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Regional Interests

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek pulls back on redistricting deal

The Oregon Senate convened to vote on new Congressional and legislative maps as part of the state's redistricting process Monday, Sept. 20.
The Oregon Senate convened to vote on new Congressional and legislative maps as part of the state's redistricting process Monday, Sept. 20.

House Speaker Tina Kotek on Monday backed out of a deal granting minority Republicans equal say in the state’s redistricting process, signaling she’d seek to muscle through new political maps that will advantage her party over strenuous objections by the GOP.

In an announcement that threatens to upend a special legislative session, Kotek announced she was creating two committees to consider new political maps, rather than a single House Redistricting Committee that had been working on the issue for months.

One of the new committees will consider a proposal to pass new congressional maps that are likely to give Democrats five of the state’s six congressional seats. Democrats will have a 2-1 advantage on that committee.

The other committee will take up a proposal to rejigger the state’s 90 legislative districts. It will be evenly composed of Republicans and Democrats, and contain the all the original members of the House Redistricting Committee. But Kotek also added two new lawmakers to the committee, including state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, a frequent ally of the speaker’s on tight votes.

The decision led to quick action.

Late Monday afternoon, the two new committees took up their respective bills. In a meeting of the congressional redistricting committee, Republican Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, her party’s lone member on the body, declined to attend. Democratic Reps. Andrea Salinas and Wlnsvey Campos passed the proposal in her absence.

On the committee taking up legislative plans, Smith joined with Democrats to pass their proposal on a 5-3 vote. Both proposals now head to the House floor.

Kotek’s maneuver came as a shock to many in the Capitol, who had expected the speaker to honor an agreement she reached with Republicans earlier this year — that she would give the GOP an even say on redistricting if they would end delay tactics threatening Democrats’ agenda. Some on Twitter immediately cheered the move as evidence Democrats were willing to play the same political hardball employed in Republican-led states, even as conservative users held it up as an example of liberal duplicity.

But as of Monday afternoon, it wasn’t clear the tactic would actually have the impact Kotek intended. State Rep. Daniel Bonham, the deputy Republican leader, told OPB that members of his party were considering walking away from the Capitol, denying Democrats the two-thirds quorum necessary to conduct business. That’s a strategy House Democrats employed in 2001, when they were in a redistricting fight with majority Republicans.

“Absolutely we’re talking about it,” Bonham said. “We were suspicious of our deal with the speaker. The proof is in the pudding today. Now you’re looking at the result of what that agreement was.”

Meanwhile, Kotek and other House Democrats defended their move by suggesting that Republicans had not sincerely engaged in negotiations and were obstructing the process. Kotek told members of her caucus in an afternoon call that she’d hoped an evenly split committee would lead to consensus, but that GOP members were unwilling to give the “courtesy vote” that would allow the congressional maps to pass onto the House floor.

“No map is perfect, and this is a very complex task,” Kotek said in a statement. “Ultimately, we are bound to do our constitutional duty and the job Oregonians elected us to do. Separate committees are the only path the House now has to fulfill its responsibilities.”

In a separate statement, House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, and Salinas, D-Lake Oswego and a co-chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said the Democratic maps are “fair, legally sound, reflect population growth and census data, and take into account the nearly 2,000 pieces of testimony we received from the public.”

PlanScore, a nonpartisan online tool that analyzes redistricting proposals for partisan bias, suggests the congressional map Democrats are hoping to pass is heavily favored in their party’s interests. Republicans point out that a 5-1 congressional split favoring Democrats is far out of step with how Oregonians typically vote in statewide races.

Shortly after Kotek announced her decision on the House floor, Republican lawmakers vented their anger in a series of floor speeches.

“What has just occurred is shameful and lacks any integrity, lacks the ability to keep your word,” said state Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford. “If we don’t have that in this building, what the hell do we have?”

House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said she’d viewed her deal with Kotek on redistricting as a way to help her party secure more influence in a process with extremely high political stakes. “I now realize that all along the plan was to, in fact, get gerrymandered maps through this body no mater what,” Drazan said. “Oregonians do not deserve this.”

The House drama came after a day that had been otherwise relatively calm.

In the Senate, which first took up the redistricting proposals, Democrats had made no deal granting Republicans an equal say. The majority party quickly hustled through two bills containing their plans — Senate Bills 881 and 882 — passing them out of committee and on the Senate floor on straight party line votes.

Like their counterparts in the House, Senate Republicans were extremely critical of SB 881, the congressional redistricting plan. They pointed out that Democrats had refused to alter their initial proposal at all, even after thousands of pieces of testimony taken over the course of 12 public hearings. And they complained that Democrats rooted four of their six congressional districts in the Portland region, exporting the city’s liberal electoral firepower out to rural areas with vastly different political leanings.

“We go to all this trouble to balance the population of this state, and yet we allow a particular city or county to have what I call outsized influence,” said state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who served on the Senate Redistricting Committee. “That really speaks to one of the biggest issue we have in the state, which is the urban-rural divide. It is toxic.”

Knopp and others were more complimentary about Democrats’ proposal for altering the state’s 90 legislative districts, which they said incorporated more Republican feedback.

“I would be lying if I said, ‘Boy they just gave us everything we wanted,’” said Knopp. “But this is a different map. Do we feel like it’s partisan like the last one? No.”

Even so, Senate Republicans voted unanimously against SB 882. The chamber then voted — once again along party lines — to adjourn for the session.

An analysis of the Democrats’ legislative proposal suggests the party would easily maintain its majorities in the Legislature under SB 882, though they might not be guaranteed the three-fifths supermajorities they currently hold. Unlike the Democrats’ congressional plan, the nonpartisan PlanScore tool suggests the new legislative maps are relatively balanced, and could slightly favor Republicans in some aspects.

Lawmakers must pass redistricting plans by Sept. 27, under a deadline set by the state Supreme Court. If they fail, responsibility for drawing a new congressional map would go to a panel of five judges named by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat, would get the task of drawing legislative maps.

The House is scheduled to reconvene Tuesday at 10 a.m.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting