Of the 60 members of the Oregon House sworn in last year, 26—or 43%—will not run for their seats this year.
Another, state Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie), is relocating from the Columbia County seat he’s held for 16 years to run for a Salem seat.
House members and longtime Salem observers cannot recall a time since the state briefly enacted term limits in the 1990s when there was so much turnover. They cite a confluence of a pandemic that led to five special sessions last year; redistricting, which cost Witt and state Rep. Marty Wilde (D-Eugene) safe seats; a wide-open governor’s race; a new congressional district; and the retirement of baby boomers.
“I really think it’s a perfect storm of factors,” says state Rep. Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland), who gave up her position as House majority leader and will retire at year’s end. “Five freakin’ special sessions. Do I think it’s part of the great resignation? Yes.”
Here are three things you need to know about the turnover:
Lawmakers gave up their seats for all sorts of reasons. State Rep. Gary Leif (R-Roseburg) died in office. Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland) resigned ahead of an expulsion vote after harassment allegations. Rep. Greg Nearman (R-Independence) became the first Oregon lawmaker ever expelled (he allowed rioters into the locked Capitol). Some left because the pay, just under $33,000 a year, is too low. Others just got tired, and still others are seeking to advance.
Seven 2020 House seat winners are running for the Oregon Senate (which has vacancies thanks to baby boomer retirements); three are running for the newly established 6th Congressional District seat concentrated around Salem; and the two senior members—former House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and onetime House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby)—are running for governor.
Both parties have reasons for optimism. Republicans hope to take advantage of the midterm weakness that often plagues new presidents and polling that shows voters are very unhappy. Democrats are hoping to hold on to a supermajority that allows passage of tax bills without a vote of the people. They hope to do that in part by continuing to diversify their membership.
The House Democratic caucus included a majority of women for the first time in 2017 and, in 2020, formed its first-ever BIPOC caucus. House Democrats are likely to become even more diverse in this year’s election.
Rep. Jeff Reardon (D-East Portland), for instance, is retiring and will be replaced as the Democratic nominee in District 48 by Hoa Nguyen, a David Douglas School Board member and Portland Public Schools employee.
In some metro-area Democratic primaries, both candidates are people of color. In Salinas’ District 38 seat in Lake Oswego, Neelam Gupta, an Oregon Health Authority official, will face Bambuza restaurant owner Daniel Nguyen; in District 35 in Aloha, Zeloszelos Marchandt, a journalist and chair of the Washington County Black American caucus, will face Farrah Chaichi, an Iranian American human rights activist.
Whether the heavy turnover in the House serves Oregonians is a matter of debate. Some think it places more power in the hands of lobbyists and state agency bureaucrats who are the permanent interests in Salem.
Four-term incumbent Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland), chair of the House Behavioral Health Committee, says the complexity of legislation and existing policy makes experience a plus. “It took me six years to understand the Oregon Health Plan,” Nosse says. “It’s a little bit like being in college—you start with the 100-level courses and work your way up, but it takes a while to get to grad school.”
Smith Warner says there are risks in trading more experience for less, but she thinks filling the House with newer, more diverse representatives who bring different life experiences to the Capitol will be good for Oregon.
“There’s a tendency for people in the building to say this is how we always do things,” Smith Warner says. “With new members, there will be a lot more questioning and a willingness to say screw the conventional wisdom.”