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Regional Interests

A case of COVID-19 has made Oregon’s redistricting process even more uncertain

The House floor was empty at the Oregon Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 21, after legislators halted in person meetings following news of a COVID-19 exposure the previous day.
The House floor was empty at the Oregon Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 21, after legislators halted in person meetings following news of a COVID-19 exposure the previous day.

Oregon House Republicans showed signs Tuesday they would walk away from a special legislative session, throwing a roadblock into Democrats’ proposals for new political maps a day after House Speaker Tina Kotek reneged on a deal with the GOP.

But before GOP lawmakers could make any decision official, COVID intervened.

Shortly before 1 p.m., notice went out to Capitol figures that someone who’d been in the building on Monday had tested positive for the coronavirus, further complicating a redistricting process that is extremely tense and facing a tight deadline.

“This is obviously a developing situation and hopefully we will be back tomorrow to complete our business,” said House Speaker Tina Kotek.

But an email sent to House members from Kotek’s office Tuesday evening announced that lawmakers won’t be expected back in the Capitol until Saturday. And that both rapid and PCR COVID tests will be made available in Salem Thursday to lawmakers and staff who may have been exposed, providing the opportunity for results of those tests to be returned by Friday afternoon.

“It will also allow enough time for the House to confirm quorum and complete its work by voting on the bills that the Senate passed for House consideration,” the email stated. “As always, it is our top priority to protect the health and safety of the Capitol community while continuing to fulfill the Legislature’s constitutional duty.”

The identity of the infected person was not released, nor was their political affiliation. By Tuesday afternoon, four Republicans had filed excused absence requests for Wednesday, specifically citing close proximity to the infected individual or a need to self-quarantine. No such requests had been filed by Democratic lawmakers, according to documents received via a public records request.

News of the COVID infection adds even greater uncertainty to the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political districts. Lawmakers must pass new maps for the state’s 90 legislative districts and soon-to-be six congressional districts by Monday, Sept. 27, or will forfeit their ability to control the process. Two bills to implement those maps, Senate Bills 881 and 882, cruised through the Senate on straight party-line votes on Monday.

Even so, lawmakers’ ability to succeed this year has seemed to grow more and more unlikely with each passing day. Last week, House Republicans announced they did not support Democratic proposals that could give the party lasting majorities in the Legislature and 5-1 dominance over Oregon’s congressional seats.

The Republicans’ opinion counted, because Kotek, the House speaker, had granted the party equal say on the chamber’s redistricting committee earlier this year, as part of a deal to end delay tactics. In theory that gave the GOP the ability to veto any proposal.

But faced with the likelihood her party’s political maps would be obstructed, Kotek reneged on Monday, the first day of the special session.

In a move that surprised many in the Capitol, the speaker replaced the former evenly split House Redistricting Committee with two separate committees — one for the congressional map, one for the legislative map. Kotek populated those committees in a way that ensured her party’s proposals sailed through to the House floor.

The maneuver sent Republicans creeping toward the exits. Without at least three House Republicans present, Democrats are unable to achieve a two-thirds quorum required to conduct business, and their maps would die on the vine.

But while Republicans made clear Monday they were considering a walkout, they never actually announced a decision to depart the Capitol. Instead, a House floor session planned for Tuesday morning was delayed until 1 p.m., apparently at the behest of House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby.

When 1 p.m. arrived, no Republicans appeared to be on Capitol grounds. But COVID-19 put off any clarity over whether the party would deny Democrats a quorum.

“In the last hour, we were notified that a person who was in the Capitol yesterday has tested positive for COVID,” Kotek said, taking the House rostrum shortly after 1:20 pm. “Our goal is to keep the business of the Capitol as safe as possible. We are working with the governor and the Oregon Health Authority to make sure testing is available to the individuals who were close contacts of the positive case.”

Kotek adjourned the House until 9 a.m. Wednesday, though it was unclear how many lawmakers would show up in the face of the positive case. Kotek said that vaccinated lawmakers would not have to quarantine, but it was unclear if they would be required to receive a test before attending the session.

In a statement, Drazan said her members would continue conversations over new maps.

“It’s in the best interest of Oregonians that we salvage an opportunity to pass fair maps,” she said. “They deserve fair representation despite the unexpected actions taken by the Speaker yesterday.”

The added chaos of the COVID scare was not the only factor complicating Democrats’ attempts to pass political maps. On Tuesday morning, state Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, sent a searing letter to his House colleagues announcing that he would refuse to support his party’s proposed legislative maps.

Wilde suggested in the email that he had been a critic of how Senate Democrats’ initial set of legislative maps handled the Eugene area, and that his criticism had been retribution. Under the maps that passed the Senate on Monday, Wilde’s home had been drawn into a Republican-leaning district.

“I can’t tell you how many people have told me in the last week ‘It’s not personal,’” Wilde wrote in the message. “My friends, it IS personal. I have it directly from both you and the Senate Ds that this was insisted on by the Senate, even after Tina [Kotek] advocated for me…. I had the temerity to speak up, and I was punished for it.”

Wilde’s vote would not be necessary if the supermajority Democrats are able to bring the proposals up for a vote, unless other members of the party are similarly aggrieved. The lawmaker’s letter prompted a response Tuesday from state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, who led Democrats’ redistricting effort in the House.

“As I believe I said to you last week, ‘It’s not personal,’ meaning nobody knew where you lived and targeted you in the line selection,” Salinas wrote, adding her insistence the maps “reflect population growth, adherence to the law and feedback 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. The tool suggests the new legislative maps are relatively balanced, and could slightly favor Republicans in some aspects, though they would still likely guarantee Democratic majorities.

If lawmakers do not pass new legislative maps by Sept. 27, responsibility for the process falls to Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. If the Legislature fails to pass a new congressional plan, that task would be handed to the state courts.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting