For First Time in 20 Years, the Oregon Senate Has a New President

Rob Wagner takes over for Peter Courtney.

Wagner (Mick Hangland-Skill)

Oregon Senate Democrats have elected a new leader for the first time in two decades. State Sen. Rob Wagner (D-Lake Oswego) will succeed Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), who is retiring after 20 years as president.

Courtney, 79, first won election to the Legislature in 1980. He won election to Senate president in 2002 and has held that position longer than anyone in Oregon history.

The Senate Democratic caucus elected Wagner to the position at a post-election retreat on the coast.

Courtney hands over his gavel to Wagner, 49, who won election to his second four-year Senate term earlier this month. Wagner is currently Senate majority leader. His colleagues selected Sen. Kate Lieber (D-Portland), a lawyer in her first term, as Wagner’s replacement.

The Senate president wields enormous power in the Capitol, determining Senate committee assignments, which bills get a Senate hearing, and whether bills move forward to floor votes, as well as ensuring, along with the House speaker, that a budget gets passed.

Courtney’s career included serving in the minority in both the House and the Senate and presiding over a 15-15 Senate in 2003. Long after Democrats took full control in Salem, he strove for bipartisanship and chafed at passing bills that had no Republican support.

It’s too early to tell how Wagner might differ from Courtney but there are a few clues in his background: Prior to entering the Legislature in 2018, Wagner worked at Portland Community College and before that, he lobbied for 10 years for a union, the American Federation of Teachers. One of the first bills Wagner attached himself too was the closure in 2018 of the “boyfriend loophole,” a gun control measure Republicans opposed.

As Senate president, he’ll have to herd a caucus that includes a wide range of ideologies and numerous members who’ve served longer in the senior chamber than he has.

Senate Democrats gave up one seat in the Nov. 8 election. That cost them their super-majority, but they still hold 17 seats to Republicans’ 12. One senator, Brian Boquist of Dallas, is an independent. The GOP will no longer have the potential to peel off the vote of former Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who often crossed the aisle, nor are they likely to enjoy the level of deference Courtney displayed. The former president, though, seems pleased with his successor.

“Sen. Wagner is a good choice for the next Senate president,” Courtney said in a statement. “He will serve the Senate well. I look forward to helping him make a smooth transition into the coming session.”

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