How Peter Courtney Lost Control of the Oregon Senate

The meltdown was set in motion two years ago. Four factors led to a descent into chaos.

(Justin Katigbak)

When Senate Republicans walked off the job June 20, seeking to block a cap on carbon emissions, their departure made national news.

Their walkout—the second one this session—also highlighted a loss of control by Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem). Since 2003, Courtney, the longest-serving presiding officer in Oregon history, has run the Senate with a firm hand, enforcing bipartisanship long after Democrats gained decisive control of the Capitol.

Now, chaos reigns. Sen. Brian Boquist (R-Dallas) implied on the Senate floor last week that he would shoot to kill any state trooper who tried to return him to the Capitol. "If you send the State Police to get me, hell's coming to visit you personally," Boquist said, as Courtney looked on.

On June 25, Courtney stunned Salem by capitulating to the GOP. He said the climate bill they sought to block was dead, an admission that the supermajorities that Democrats hold in both chambers were impotent—and that Courtney could not deliver a top Democratic priority.

Conversations with current and former lawmakers suggest the Senate meltdown was set in motion two years ago. Failures of Courtney's leadership and circumstances beyond his control turned the Senate into a circus. Four factors led to the current mess. (Courtney did not respond to a request for comment.)

Courtney lost his Republican friends.

At the end of the 2017 session, Courtney appeared ready to retire. But allies, including Boquist, persuaded him to run again in 2018.

That fall, Gov. Kate Brown appointed longtime Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day) to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Republicans chose state Sen. Jackie Winters (R-Salem), another longtime Courtney ally, to replace Ferrioli. But she was already suffering from terminal lung cancer.

After the 2018 elections, Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr. (R-Grants Pass) replaced Winters. Baertschiger lacked a history with Courtney. "Would this all have happened if Ferrioli stayed or Jackie [Winters] hadn't gotten sick?" asks a veteran lobbyist. "Those questions are on a lot of people's minds."

During the summer of 2018, Boquist turned hostile toward Courtney over controversial 2017 pay equity legislation that negatively affected legislative staffers, including Boquist's wife. He went from being a supporter to Courtney 's loudest critic.

Courtney lost his moral authority.

Courtney presides over the entire Senate, not just the Democratic caucus. By January 2018, it was clear he'd failed to decisively address allegations of sexual harassment against then-Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg). Kruse's victims felt Courtney was more concerned about protecting the institution of the Senate than protecting them.

The issue exploded in January 2019, when then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian released the results of his agency's investigation into sexual harassment in the Capitol. The report blasted Courtney. Soon afterward, two Democratic senators voted against his continuing as president, a demonstration that he'd lost the left wing of his caucus. In March 2019, Courtney took medical leave. People close to him say he strongly considered resigning.

To keep his job, he abandoned bipartisanship.

Courtney long had a rule: No major bill reached the Senate floor without Republican support. "He always wanted a Republican sponsor on any bill," says former state Sen. Alan DeBoer (R-Ashland). "He tried hard to honor that."

Weakened by the harassment scandal and health problems, Courtney capitulated to progressives, led by Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), who wanted new taxes—and cap-and-trade, which Courtney had killed in previous sessions. That wounded Republicans who had come to expect Courtney would allow them some say in which bills survived.

Alienated Republicans discovered they could work outside the system.

Without Courtney to protect them, Senate Republicans chose the only option available: In May, they walked out for four days to thwart the passage of a multibillion-dollar corporate tax increase. To return, they extracted the death of vaccine and gun safety bills.

Their defiance energized key GOP funders. Stimson Lumber CEO Andrew Miller announced he'd move 60 jobs out of Oregon because of new tax and environmental policies. And timber executive Rob Freres donated $1 million to a campaign to refer the new corporate tax to voters.

On June 20, emboldened GOP senators walked out again, this time to block a vote on the cap-and-trade bill they said would punish rural Oregonians. It worked again. On June 25, Courtney took to the Senate floor and made a concession that caught the governor, Kotek and some members of his caucus by surprise. He said not enough Democratic senators supported the carbon cap to pass it. "House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor," Courtney said. "That will not change."

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