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Nov. 28, 2021

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Special session drama could hamper Oregon Democrats’ 2022 agenda as trust dissipates

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PORTLAND — The recently concluded redistricting special session at the Oregon Legislature was marked by a broken deal, a Republican walkout and accusations of cheating that have reignited tensions on the state House floor.

And the fallout from the special session may linger, bleeding into next year’s legislative session.

“It seems extremely likely to me that (the last special legislative session) indicates heightened tensions, polarization and likely more extreme maneuvers — particularly from Republicans — in the state Legislature in the next year,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University.

The 2022 regular legislative session was already looking like it would be filled with friction, as the division between political parties has expanded in recent years. While the majority Democrats are hoping to continue work on bills regarding racial equity, police reform, immigrant rights and economic recovery following the pandemic, they will need enough Republicans to show up in Salem for them to conduct business.

And the GOP is in no mood to accommodate the party that it feels double-crossed it.

“The most valuable thing we have here is our word,” Republican Rep. Suzanne Weber said on the state House floor Monday. “So when the deal was broken … I lost trust, and when trust is gone, I genuinely don’t know how this institution can work.”

The most controversial moment of September’s redistricting session was when House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat, rescinded a power-sharing deal with GOP lawmakers. The agreement, reached in April, had given House Republicans an equal say in redrawing political maps in exchange for them to stop blocking bills with delaying tactics.

The even split on the House redistricting committee essentially granted the minority party veto power over the state’s new political boundaries, which included a sixth U.S. House seat.

But Kotek — who announced she is running for governor in 2022 — voided the deal on the first day of the special session, saying Republicans weren’t engaging constructively. “As far as I’m concerned, we held up our end of the bargain as long as we could,” Kotek said following the conclusion of the redistricting session.

Republicans say they were cheated, as Democrats cleared the path to pass maps they wanted.

“She lied and broke her promise not just to us but to Oregonians,” Minority Leader Christine Drazan said.

Republicans initially walked out, denying the House a quorum to vote on maps. However, GOP lawmakers returned Monday, at which point Drazan put forward a motion to have Kotek formally censured.

“When she chooses to break an agreement made in good faith, she is harming the institution,” Drazan said after Democrats passed new political maps largely along party lines.

Drazan’s motion failed, 33-14, with two Republicans opting to leave the chamber.

But hurt relationships and broken trust have some wondering if frustrations on the House floor will impact next year’s legislative session.

Kotek did not hesitate to place blame for the heightened tension that has marked the House in recent years.

“I’ve had my challenges with Republican leaders, but not to the level that I’ve had with Leader Drazan,” Kotek said, noting that she has led the chamber through nine regular and six special sessions.

Drazan said that if “divisions get greater and majority and minority status gets more and more separated,” then it’s “going to hurt Oregon.”

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