in 2020 to 4,892 in 2021; the report suggested the passage of Measure 110, which decriminalized some personal possession of illegal drugs, may have been a reason. While not a strict comparison, Idaho reported that of more than 8,000 inmates in its correction system, the largest portion (34.7%) was behind bars for drug crimes, a contrasting picture.

Although the legal scene was very different, the task force’s Drug Threat Assessment sounded very much the same for both states when it came to specific problem areas.

“Fentanyl and methamphetamine were the most significant threats to Oregon and Idaho during 2021 based on drug seizures, drug related death data, initiative interviews, and surveys conducted in early 2022. The 18 Oregon-Idaho HIDTA enforcement initiatives based their survey responses on a criterion of drug availability, impact on caseload and community impact,” the report said.

That message coincides with recent reports from other regions showing shifts of trafficking in rural areas.

It went on: “One-third of HIDTA initiatives listed methamphetamine as their single greatest drug threat, while one third stated fentanyl alone as their greatest threat. However, three task forces stated that fentanyl and methamphetamine pose an equal threat in their jurisdictions. Sixteen initiatives identified methamphetamine as being the most available substance in their jurisdiction – either individually or in combination with other drugs.”

Those substances were reported by far as the largest problem area across both states, and both seem to be less affected by the law changes in Oregon than a number of substances illegal in one state but not, or less so, in the other. The report said that fentanyl trafficking into Oregon increased massively in 2021.

There was also this: “The Oregon State Police (OSP) forensic laboratory statistics for 2021 showed 50.7% of the samples submitted for analysis were methamphetamine. Heroin made up another 17.6% of submitted samples. Fentanyl accounted for 8.9% of samples. Cocaine and cannabis/THC each were roughly 3% of submitted samples. Another 2% of samples contained multiple drugs. Finally, all other drug types represented 13% of samples.” In Idaho, “methamphetamine represented 43% of samples analyzed in 2021, while marijuana was 23.5%. Heroin accounted for 8.8% of samples and fentanyl or fentanyl analogues were 5%.”

As for marijuana, law enforcement in both states this year continue to report significant amounts of illegal marijuana and cannabis extracts, though just a quarter of enforcement officers surveyed indicate “a rise in prevalence.” Prices for the illicit goods continue to fall, they said, especially in southern Oregon, where some of the largest illegal grow operations have been reported.

What to make of this?

No doubt more effort is going to be needed to go after illegal marijuana operations. (Is there some temptation to grow in a state where, the theory may be, the illegal product can be hidden among the legal?) Still, the ability of law enforcement to focus on the big traffickers rather than individual users may account in part for their success in cracking some of the large operations.

The task force’s report may in effect be a call to think carefully about where the most serious problems are, and how we measure them – hopefully, in context.

This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

(image/Getty)

Setup for 2023

This year, the state will learn what how the decisions made in 2022 will look like in practice.This is likely to be most obvious in the political and governmental sphere. Oregon elected a new governor and three new members of Congress in November, but that is the beginning of the story, not the end.Starting this month, Oregonians will compare incoming  Gov. Tina Kotek with her predecessor, Gov. Kate Brown, and assess her  new management of state government (and even much of local government).

In December, Kotek launched a series of listening stops, starting in Yamhill and Douglas counties, in partial fulfillment of her promise to keep in closer touch with the far-flung parts of Oregon. But there will be questions about the extent of communications – who is invited, for example, to the small groups she’ll meet? – and what results come of it.

Kotek presented herself as a stronger manager of state government, determined to push through not so much policy changes as more effective management of them. There are no lack of management issues, from fulfilling Measure 110 drug assistance to helping with renter issues and homelessness to better funding of the public defender system. Illicit drug operations are also a problem. All were challenging for the last administration, and Kotek said she would improve the state’s performance. These are long-term issues, but we should have a sense within a few months of how she will tackle them.

We’ll also see how the slightly less Democratic Legislature does as well, when lawmakers  arrive later this month, and how Kotek relates to it in her new capacity. Governors with legislative experience have been known (not only in Oregon) to flounder in that area after making the transition. A bellwether was suggested by a headline from last campaign season:  “Democrat Tina Kotek pledged Monday to make capping campaign contributions one of her top priorities if she’s elected governor.” Watch this touchy topic closely.

Legislative leadership will be newer than it has been in more than in a decade. (Kotek has been around the statehouse a long time but she’s there now in a new capacity; it’s worth remembering that all three major governor candidates last fall had been prominent legislators and resigned their seats earlier in the year to run statewide, so none are back.) In 2023, Oregonians can decide how this version of Democratic control compares to the last.

Are Oregon Democrats shrinking their philosophical tent? Last year’s primary ouster of Kurt Schrader, a Blue Dog Democrat in Congress, opened the question of what the governing party will look like, broad (with serious reach to the center) or narrow. The departure of former Democrat Betsy Johnson speaks to this, too. This year may give us some clues about how the party in Oregon is currently defining itself.

Republicans face questions of a similar nature. Many Oregon Republican nominees in 2022 were from the mainstream of the party (“normies” in the lingo of some Donald Trump backers) but a significant number of nominees and other candidates were not. For the second election cycle in a row, the party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate, Jo Rae Perkins, was a perennial candidate with personal issues and close alignment with QAnon, yet she easily won the party’s nomination, and more than 40% of the general election vote. Republicans in Oregon have serious structural problems looking ahead to 2023.

They also face some immediate questions. Here’s one: Will Republicans try to challenge the terms of the new constitutional amendment penalizing long-term absences from the session? Will they risk it? Will they be defanged?

How effective will Oregon’s two least-known brand new members of Congress be? Both Democrat Andrea Salinas in the 6th Congressional District and Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer in the 5th were elected with slim margins this year, and both can expect to be targeted by the opposing parties next time. In the coming year, will they be caught up in controversies? Will  they build broad connections to their constituencies? What sort of issues or debates will  they be associated with?

This year will be more than just about politics, of course. The farmworker overtime bill signed into law last April will come more fully into bloom this year. A proposed ballot issue to legalize sex work was short-circuited last year partly because of its descriptive language, and it may be back this year. Abortion laws could toughen even more in nearby states like Idaho, and Oregon will see ongoing pressure there. The appearance this winter of the “triple-demic” of COVID-19, the flu and the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, either might fade or become an important driver this year with many hospital beds in the Northwest taken.

But in all of these cases, we might not need terrific insight to see what’s ahead. The signs were set in place last year. Now we begin the road ahead.

(column and image originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Where the Johnson support went

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The core support for Betsy Johnson, the unaffiliated candidate for governor in the election, was almost surely a lot different six months ago than it was when the ballots were cast.

Polling from last spring up into September put her in third place but not by much: She was pulling numbers just above and below 20%, which would be poor in a two-way race but respectable in a three-way, which is where she was. Since polling numbers easily can shift by 10 points or more in the last two or three months of a campaign, that theoretically put her not far from first place, a position which, in fact, would be bouncing between Democrat Tina Kotek (who ultimately won) and Republican Christine Drazan.

The talk grew loud several months ago that Johnson could become only the second person – the first being Julius Meier in 1930 – elected governor of Oregon outside of the two major parties.

We now know that it didn’t happen. We also know that by the time votes were cast, Johnson did not gain more support after the early stages of her campaign but rather lost most of it, finishing with a modest 8.6% of the vote.

What happened, and what can we learn about Oregon politics from the still-significant vote she did receive?

In most Oregon counties she received between 7% and 10% of the vote. She scored higher than that in 10 counties: Clatsop (22.9%), Columbia (20.8%), Gilliam (20.7%), Tillamook (17.8%), Jefferson (12.1%), Wheeler (11.6%), Wasco (10.9%), Deschutes (10.5%), Sherman (10.5%) and Lincoln (10,1%). All have something in common: She has had long-standing personal connections to those areas, or at least to their media and marketing communities. Clatsop and Columbia were the core of the legislative districts she represented for many years, and Tillamook and Lincoln counties were nearby. Johnson grew up in and has had long-standing ties to the Deschutes and Jefferson county areas, and the remaining counties are closely connected to that region.

All this is evidence of personal loyalty among the people who have known her best – but only to a point. That she could not obtain even a quarter of the vote in her home county (Columbia), where for many years she had been not just a popular and respected elected official but a beloved local icon, is striking, and suggests some counter-currents also were at play.

Politically, these counties relatively supporting Johnson are a mix, but with the partial exceptions of Lincoln, Clatsop and Deschutes are Republican-leaning.

What about the counties – five of them – where she performed relatively poorly? These are Malheur (5.1%), Lake (5.9%), Klamath (6.1%), Wallowa (6.4%) and Umatilla (6.7%), all places that run very strongly Republican. But that alone wasn’t decisive; she fared better in other very Republican counties.

A speculation: Early-day Johnson voters who leaned Republican left her cadre sooner and in larger numbers.

Here’s what the numbers seem to tell me, in a general way, about what happened:

The race probably was not far from a true three-way contest at one point, about the time of the May primary election, but then partisanship sank in. I suspect the first major response came among many Republicans, when they saw that their nominee, Drazan, was generating strong appeal and might have a better chance of reaching out into the middle of the electorate than their previous nominees had. That realization, and the prospect of winning a long-denied governorship, bled Johnson from the right, and pumped Drazan’s numbers.

Over time, that, in turn, generated a reaction, kicking in through September, among many of the Democratic-leaning Johnson supporters. These were people who were content to see Johnson rather than Kotek as governor, except that if the choice were effectively between Drazan and Kotek, they’d much rather see the Democrat than the Republican win.

That reaction may have been exacerbated (and reflected) by the switch in big-time funding from billionaire Phil Knight from Johnson to Drazan – presumably when he too saw the Republican had a much better chance of winning than did the non-aligned candidate.

Disproportionately, the voters Johnson retained were not those who were notably independent or dissatisfied with the two main parties, but were those who had some personal or regional connection to her. She probably affected the contest between Kotek and Drazan only to the extent of a percentage point or two. Most Oregon voters stuck with their party of preference, whichever it was.

Here’s one conclusion you can make from the 2022 governor’s race: It’s still as hard to elect an independent as governor of Oregon as it ever was.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

 

The setup

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It's been a long time since Oregon and Washington were home to more than at most a single seriously up for grabs congressional seat. This year, the states had a small pile of them.

Fewer are likely to be as seriously contested two years from now, but a couple probably will.

Washington has 10 House seats and Oregon (now) has six. A majority of the seats are clearly non-competitive, falling into either reliable Democratic (WA 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 10 and OR 1 and 3) or Republican (WA 4 and 5 and OR 2) categories: Neither party is going to devote much effort into trying to preventing what would be a longshot effort to flip them.

Owing partly to redistricting, the remaining five districts in this year's election were deemed close enough calls to draw national attention.

Looking ahead, one of them at least will clearly drop of the list, and another probably should.

Some early (and questionable) polling results showed OR 4 (the southwest, including Eugene and Corvallis) as tight and maybe even with a (deeply flawed) Republican candidate ahead; on that basis, it pulled in substantial national funding. The end result showed Democrat Val Hoyle winning by a not especially close 50.6% to 43.1% for the Republican. That's enough to suspect that Hoyle, an experienced office holder, will have the district in hand two years from now, as outgoing Peter De Fazio long has had: Not with landslides, but with a stable majority.

WA 8 (eastern King and Pierce over to the Wenatchee area) probably is a similar story. It's a close district in partisan makeup, and national prognosticators insisted through most of the recent campaign cycle in labeling it either a dead-even tossup or a slight Republican tilt; neither really made much sense (though it might have if the Republican nominee had been the stronger and better known Reagan Dunn). In the event, Democratic incumbent Kim Schrier defeated her opponent 53.3% to 46.3% in a challenging year; this district may be moving into write-it-off territory, even if no landslides should be expected there.

The district in the middle is the newest in the northwest, OR 6 (Salem, southwest Portland suburbs and small-town Yamhill County). For much of the last cycle national reviewers rated it a toss-up, and then gave Democrat Andrea Salinas a slight advantage; that late analysis proved about right. She was heavily outspent in the general and stressed by a big-money primary, but the district leans Democratic and the Republican nominee was uncommonly weak. With that in mind, Salinas' win of 50% to 47.5% should be taken as more floor than ceiling: As an incumbent next time, she'll have some room to grow support. This will not be a district Democrats can take for granted, but it's a place they should win if they pay attention.

The two remaining districts were hotly contested this time, and there's good reason to think they will be in 2024 - and realistically could go either way.

One is WA 3 in southwest Washington (centered around the Vancouver area). It has been held since the 2010 election by Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, who likely would have held it for the next two years as well if she had won her primary. For many national prognosticators, the analysis seemed to end there, and the district was written off as solidly Republican. They forgot a couple of significant data points. One was that the district has a centrist (probably gently Republican) feel to it: Herrera Beutler's predecessor for the same number of terms she served (six) was a Democrat, Brian Baird. The other is the far right extremist views and connections of the Republican nominee this year, Joe Kent, which weren't a match for this centrist district. In that contest, the close win (50.2% to 49.3%)by Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez makes solid sense. (This district should have been labeled, a couple of months ago, either as tossup or as tilt Democratic.)

What happens here in 2024? That could be up for grabs. The two main factors may be how well Perez performs and relates to her district: Does she sink in roots and support over the next couple of years? Equally, much will depend on whether the Republicans nominate a stronger candidate next time. Either way, this district could be on the short list of highly watchable districts next time around.

That's also true for OR 5, which stretches south of Portland over the Cascades to include the Bend area. As a while this area leans lightly Democratic, owing to its Portland suburbs (some of them, anyway) and increasingly blue Bend. The race here was very close, won by Republican Lori Chavez-Deremer 51% to 48.8 over Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner. The forces backing Chavez-Deremer poured a small ocean of money into this race featuring two candidates neither especially well-known in the district; this may have been a case where the substantial money difference was decisive.

The partisan balance in the district is close enough that either party can plausibly win - as this race showed - but the new Republican incumbent will, somewhat like Democrat Perez to her north, find herself because the eight ball under normal circumstances. As in WA 3, a lot will depend on how well the incumbent fares over the next two years - the Republican-led House will not be of much help to her in this district - and what the Democrats do by way of finding an effective opponent. This district like WA 3 could be barn burner once again.

So, for once, it won't do to ignore the Northwest politically - even in the upcoming presidential cycle.

 

Not blue by much

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When our weekly coffee group reviewed this month’s election, the question arose: Is Oregon moving from the status of a blue state to a purple state?

The idea emerged from some Republican successes, or near wins, in the general election, notably the Republican win in U.S. House District 5 and close calls in the governorship and U.S. House district 6, plus Republican legislative pickups.

My answer was that Oregon doesn’t seem to be changing much at all, but the evidence of this election confirms it as an only slightly blue state – that is, Democratic-tilting.

Oregon for some years has looked bluer than it is because of so many narrow Democratic wins and because the genuinely deep-blue Portland area dominates so much of the state’s political attention. Oregon long has had slimmer margins between the parties than many other states, red and blue.

You can see it in the governor’s race, of course, which was close and may have been closer in the weeks before the election. In the final stages, much depended on nonaffiliated Betsy Johnson’s level of support, once more formidable, deflated. Had her former supporters peeled off in different times and amounts to support Democrat Tina Kotek or Republican Christine Drazan, the general election result might have been different.

Nor is this unusual: None of the Democrats who have won the governorship in Oregon have topped 52% of the vote since 1998, the last time Oregon had a landslide gubernatorial election.

Compare that with this month’s general election wins in California of Democrat Gavin Newsom at 58% or Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little at 60.5%, states where the winning candidates of those parties usually rack up numbers even higher.

Or compare the re-election of Oregon’s long-time congressional delegation leader, Ron Wyden, at 56%, with that of, say, Idaho’s Republican counterpart Mike Crapo, re-elected with 60.6%.

The U.S. has relatively few really strongly competitive U.S. House districts, but on the evidence of this election Oregon now has at least two of them, in districts 5 and 6.

In many states, one party or the other has had true supermajority – that is, two to one – control in their state legislature; such levels have been typical for Democrats in California and Republicans in Idaho for many years. In Oregon, that would mean 20 senators and 40 House members of the same party; in fact, neither party has hit those numbers in either chamber since Republicans held 20 Senate seats after the 1996 election. Republicans have not controlled either legislative chamber since 2006, but they have often come close. In 2010, they did manage a tie in the state House.

This year’s election underscores just how close the state runs in partisan contests. The question of who would control each chamber was in serious question this year because enough legislative elections were decided within a percentage point or two. In House District 40, for example, Democrat Annessa Hartman prevailed (in the count as of Friday) by just 270 votes, less than 1 percent of the vote; in Deschutes County District 53, Emerson Levy won by just 278.

The unofficial results indicate Oregon Republicans cut the Democratic House caucus size from 37 to 35, as the many close races show, but they came close to seizing more seats than that. In all, about 1,600 flipped votes in the five closest Democratic-won races could have resulted in a tied House. On a statewide level, that’s close.

Republicans netted an additional seat (or maybe two) in the Senate as well, bringing them close to a tie in that chamber.

All of this may make Oregon more difficult than some states to manage. But it has advantages.

This month’s election saw two more central Oregon counties, Morrow and Wheeler, vote in favor of the “greater Idaho” proposal to join Idaho, joining most other central and eastern Oregon counties in the somewhat whimsical proposal. The frustration by many people there is real and valid: The candidates and issues they tend to support regularly get outvoted by the more populous areas to the west.

But they’re probably not as unheard west of the Cascades as they may think. When Oregon’s new Democratic governor wins office with about 3.5% of the vote, as the numbers indicated on the weekend, that’s a signal that a serious governor candidate cannot simply ignore any substantial part of the state. In Oregon, more than in California or Idaho, small groups of people can have outsized political impact, and help shape many state policies.

A state doesn’t have to be completely purple for that to be true. But Oregon’s shade of blue is soft enough that politicians take people, and their concerns, for granted at their peril.

 

It takes more than money

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Remember those news stories about the massive campaign contributions on behalf of nonaffiliated Oregon governor candidate Betsy Johnson? For months her campaign treasury outpaced all others; she was the beneficiary of many millions of dollars, including more than $3 million just from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

As this is written on Wednesday morning, the Oregon governor’s contest isn’t settled yet – Democrat Tina Kotek is barely leading Republican Christine Drazan – but this much we know: Johnson isn’t in the hunt. With about half of the vote counted, she was pulling 8.8% of the vote.

It turns out people still were willing to vote for Democrats and Republicans.

When it comes to the question of whether backers of a minority group can simply buy their way to an election win over a stable political majority, the answer in Oregon seems to be: no.

We saw dramatic evidence of that this spring in the Democratic primary election in the 6th Congressional District, when candidate Carrick Flynn was backed with millions from a cryptocurrency billionaire; he came in a very distant second to a much less-funded competitor.

Vast amounts of out-of-state campaign funds were dropped on Oregon in the last few months, much of it aimed at congressional races but with significant amounts filtering down to legislative seats. Generally, it seemed to change little. In almost all cases, the result you’d expect based on normal voting patterns held up in this year’s election.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, whose re-election never seemed to be in doubt, was running at about 56% of the vote on Wednesday; he took 57% in each of his last two elections.

U.S. House districts 1, 2 and 3, which are all very strong for their parties (blue, red and blue respectively) all voted according to norm. The other three districts are all more competitive and attracted large amounts of out of state funds, mainly on the Republican side. But House District 4 went decisively Democratic, while the other two remained closer on Wednesday. The heavy spending on advertising probably had some effect, but only at the edges (which might be enough to make the difference in District 5, where the Republican contender was leading).

In a column several weeks ago, I labeled the 16 Oregon state Senate seats up for election by probability of winning – lean, likely or safe, Democratic or Republican. All 16 went in the partisan direction I suggested, and the primary drivers in those choices concerned the usual partisan trend of the district, the nature of the candidate and – but definitely a lesser consideration – partisan spending. Looking at those races now, none seem to have been decided primarily by campaign funding.

Consider Senate District 3, in the Medford area, a politically competitive region where Democrats have a small advantage. Incumbent Democrat Jeff Golden was outspent more than three to one by Republican Randy Sparacino; the results so far show Golden ahead, about where he logically might be if both candidates spent equally.

Democrat Deb Patterson has an energetic contest in Salem-area Senate District 10; October finance reports showed her outspent two to one. She appears to be winning decisively. In Senate District 15 Democrat Janeen Sollman also was heavily outspent but seems to be winning by about the same margin as Patterson.

Obviously, not all campaign finance leaders are losing; often, money flows to candidates who are thought to have a good chance of winning. But that usually means factors other than cash are critical.

Republicans appear clearly to have flipped just one state Senate district: 16, the northwestern Astoria-St. Helens-Tillamook district which was represented until early this year by then-Democrat and now-non-aligned Betsy Johnson. There, Republican Suzanne Weber did outspend Democrat Melissa Busch, but changes in the district, the fact that Weber was an incumbent House member with a strong Tillamook base and her close relationship with Johnson probably were much bigger factors.

(You might count District 6, in the eastern Linn County area, as a flip, but the boundaries of that district were so strongly changed that it is really a new, and much more Republican, district.)

Similarly, in the Columbia Gorge-area District 26, another open seat, Republican Daniel Bonham heavily outspent Democrat Raz Mason (though the contribution levels were not out of the norm for a legislative race), but Bonham appears to have won. The district has been held by a Republican for some years, and probably would stay that way unless the Democrat had an unusually strong campaign.

An overall impression of Oregon politics on the morning after the election: The fundamentals have not drastically changed.

 

But what does slavery mean?

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Almost certainly, Oregon’s Ballot Measure 112, which seeks to remove from the state Constitution a provision allowing slavery as a punishment for a crime, will pass.

The measure has gotten very strong support and little visible opposition. The site Ballotpedia said, “If you are aware of any opponents or opposing arguments, please send an email with a link.” Everyone wants to eliminate any kind of approving reference to slavery, right? (Well, presumably almost everyone.)

But what exactly does “slavery” mean?

The answer is not as obvious as you might think, and the search for it could lead to a few cases coming soon to an appellate court near you.

The Oregon Constitution says, and has for generations, this about slavery: “There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in the state, otherwise than as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Take note of that exception, which echoes similar language in the U.S. Constitution.

The main change offered in the ballot measure is dropping the section starting with “otherwise than …” and adding this: “Upon conviction of a crime, an Oregon court or a probation or parole agency may order the convicted person to engage in education, counseling, treatment, community service or other alternatives to incarceration, as part of sentencing for the crime, in accordance with programs that have been in place historically or that may be developed in the future, to provide accountability, reformation, protection of society or rehabilitation.”

This new second section refers most explicitly to alternatives to incarceration, but it leaves open the question of what exactly state or county officials could require of someone who is incarcerated. When the Oregon Legislature was reviewing the proposed ballot measure, Rob Persson of the Oregon Department of Corrections testified that his agency “recognizes that compelled prison labor is sometimes perceived as modern-day slavery. DOC believes that perception is misplaced, at least with respect to the manner in which adults in custody are engaged in prison work programs in Oregon’s prisons.”

His concern on the state level might be countered by another amendment to the state Constitution which voters okayed back in 1994 (though there could be a legal question about whether the new amendment might in part override the old one). The 1994 change said, “All inmates of state corrections institutions shall be actively engaged full-time in work or on-the-job training. The work or on-the-job training programs shall be established and overseen by the corrections director, who shall ensure that such programs are cost-effective and are designed to develop inmate motivation, work capabilities and cooperation. Such programs may include boot camp prison programs.”

But that provision doesn’t seem to refer to county jails.

Given that, the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association argued that, “Participation by (adults in custody) in these programs is voluntary, but the way this measure is written any involvement in a jail program by an (adult in custody) without an order from a court, probation officer or parole officer would likely be seen as involuntary servitude.”

So what exactly is slavery (or “involuntary servitude”)? Many of us have a picture in our mind of what it is – we might think of the pre-Civil War, southern states variety – but as a matter of history slavery has existed in many forms, even within the United States, not to mention internationally.

What’s the legal definition of it?

That becomes a little complicated; the legal definitions have changed by time and place. One online definition of slavery says it is, “A civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune and liberty of another.” Another from the online Law Dictionary said, “A person who is wholly subject to the will of another; one who has no freedom of action, but whose person and services are wholly under the control of another.” Ordinary incarceration seems to come pretty close to either definition.

The new amendment offers no definition of slavery.

What I’m seeing here is the kind of ambiguity of which appellate court cases are made.

A disclosure: I voted in favor of Measure 112. All of the above notwithstanding, it establishes an improved moral framework for Oregon law and removes an embarrassing – not to say disgusting – piece of Oregon law.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the end of it once the election is over.

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The value of the Biden visit

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A rule of thumb in election politics: When all indicators – such as polls – show a close race, then the side with the best organization and get-out-the-vote efforts, or whoever has a hot issue on their side, usually has the edge.

That thought may have been a reason for last week’s visit by President Joe Biden to Portland, which also raises a related point that state Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, put this way: “We’re surprised anyone would want to be seen with the president who with the help of his Democrat colleagues caused the highest gas prices in Oregon history.”

Putting aside the merits of that specific issue, the question about linking with a low-popularity president during a tight election campaign – as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek did – is valid as a matter of campaign tactics. You could point out that Biden didn’t circulate much among the public generally; he mainly attended events for and organized by fellow Democrats.

So was the Biden visit a mistake? Or a good idea? Or doesn’t it matter?

It was a good idea, overall, though we won’t have much of a clear indicator until the votes are counted how much good it may have done.

Less than a month out from the Nov. 8 election, Oregon has an unusually large number of top-line races polling as close, more than in any recent election cycle. There’s the governor, the 4th, 5th and 6th congressional districts and probably a half-dozen legislative races as well as local races of note (some of which are effectively partisan even if formally not).

When races are close – near or within statistical margins of error – they’re most likely to be decided by one or both of two often-related factors: a hot issue that motivates many voters, and superior organization and get-out-the-vote efforts on one side or the other.

Enter Biden, who spent a couple of days, an eternity in presidential scheduling terms, in Oregon on his longest campaign trip of this year.

The mere presence of the president here isn’t likely to be a decisive element in the election. Since Biden himself isn’t polling very well, and hasn’t for many months (though his numbers have improved somewhat from in his weakest stretches), he hasn’t been asked to campaign in many of the hottest battleground areas around the country. Jill Biden, rather than her husband in recent days, has been putting in appearances in such states as Georgia, Florida and Pennsylvania, all featuring red-hot major campaigns.

But the president has been on the road in other places, and in some of them not primarily for fundraising (though that’s always a part of the mix). National Public Radio said in one story, “There are places where Biden can help the Democrats on the ballot: places where Democrats have a strong advantage in voter registration.” One prime example that article cited was Colorado, home to an energetic Senate race and a state Biden won two years ago by 13.5%. Another, a state in some ways politically similar, was Oregon (where he won by 15.2%).

More important than Biden’s personal support is the importance of voter registration. In the last generation in Oregon, Democratic organization and vote-raising efforts persistently have ourun their Republican competitors, and those voter drives can provide the extra edge when the race is close. Biden’s presence was intended as an encouragement to that effort, most explicitly when he showed up with donuts at a boiler room and then spent 20 minutes or so working the phones himself to generate votes.

There is a second point to Biden’s visit, tied to the issue many Democrats hope will turn into a secret weapon for them: abortion. Reproductive rights were an extremely hot topic in late summer and early fall, but polling and public visibility have led to suggestions there’s been some cooling since. Whether that ultimately means it’s no longer such a big voting motivator as it once seemed, or remains a big force but simply is less visible, is unclear in the polling and other indicators.

But Democrats surely have benefited from efforts to fan the issue. And Biden could and did help with that. On his recent campaigning travels he has highlighted reproductive rights and, on his return to Washington, spotlighted them in a political event where he promised to sign a bill codifying the terms of Roe v. Wade (if Democrats win enough seats in Congress).

Will those pushes to drive organized Democratic voter turnout, and draw attention to the abortion issue, be enough to help push Democrats over the top next month?

That we won’t know for some weeks to come. But it probably was an effort with a practical, realistic goal.

(image/States Newsroom)