Capital Chatter: This week was a rollercoaster ride
Shocking. Weird. Unnerving. Mournful. Historic. Bizarre. Frenetic.
All sorts of adjectives could describe the past week in the Oregon Capitol. Every time it seemed as if things might slow down, news broke out.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, abruptly announced he was taking a 10-day leave of absence for health reasons. Colleagues had been concerned about his health, including recurring eye problems. But given the 75-year-old Courtney's penchant for work — and working out regularly at the YMCA down the street — his disappearance raised questions.
The past year has been hard on Courtney, according to those who know him. Even before his absence this week, some people were speculating whether he would survive politically in light of accusations that he did too little to confront sexual harassment in the Oregon Capitol. Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, has been an outspoken critic on several fronts and has called for a change in Senate leadership. Still, Courtney retains the support of most Senate Democrats and Republicans.
During previous Legislatures, Courtney has been a moderating influence on legislation, which Republicans appreciated but which put him at odds with more-liberal Democrats, whose numbers increased in the 2018 elections. This year, Courtney has shown more of a progressive side, including endorsing the rent-control legislation — Senate Bill 608 — that the Democrats with their supermajorities in the Senate and House quickly pushed into law.
So, was it mere coincidence that Courtney's absence for medical reasons was announced hours before a $1.3 million legislative settlement on those sexual harassment allegations also was announced?
The Legislature will pay $1,095,000 million to eight women, settling a complaint filed with the Bureau of Labor and Industries and related litigation. Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who first made public the alleged sexual harassment by then-Sen. Jeff Kruse, will receive $26,612.24 for attorney fees and out of-of-pocket expenses. BOLI will get $200,000 for attorney fees and expenses.
Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, had contended they did everything they could on harassment issues were caught off-guard when then-BOLI Commissioner Brad Avakian filed a complaint against them last year. Avakian's involvement had been seen in some quarters as political payback for his fellow Democrats' failure to wholeheartedly support his unfulfilled quest to become secretary of state. It now appears the settlement shows his concerns were valid, although the document's wording also admits that BOLI's investigation had been politicized.
Republican Dennis Richardson won that 2016 election for secretary of state. Richardson, who died last week at age 69, was remembered at his state funeral Wednesday in Oregon Capitol. The last statewide official to die in office was State Treasurer Ben Westlund, also of cancer, in 2010. Westlund served as treasurer for a little more than a year.
In the hours before Richardson's funeral, his body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. The Statesman Journal reported that Richardson was the first person so honored since former Gov. Tom McCall in 1983.
The bipartisan eulogies at Richardson's funeral celebrated his commitment to his faith, his family and his state. Former Democratic Secretary of State Phil Keisling presided. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the sole Republican in Oregon's congressional delegation, was among those who mourned the loss of both Richardson and former Secretary of State Norma Paulus, who died in the same week. State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, combined humor and solemn appreciation in her eulogy.
"At a state funeral, it's inevitable that some in attendance will imagine their own memorial someday. Which of their political enemies will suddenly discover the deceased's wisdom — their integrity — now that they're no longer around to make trouble, or at least audit them," Johnson began, drawing laughter and applause.
"Dennis would have appreciated the kind regards of his colleagues, but he would have kept it in perspective, however."
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman told of her own journey with cancer, Richardson's support for her and the caring card he sent her in January after she lost her parents.
With Courtney absent, Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, joined Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass in escorting Richardson's family to their seats for the funeral.
Bipartisanship, yes and no: The bipartisanship felt during Richardson's service has otherwise been up and down during the 2019 Legislature. Here are a few recent examples, big and small.
House Republicans on Monday issued a several-paragraph statement saying there was a lack of trust in the Capitol. It began: "Two months into the 2019 Legislative Session one thing is evident, there is a crisis of trust. Democrats are pushing for more government control and higher taxes from every angle without truly addressing the problems plaguing our state."
However, in her newsletter this week, Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, wrote: "Unlike what currently tends to occur on the national level of government, in Oregon, we live by different standards. We may not always agree on every issue, but we respect each other and listen to various perspectives when making our decisions."
Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, allowed Republicans to introduce and discuss their proposed amendments to the rent-control bill at the House Committee on Human Services and Housing, which she chairs. The amendments were defeated, but Republicans at least had their say. That was in contrast to the Senate, where Fred Girod, R-Stayton, walked out of the Housing Committee discussion on the bill because of the way he was treated by chair Shemia Fagan, D-Portland. Afterward, Girod asked to be removed from the committee and was replaced by Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, had so angered House Republicans by how he ran the House Health Care Committee that they successfully sought his removal as chair. A few days later, he testified before the committee on a vaccination bill. As the 83-year-old Greenlick gingerly walked back up to take his seat on the dais with other committee members, Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, unobtrusively stepped down to give him a hand.
More health concerns: Rep. Keny-Guyer has thyroid cancer. In revealing her diagnosis in her constituent newsletter, she expressed thanks to Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, who is a physician "for convincing me to get tested and to legislators from both parties and chambers for their love and support. My colleagues, my committee vice chairs, and my fantastic team are ready to fill in when I leave for surgery in the next few weeks."
Capitol kids: The Pledge of Allegiance at Richardson's funeral was led by 2019 Oregon Kid Governor Erikka Baldwin of Eugene and 2018 Kid Governor Dom Peters of Gervais. Richardson had initiated the Kid Governor program in which Oregon fifth-graders run for the office and are elected by their peers statewide.
During the recent House debate on SB 608, weather-related closures and delays caused Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, to bring her son to the House floor. He sat on her lap, drawing on paper and looking around the chamber. It was heartwarming reminder that legislators are real people with lives outside the Capitol.
Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.