Oregon Senate GOP tensions are front and center with new bill
Signs of tension among Oregon Senate Republicans have been building for months, with members of the 11-person caucus disagreeing over strategies for fighting controversial bills and how best to object to a closed Capitol.
Such intraparty differences are a feature of politics, but they rarely get their own legislation. That changed Wednesday, as a pair of Republican Senators, Sens. Lynn Findley and Bill Hansell, introduced a bill explicitly targeting two of their colleagues.
Senate Bill 865 would make it illegal for a person to simultaneously hold office as a state elected official and be an officer with the central committee of an Oregon political party. It’s aimed squarely at two people: state Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Myrtle Creek, the current chair of the Oregon Republican Party, and state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, the party’s treasurer.
Heard and Linthicum swept into party leadership in February, in an organized campaign among current and former senators to grab the reins of the state GOP. Former Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, is now the party’s vice-chair. Sitting Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, failed in a bid to become the party’s secretary.
At the same time as they are attempting to steer their party toward increased relevance, Heard and Linthicum have rankled some of their fellow senators. Both men are stridently opposed to the ongoing closure of the state Capitol to the general public, and have channeled that sentiment into voting against every bill that comes before them in committee — even those they profess to support.
Heard has taken that a step further, either voting against every bill on the Senate floor or skipping potentially controversial votes. In recent weeks he has not attended floor sessions or committee hearings, though his absences have been excused and other senators have said he is ill.
The issue for Heard and Linthicum’s colleagues is the message those votes or non-votes can send when both men are part of party leadership. The clearest example: When the Senate took up a bill banning the display of nooses in early April, Heard left the Senate chamber to skip the vote and Linthicum provided the sole “no” vote, saying he had technical issues with the bill.
“What bothers me most about that is people can take a position now and that supposedly represents the Republican Party, and it’s positions that I absolutely don’t agree with,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, told OPB last month. In the case of the noose bill, Girod said, “it made us look very racist by voting no or not showing up or not voting, and that became the lead story, instead of the fact that most of us agreed.”
Those same concerns motivated Findley and Hansell to introduce SB 865, which they say was crafted at the behest of Republican party officials in Baker, Morrow and Malheur counties. The bill prohibits anyone holding the office of governor, attorney general, state treasurer, labor commissioner, secretary of state, state representative, state senator, or Supreme Court or appeals court judge from serving as an officer on their political party’s central committee. Anyone in violation of the law would be subject to a fine of $250 a day.
“We have been contacted by our constituents both in and out of the Republican Party who are concerned about the mixing of party politics and legislative policy-making,” Hansell, R-Athena, and Findley, R-Vale, said in a joint statement. “All of a sudden, certain votes are being seen as official positions of all Republicans in Oregon when they aren’t, and vice versa.”
In an interview Thursday, Findley said he had not discussed the bill with either Heard or Linthicum. He stressed that the bill was not “personal” and that he’d introduced it at the behest of constituents.
“I don’t get to be a senator from eight to five and then go home,” Findley said. “I’m always a state senator. And when you’re party officer you’re always a party officer. They’re two distinct functions.”
Senate Democratic Leader Rob Wagner has also signed on as a chief sponsor of the bill, though he stressed that Hansell and Findley were leading the way. Wagner also chairs the Senate Rules Committee, where SB 865 currently sits, and on Thursday morning told OPB he’d schedule a hearing on the proposal as early as next week.
Neither Heard nor Linthicum’s offices responded to requests for comments about the bill, nor did a spokesman for the Oregon Republican Party.
SB 856 is just the latest sign of fracture within the Senate Republican caucus.
Early this year, one former Republican, state Sen. Brian Boquist, rescinded his registration with the party and became an Independent. Then last month, state Sen. Art Robinson, a Cave Junction Republican and former chair of the state GOP, announced he would no longer caucus with the party, and instead meet to strategize with Boquist.
“I feel that I can best serve the constituents of my district by being a part of the Independent Caucus,” Robinson said at the time.
Even lawmakers who’ve chosen to ostensibly remain closely tied to the Republican ranks have strayed. Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said she has rarely attended caucus meetings this year. “I am spending my time planning and doing other things like looking at my committees,” she told OPB in April. “There’s just so much going on. I didn’t feel like it was valuable to just go through a list of bills ... That’s about all we do.”
Thatcher and Robinson are among five Republican senators who have refused to attend votes on gun control proposals, reflecting a rift in the party over whether to walk out and block the policies from moving forward. Heard, Linthicum and Thomsen also have refused to attend.
Six Republican senators, including Findley, Hansell, and Girod, chose to remain in the building for those votes, allowing the central gun bill of the session to pass.
“I would like to say we can all sing kumbaya,” said Findley, “but there are 11 individuals who represent different parts of the state.”
The division is a stark contrast to the unanimity Senate Republican’s showed in 2019 and 2020, when they repeatedly fled the state in order to block a bill to cap and reduce Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions. But those walkouts have in turn increased expectations that Republicans will walk away over any controversial bill, leading to increased pressure from interest groups and constituents.
Girod, the Senate Republican leader, has at times downplayed the division among Republicans. But he also acknowledges they could lead to difficulties in the future.
“I think the fact that when you are divided the other side sees that and will take advantage of that so they push the division,” Girod said last month. “If you’re united they can’t do that, and I really think we’re slitting our throats for the upcoming elections.”
OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this report.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting