In January, Oregon's Democrats chortled with anticipation when the state Legislature opened for business in Salem. Seven months later, they're asking themselves, What happened?
In short, the Dems' grand plans to exercise their newfound power came to naught. If you're a meth addict, a veteran of the Iraqi occupation or mentally ill, you did OK in the Capitol this year. But if you're struggling to pay your health-care premiums, you got no help. If you're wondering what your neighbor can build in the new anything-goes development arena, you're still wondering. If you're gay, this session meant no civil unions or anti-discrimination law. If you're hoping for long-overdue tax reform, keep dreaming.
Which is why the Dems are taking it so hard. They controlled the state Senate and the governor's chair for the first time in more than a decade. Western Oregon University professor and 24-year legislator Peter Courtney led that new Senate majority. In the governor's mansion, former Supreme Court justice Ted Kulongoski gave his fellow Dems a powerful ally. But a woman Dems took lightly, Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis-a former singing waitress and dental assistant with a community-college degree-ended up taking the Democrats to school (and a poorly funded one at that).
Most Republicans are too tactful to gloat publicly. But everyone in the Capitol knows why Minnis aide Chuck Deister has a March 1 agreement with the Democrats framed and hanging on the wall in his office. It's just one example of the many ways his boss outsmarted the opposition.
So with many of the state's major problems not addressed, here's the inside story of how we got there, as told by the 2005 Dubious Achievement Awards-the Dubies!
Senate President Peter Courtney
The person arguably most to blame for the Democrats' inability to advance the ball was their quarterback in the Senate, Peter Courtney. Not only did the veteran Salem lawmaker forge no real agenda or game plan for his team, he was unwilling to use his power to bench colleagues when they ran the wrong direction-a frequent event. Perhaps his worst mistake was keeping the Senate Democrats' pre-play huddle-the daily caucus meetings in which they discuss their positions on bills-open to the media. A noble idea-Courtney is, above all, a well-meaning fellow. But since the Republicans did not follow suit it amounted to unilateral disarmament, telegraphing plays and opening the door to posturing, high-school antics and crumbled party discipline. "Open caucus," says trial lawyers' lobbyist Alan Tressider, "is the world's stupidest idea."
Here's how one caucus went two weeks ago: Courtney began the meeting with a crack about Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, his No. 2, using Rogaine-then begged reporters not to print it. Then, as reporters scribbled, Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, issued a noble-sounding speech about how his fellow Dems' position on expanding the Oregon Health Plan was a bad idea and would "undermine the fabric of our society." Sen. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, started ribbing Schrader: "Undermine the fabric of our society?" he repeated twice. Schrader muttered back something about Deckert being a "metrosexual" in his Tiger Woods mock turtleneck. Asked about the exchange later, Deckert said that later the same day, on a bet, he'd reused Schrader's hyperbolic language in a floor speech on an unrelated topic. "I won a couple of bucks on that," he laughed.
While the D's were having fun, the R's were achieving their goals. Democratic political consultant Liz Kaufman thinks her side should learn from their counterparts: "How come the Republicans take this job so much more seriously?"
Democratic Sens. Kate Brown, D-Portland, and Charlie Ringo, D-Beaverton
If democracy is the height of civilized behavior, it might seem weird that one of its political traditions is called "taking hostages." You're not supposed to hold lawmakers' bills "hostage'' in bargaining, but everyone does it. This year, the House Republicans bolstered their end-of-session poker hand by sitting on numerous bills important to the Senate Democrats while initially the Senate D's failed to bottle up other bills important to the House R's. Realizing this, some Dems started taking hostages of their own.
Unhappy with some of Ontario Republican Rep. Tom Butler's work on a utility bill over in the House, Sens. Brown, Ringo and Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, took hostage one of his bills that was sitting in the Senate. They refused to hold a hearing or a vote and instead kept setting it over, and over and over.
Only problem? Nobody told Butler.
Here's the story as told by multiple sources: Curious why Butler's bill kept going nowhere, Sen. Roger Beyer, R-Molalla, approached Brown and asked, has anyone told him you've taken his bill hostage? The response: "Yeah, Charlie told him." Beyer then approached Ringo, who said, "Yeah, Kate told him."
Oops! "I think there was a breakdown of communication," says Ringo.
"If you're going to kidnap somebody, you have to send a ransom letter," observes developers' lobbyist Jon Chandler, "or they think you're just being a jerk."
House Speaker Karen Minnis
The four-term representative from Wood Village schooled her counterparts, the Senate D's, at every turn, whether tactically or simply by knowing the rules. In the 2003 session, Minnis saw Democrats modifying her revenue bills to propose new taxes-so in this session she allowed no revenue bills out of the House at all. Then, on March 1, to many observers' disbelief, the Senate D's signed on to an agreement with Kulongoski and Minnis to assume a working budget of $12.393 billion-the agreement now hanging on her aide Deister's wall. Most Dems now admit this was a mistake, because the figure, much lower than the money actually available, prevented them from effectively tackling problems like schools and the Oregon Health Plan. Then, in a May move that effectively prevented members of her party from making alliances with Democrats, Minnis nuked the budget committee shared by the House and Senate, splitting it in two and keeping power in her own hands. Finally, as Democrats plotted to dislodge from Minnis' control SB 1000-the bill allowing marriagelike civil unions for gays-the Speaker made their plans moot by turning the bill into something else entirely. The result: nothing left for Dems to vote on.
Lobbyist Mark Nelson
Once a wildly popular San Francisco Giants relief pitcher, Rod Beck made fat guys with fu manchus look cool. Let go by the Giants, Beck returned to the minor leagues and furthered his legend with a Chicago Cubs farm team in Des Moines, Iowa, living in an RV right outside the ballpark. There, Beck stayed beloved by keeping his portable home unlocked and well-stocked with beer and food for any fans or friends who cared to stop by.
Nelson is neither fat nor fu'd, but the top Salem lobbyist representing pharmaceutical and tobacco companies as well as the Oregon Restaurant Association does know how to make friends. For the final month of the session, Nelson has made a habit of parking a cargo van right outside the Capitol. Come 5 pm, it reportedly becomes a morale-boosting hotspot of booze and BBQ for staff, lobbyists and lawmakers, both Republicans and Dems. Critics say it is an example of special-interest influence-a problem that current and former lawmakers say has increased dramatically in the past decade.
But Nelson says it's just a matter of convenience for colleagues on the go. He says no booze is served, "but that doesn't mean somebody hasn't brought some."
Rep. Wayne Scott, R-Canby
Recently lionized as one of Salem's great lawmakers by Oregonian columnist David Reinhard, Scott also has critics-who liken him to U.S. House heavy Tom DeLay. Scott is Minnis' Prince of Payback. If fellow Republicans step out of line, it's Scott who sees they are punished. And even Democrats are scared of him. Earlier this year, Scott made headlines when he apparently retaliated against Democrat Arnie Roblan by withholding the OK for a new Coos Bay airport already targeted to receive federal money. Roblan's crime? He did not support the Speaker's education plan.
Scott also has raised eyebrows with his pushing of special-interest legislation. Lobbied by banks, the House R's gutted a program that would have raised revenue for Oregon by going after white-collar tax evaders. At the last minute, the plan was restored, but only under pressure by Democrats. Insiders also see Scott's fingerprints on the utility-tax issue, a proposal backed by Democrats to force utilities to actually pay the state and federal taxes they'd long been billing customers for, and then pocketing. Scott pushed to have Rep. Butler convene a work group of utilities and customers to devise a solution. Butler did so, and the industrial customers hated the result. The proposal got pushed out of committee to the floor. Observers say the industrial customers represented by Nelson pulled in virtually every top moneyed, conservative-aligned lobbyist to push for a reversal. Insiders say Scott stepped in and revised the bill to a version that Nelson liked. As one Capitol observer said, "Ultimately, that may be the right policy position, but the outcome had nothing to do with that."
Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown
Poor Sen. Floyd Prozanski. The Eugene Democrat had a bill on protecting the credit of identity-theft victims that also ranked as a top priority for the state's top law-enforcement official, Attorney General Hardy Myers. It should have been a slam-dunk.
The opposition: bankers and debt collectors, for whom some of the bills' provisions-such as letting people sue for privacy violations-meant a headache. So Republicans panned the bill en masse.
Still, the Senate Democrats had an 18-12 advantage, and a clear opportunity not only to achieve good policy but to make political hay, leaving the Republicans to look bad on an issue important to anyone with a credit card.
Three times, Democrats passed Prozanski's bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor, where it awaited a full vote. But then Prozanski's leadership-specifically Brown, who as majority leader has the responsibility for managing things-suddenly realized the Democrats lacked the votes, causing the bill to be sent back to committee for tinkering. Making it worse, says Prozanski, his leadership would never tell him which Democrats had problems with the bill-or what those problems were.
Ironically, on one of the days Prozanski's bill stalled, state Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, turned on the TV to see U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith-a Republican-holding a press conference pushing the very same idea in Congress.
At press time, the Prozanski bill hadn't gone anywhere, nor did it appear that it would-despite personal calls to lawmakers from AG Myers. Seem insane? "I know," says Prozanski. "It's mind-boggling."
Myers' spokesman, Kevin Neely, says, "Both the Republicans and the Democrats should be embarrassed that this key consumer protection is going to be left on the cutting-room floor."
Brown, speaking generally, says her party's diversity of opinion is its strength, but Dems are still figuring out how to balance power "with integrity."
Another area where the Dems failed to use the tools at hand was with "minority reports." That's where a lawmaker proposes an alternative to a bill supported by the majority in the House or Senate. It's a good way to score points if you're in the minority party and want to put the majority on the spot with an unpopular vote. In the House, the 27 Democrats in the minority there floated only nine of these all session. In the Senate, the 12 Republicans in the minority floated no fewer than 17 minority reports-and sometimes with some unlikely help from Democrats.
That's where Charlie Ringo comes in. In February, he joined with Southern Oregon Republican Jason Atkinson, a presumed candidate for governor, on a bill that would make the Legislature nonpartisan. It was the kind of vote a majority party does not want. But over Brown's objections, the Ringo-Atkinson report not only got a vote, it passed. According to most observers, the spectacle of a majority party running a minority report on itself left a psychological wound from which the Senate Democrats never recovered.
Ringo defends the move, saying Brown's refusal to let his idea get a vote left him no choice. "I absolutely am proud of [that] report," he says.
But even Ringo's allies were perplexed. Environmental lobbyist Matt Blevins says people are still making jokes about it: "Can you run a minority report? Only if you're a Democrat and you're in the Senate."
When it's observed that this made the Democrats a laughingstock, Atkinson, Ringo's partner in the play, can't help but chuckle. "Joining with my good friend Charlie in a little rebellion has been a great experience," he says. "I love that guy."
Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner
In March, Smith was our Rogue of the Week for pressuring the Oregon Economic Development Commission to cough up more money for state-sponsored small-business development centers-one of which happens to pay Smith's Eastern Oregon firm a $99,000 management contract.
The publicity did not faze Smith; instead he became even more aggressive in his quest, and eventually enlisted the backing of Minnis and Scott.
In the equivalent of legislative extortion, Smith essentially held up the development commission's budget, threatening cuts if his small-business centers did not get more money. "He was very aggressive," recalls Marty Brantley, who recently stepped down as the commission's head.
Smith's budget wish was such a priority for the Republicans that in the final budget negotiations they not only protected the centers' funding, they extracted a 50 percent boost.
Smith denies doing anything inappropriate, saying, "I'm not going to be embarrassed about the fact that I'm good at helping small businesses."
Gov. Ted Kulongoski
On July 6, as if Blazers forward Zach Randolph decided to wait for the fourth quarter before entering a key post-season game, the governor introduced his education plan. The only problem? The session was already nearing the finish line, and revamping an educational system takes months. Kulongoski's gambit was dismissed as pre-election posturing, even by other Dems. They called it a fitting end to a session in which, as they stumbled around without direction, they could have used a leader. The Dems' main mistake, says Sen. Frank Shields, D-Portland, was not forcing Kulongoski to participate earlier.
Kulongoski spokeswoman Holly Armstrong insists her boss was "involved in every step of the process."
But Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, speaks for the majority, saying, "Let me ask you this: What the hell was the governor's agenda this legislative session? I don't know."
Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley
Schaufler made news this year when his opposition to a pesticide reporting system led Blevins of the Oregon Environmental Council to threaten to run ads alerting his constituents to his position. Hey, free expression, right? And the OEC is about as moderate and pro-business an enviro group as you'll find. But in Salem lawmakers prefer their threats a little less explicit, and so Schaufler and three of his colleagues filed a complaint with the lobbyists' association against Blevins. It was rejected, but Schaufler has clearly made enemies of the greens.
This was not Schaufler's only clash with Democratic Party faithful; he also surprised observers with his votes on working-condition rules and tax breaks. Chris Coughlin of the progressive Our Oregon Coalition has been tracking key revenue votes and says that, as of last Friday, "Mike Schaufler has voted for more tax breaks than Karen Minnis." The problem, Coughlin adds, is that many of the votes are disingenuous: For instance, the capital-gains reduction approved by the House wouldn't be fully implemented until 2011, when it would mean a loss of over $200 million a year. "That could never pass this session, so they just delay and let a future Legislature figure out what to cut from the budget," Coughlin says.
And here's our final prize to be shared by all.
Kulongoski, Legislature (tie)
In a session where so many big issues were out there waiting to be tackled, the headlines coming out of Salem were at times surreal. Yes, the African nation of Sudan is in a horrible situation, but do we really need to focus on a bill making sure Oregon doesn't invest there? And in the spring, did the Democrats really need to worry about banning the production and sale of foie gras-which isn't even made in this state? And why couldn't the Republicans join up on any major issues such as health care or identity theft (see "Remedial Math" award)?
But we'd be remiss if we didn't acknowledge some bipartisan cooperation we've left out: After all, Oregon finally got a state fruit (the pear) and a state fossil (the Metasequoia-a tree). And now we can't buy cold medicine without a prescription. To be sure, the session isn't quite over, so here's hoping for a surprise ending.