When House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) released committee assignments for the 2019 session last night, there was one big surprise on the list—she'd taken the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee away from state Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) and given it to House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland).
Barker said Kotek had called to give him a heads-up but the move blindsided him.
"I was shocked when she called me," Barker says. "I had no inkling that was coming. It kind of left me speechless."
Barker has served on the Judiciary Committee since 2003 and chaired the committee since 2007. Judiciary is a high-volume committee, usually meeting five days a week (most committees meet two or three times a week). A retired Portland cop, Barker is highly respected on both sides of the aisle and regularly scores at the top of WW's biennial survey of lawmakers, The Good, The Bad and The Awful.
Kotek allowed Barker to stay on as a member of Judiciary and and gave him chairmanship of the House Business and Labor Committee as a consolation prize. He says he'll do his best there but the transition will be tough.
"I'm really disappointed," Barker says. "The work on judiciary was in my wheelhouse."
House Democrats picked up three seats in the November general election, giving them a dominant 38 to 22 margin over Republicans. That means they now have the three-fifths super-majority necessary to pass new tax measures but it also changes the dynamics of the chamber.
For Kotek, committee assignments are a little bit like being the parent of a large family at Christmas—she has to find a way to make every member happy or at least not despondent.
"Each House member brings a special skillset and perspective to the Capitol," Kotek said in a statement announcing committee assignments. "This group of diverse voices are committed to their respective districts and state as a whole. I am hopeful that these appointments will contribute to a productive session that will benefit Oregonians."
Kotek's decision to move Barker may be an effort to get fresh perspectives atop committees, or it may reflect a new reality: with 38 Democratic votes, Kotek may feel she no longer has to pay as much deference to the moderates in her caucus, of whom Barker is a leader. Williamson, who is widely believed to have ambitions for statewide office, is more progressive than Barker and more likely to push criminal justice reform aggressively as Judiciary chair.
Spokespersons for Kotek and Williamson declined to answer comment on Barker's re-assignment.
Lawmakers will begin the 2019 session on Jan. 22.