By Andrew Gewecke
Portland is a blue city. It is a vegan, hipster, weird city. It is a city filled with posters proclaiming that “water is life, science is real and diversity should be celebrated.” It is sometimes a fiercely indignant city. It knows what’s right, and it knows that what’s right is what’s liberal.
The hiccup in the system is that the United States is not a blue country. We have an extreme Republican president, with a national 50-50 split (46.4% vs. 48.5% in the 2016 presidential election popular vote, to be exact) between angry donkeys and furious elephants (CNN Politics). Polarization, rather than moderation, is king, with extremist groups surfacing on both sides and political debates categorized more by party animosity than by candidates’ plans. Simply put, for many, “the other party” has devolved from being a contender for political office to an unacceptable enemy. As such, it can be easy to retreat behind friendly lines, surrounding yourself with ideas that you support while ceasing to even acknowledge the ones you don’t. Reality, however, is often more complex than that. Because although Portland is, to restate, a blue city, it is nonetheless called home by people that subscribe to a myriad of political ideologies– Republicanism included. If you widen the lens to all of Oregon, you see a similar situation, with a Democratic state congressional supermajority sitting amidst swathes of now-minority party Republican voters. So, in an age where both sides feel like the other party needs a good talking-to, what does it mean to live somewhere where your political ideology is the less supported one? That is, in Oregon, what is it like to be a Republican?
“Republicans in Portland” became my initial search term, because Portland has a reputation for being one of the most Democrat-friendly cities in Oregon, and as such had the best chance of revealing stark differences in attitude towards Democrats and Republicans that could represent larger patterns in the rest of the state. My introduction to the idea of marginalized, Republican Portlanders came in the form of a PBS Newshour article entitled, “For Trump Supporters in Portland, the Left Is the Face of Intolerance.” The dominant sentiments reported by the Republicans interviewed were feelings of being ostracized for their political ideology and their consequent desires to become more involved in Republican activities in Portland (Flock). I then began to investigate the Democratic supermajority that currently exists in the Oregon Senate and House of Representatives. My goal at that point was to identify larger trends (or a lack thereof) in the political sentiments of Oregon to find out if the feelings of those interviewed in the PBS article displayed more widely-held convictions rather than ultra-partisan anomalies, and focusing on the supermajority enabled me to ground my investigation in concrete politics. Eager to see to what extent the PBS Newshour perspectives would be found in the state legislature, I began my search for perspective in earnest.
The Democrats gained the supermajority in the November elections of 2018. Currently, 18 out of 30 members (a three-fifths majority) of the Oregon Senate and 38 out of 60 members (just over three-fifths) of the House of Representatives are Democrats (Oregon State Legislature). In either chamber, a bill requires a majority of support to move past the House or Senate (Oregon State Legislature). As such, the Democratic Party holds enough seats to forward any bill from either chamber without Republican support if all Democrats vote along party lines. If a bill is vetoed by the Oregon Governor, a two-thirds majority is required to override the veto and make the bill a law (Oregon State Legislature). Although the Democrats do not have such a majority in either chamber, Oregon Governor Kate Brown is also a Democrat. Therefore, in theory, unified Democrats currently have the power to monopolize Oregon policy completely independent of the Republican agenda. To get a better grasp of what this potential power could mean for the political landscape of Oregon, I talked to Greg Leo. I describe Leo without a prefacing rank or title, as Leo has been in every corner of American politics at one time or another, working as a campaign manager for Ronald Reagan for eight years in Washington DC, for George H.W. Bush for another two after that, as the Chief of Staff for the Oregon Republican Party (GOP), as a presidential elector supporting John McCain in 2012, and as the Executive Director of the Oregon GOP.
One of the key questions in any discussion of power, and one of the larger themes that much of my conversation with Leo centered on was “how much is that power being used?” One would expect the Democratic supermajority, given the increasing polarization and extremism in American politics, to be a harbinger for a string of Democratic resolutions that had hitherto been hindered by Republican objection. Leo, however, described the Democratic strategy as more of a balancing act than a reckless advance. In his words, “what I’m seeing with really thoughtful democrats in Salem is that they are going out of their way to ensure that Republicans are not totally disaffected, not totally pushed away or shot to the side but rather are kept engaged to the point where they can’t make these traditional arguments of the disenfranchised,” (Leo). He cited Peter Courtney, the current president of the Oregon Senate, as a legislator who “goes out of his way to make sure that every Republican is heard,” saying that “he is very careful not just to cram votes through with only Democratic votes,” (Leo). Leo’s words cast an intriguing light on the Democratic Party, suggesting that the supermajority, though it may increase Democrat’s power, may allow for a sort of conditional collaboration– that absorbs Republican opinions into a Democratic framework, rather than outright partisanship.
It would be remiss to craft any sort of report on the Oregon GOP, however, without talking to a real-life, current Republican lawmaker. Greg Leo recommended one to me: Carl Wilson, the Oregon House of Representatives minority leader. When I asked Wilson about the majority party, however, his tone was quite different than Leo’s. He did not characterize Oregon Democrats as especially tolerant. According to him, though the legislature’s “good” committee chairs listen in some capacity to Republican ideas, he said that “there are others who tend to just sweep it [Republican voice] away,” (Wilson). While this description may paint Democrats as the “face of intolerance,” as the PBS Newshour article would put it, Wilson also admits that “they’re doing what almost any supermajority would,” (Wilson). At this point in our interview he posed a question to himself: were Oregon Republicans as “ruthless” as current Democrats when they had a majority in the legislature? “We might have been,” he told me.
Leo also recommended that I talk to Bill Currier, who was elected Executive Director of the Oregon GOP several days after our interview. My questions for Currier were fielded by GOP Communications Director Kevin Hoar. Hoar elaborated on Peter Courtney, describing him as a member of a “dying breed” of Democrats (Hoar). While he admitted that some popular Democratic bills have been hindered by a lack of support from Courtney, he argued that the verteren statesman is “increasingly the odd man out” in the Oregon legislature, and “increasingly not reflective of the type of Democrats that are going to be moving in to state Senate positions in the future,” (Hoar). Hoar’s logic for this argument was that, because the Oregon House is “moving, obviously in a more progressive direction” and the house is the place of origin for state Senators “in almost every case,” the Senate in the future will most likely move away from some of Courtney’s more moderate practices (Hoar). Hoar’s analysis, if correct, would move the entire Oregon legislature towards the left. Hoar further argued that the supermajority actually lessens the power of more moderate politicians. He contended that, because the Democrats have a significant majority in the legislature, a moderate who disagrees with the Party’s opinion may not be needed for votes, and, as such, can be ignored much like members of the opposition party (Hoar). It’s worth noting that this argument assumes that the majority of Democrats in the legislature are eager to, as Hoar puts it, “swing more to the left–” hardly a wild assumption, considering that the legislature is populated by partisan politicians rather than a fleet of impartial mediators, but an assumption nonetheless. Hoar and Wilson, unlike Leo, view the Democrats in the Oregon legislature as ready to, if they have not already, use their majority status with little, if any, restraint. “Moderate” is not the first word they’d used to describe the party. “Tolerant” wouldn’t be high on the list either. Or, at least, not “tolerant of Republicans.”
Legally, the supermajority has the power to more or less pass bills with indiscretion, assuming that enough Democrats vote along party lines. Why, then, does the opposing Republican Party matter? What is left for it to do? Each person whom I questioned about the present-day relevance of the GOP added some new facet to the narrative. Greg Leo pointed out that legal persuasion is not the only type of power in politics, citing moral persuasion as an important additional facet of politics. Leo explained the power of moral persuasion as “if I can persuade them that it’s not good- [not] just for me but for everybody, that there’s a moral reason why it’s right or wrong, then I can win the issue still…. Legislators as human beings don’t always act according to how people think they would because they’re liberal. Sometimes- or- or conservative. Sometimes they hear an argument that just has traction with them, or they say ‘you know what, that does sound right,’ and they do vote that way,” (Leo). Essentially, while legal persuasion is the ability to directly pass legislation, moral persuasion relies on effective argument influencing the actions of those who pass those bills. Carl Wilson took a local view, explaining that “where we live it’s very fashionable to be a Republican. And it’s that way in probably 30 out of 36 counties in the state of Oregon, so while we might provide comic relief in Portland, we certainly don’t in our areas because we’re the majority parties in our area,” (Wilson). Wilson brings up an interesting point– relevance is relative. While he does admit that “from a numbers standpoint, we’re not very relevant right now,” a numerical lense isn’t the only one applicable to Oregon politics (Wilson). Support for the GOP in individual districts, regardless of what party has a majority in the state legislature, can still influence county politics, the opinions and lives of the people who live in those counties, and ideas in the arena of moral persuasion.
Wilson hardly sees the Republican Party as removed from Oregon politics. In addition to his emphasis on local Republican strength– supporting the idea that even with their present minority position Republicans have hardly “left the building,” so to speak– he stated that minority party status “just makes you work harder the next electoral cycle,” (Wilson). When I asked him if he thought the Republican Party was due for a resurgence in Oregon, he replied that “I do think we are, and it’s going to be courtesy of the Democrats, because the Democrats are passing one tax after another, and they have many, many more taxes in mind, and, frankly, Oregon will become, in my estimation, unaffordable to live in, and that will open the door to other political thought,” (Wilson). In Wilson’s eyes, that “other political thought” is the GOP philosophy. Wilson described the Democratic legislative presence, far from being a permanent hegemony, as a self-destroying force that will propel Republicans back to power on a tide of poor Democratic policy that may “tend to embitter the rural regions more,” (Wilson). The democratic supermajority, to Wilson, is just the latest setup in a larger pattern. “Politics is a pendulum,” he told me (Wilson). “And it’s always swinging.”
However, it should be noted that Wilson is, in fact, a politician. It would hardly make sense for him to prophesy the doom of his party as a whole. As such, other possibilities for the implications of the supermajority for the GOP should be considered along with Wilson’s narrative. Greg Leo, for example, sees the party going in a fairly different direction than along Wilson’s pendulum curve. He described the present-day GOP as having “kinda morphed and changed into the party of Donald Trump,” (Leo). A related demographic shift is that of suburban women, who he argued have historically been an important plank in the Republican body of support, but who are repelled by Trumpian philosophy, dealing a blow to the GOP in the process. His overarching point was that “the reason why they [political parties] keep changing is that, y’know, political parties, in my view, are shorthand for political belief,” (Leo). In the specific instance Leo described, as suburban women move away from figures like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh, who are, if Leo’s theory of a more Trump-centric GOP is accurate, increasingly dominating the party, the Republican philosophy loses strength. On a larger scale, Leo made the point that “we are in a time of transition in American politics,” (Leo). The Republican Party may be going through a major shift akin to historical changes of the political stage, such as the dissolution of the Federalists and Whigs, changes that have sometimes led to the creation of new parties entirely.
However, though Leo may have identified possible sites of large-scale party change within the GOP, does any of it relate to the Democratic supermajority? To answer that question we turn again to Kevin Hoar. Hoar, like Wilson, doesn’t see the Democratic Party as an especially tolerant body. During our conversation, he emphasized the decline in bi-partisanship over policy that can stem from such intolerance, explaining that, because of Democratic intolerance, “there’s increasingly an inability to have an actual political debate because the people that are expressing that [opposing] point of view are being attacked and demonized…. How many times have you heard Republicans, for instance, being called racist for things that actually have zero to do with race? It happens all the time,” (Hoar). Hoar’s point here is not that Republicans are or are not racist. Rather, he’s arguing that the label of “racist” is often applied to unrelated issues, and that as a result conversation about the issue gets overwhelmed by outrage. Hoar elaborates that “we have a breakdown in the ability to have real, thoughtful, policy-oriented debate, and without a real debate, it’s hard for people to make choices,” (Hoar). If placed in the context of Hoar’s logic, a supermajority would most likely exacerbate the already-present trend of demonization that could reduce the GOP in the public eye to an unacceptably (and, in Hoar’s opinion, inaccurately) immoral body. If Leo’s statement that “political parties are shorthand for beliefs” is true, such a pigeonholing of the Republican Party could contribute to a significant decrease of support. Hoar also brought up the practical side of the Democratic majority, making the case that the Democrats in the Oregon legislature, because the majority party has the power to appoint and remove people from the legislature’s various committee groups, have the power to essentially eliminate dissenting perspectives (Hoar). This control could conceivably shift the narratives that are produced from Salem in a Democrat-centric manner, which could in turn affect belief, and, referring again to Leo’s analysis of the nature of parties, alter the strength and composition of the Republican Party.
Regardless of what may be in the future, however, both parties were alive and well the day I drove to Salem from my nearby home city of Portland. The capitol building was a towering structure of grey stone, with two wide wings extending out from under a central raised cylinder. Looking up I could see a golden statue of a man, whom I later found out represented historical Oregon settlers, holding an axe. I walked through the back door of the building into a long hallway, and noticed to my left a crowd spotted with cliques of people talking about what I assumed was government business. I learned soon after entering the building that there was a public hearing about a House bill, which I watched as the only teen in a formal but utilitarian room filled predominantly with white men, suits, and quiet chatter. Towards the end of the hearing I exited the room and walked up a wide staircase made of the type of marble on which even tennis shoes make a noticeable clicking, eventually arriving at the House floor. Sergeant-at-arms Brian McKinley took it upon himself to give me an impromptu tour of the room, assuring me that it was no trouble as the legislature wasn’t in session that day and as such the capitol building was nearly empty.
The most striking feature of the room? Desk toys. If I had spent a number of days in the capitol, I’m sure I would have come to recognize each representative by the way in which they chose to adorn their floor workspace. One desk sported a rainbow flag, and others exhibited national colors in addition to the two flags– one for the United State and another for Oregon– that were displayed on every desk. The desk of Representative Carla C. Piluso (Democrat) displayed a Statue of Liberty figurine whose torch held a small gumball. McKinley told me that Representative Brian Clem (Democrat) had a reputation for adding left-behind trinkets to his desk, upon which rested, among other things, a baseball and a magic eight-ball (McKinley). Many of the desks also sported two squeeze-toys- one donkey and one elephant, symbolizing the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. It was these toys that initially directed my attention to the individual desks of the Representatives when I noticed that several of the desks displayed one of the toys more prominently while pushing the other one off to a corner of the space. McKinley later told me that Carl Wilson, he thought, had set up his toys such that the stars that were on each side of every toy were visible on the elephant and hidden on the donkey (McKinley).
Oregon is playing host to a phenomenon of democracy- a situation in which one party has the power to essentially dictate legislation. However, despite the one-sidedness of the scene, one of the most important things to understand about the Democratic supermajority in Oregon is that, though the legal distribution of legislative power is clear, perception of the situation as a whole is relative. Opinion differs as to whether the current state of the legislature is an exercise in coexistence or a suppression of dissenting voices, and views on the influence, tolerance and future of each faction can clash even within a single party. How, then, can we determine the fate of the minority party, that currently has such an extreme legal disadvantage? One possibility is that the faction will be worn down until it lacks the critical mass of support crucial to its survival. If the majority party has control over how the minority party is perceived, there’s a possibility that the public will, amidst a slew of demonization and drowned voice, stop identifying with the party as an avenue to express their political beliefs and move on to another group. In the case of the Republican party, state supermajority domination may pair well with national restructuring of the GOP that may have, according to Greg Leo, begun with Donald Trump and disseminated into a larger, more objectionable body. The end result of such a combination could be a fundamental change in the party. Or, as Carl Wilson would argue, the current reality of the Oregon legislature could simply be the next oscillation in a larger political cycle. It’s unclear whether the extreme influence of Oregon’s supermajority will help drive irreversible change in the structure of the GOP or be outlasted by fervent enthusiasm of local constituencies. If the former possibility occurs, the state’s Democratic hegemony could lead to a massive silencing of Republican voice and Oregon’s further entrenchment in the national battlefield of intensifying partisanship. If it does not, it could just be a reality that, for now, puts Republican legislation on the backburner.
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