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Capital Chatter: Dembrow speaks with his base

Two hours of listening and 50 pages of notes produces an insider look at an urban constituent meeting.

The questions came carefully and concisely: About the demise of Oregon's climate change legislation. About Republican senators walking out of the Legislature. About rising college costs. And about much, much more.

This was six days after the 2019 Legislature had tumbled to conclusion with a frenetic final two days after Senate Republicans returned to work. Democratic Sen. Michael Dembrow was holding his monthly constituent coffee at the Hollywood Senior Center in Northeast Portland, having arrived by bicycle and with snacks to complement the coffee.

I sat in because I've written a lot lately about rural Oregon in this column and wanted to offer an urban perspective as well.

Two-plus hours later, I had filled 50 pages in my Reporters Notebook. I returned to Salem feeling both surprised and energized that nearly all the 45 participants had stayed for the entire conversation — long after the two cartons of Starbucks coffee ran out.

Dembrow was meeting with his political base — urban, progressive Democrats — so there was robust conversation but little confrontation. Many participants were on a first-name basis with Dembrow. One thanked him for modeling how democracy should work.

The meeting was arranged thoughtfully, focusing on the participants instead of the politician. Most people sat at tables arranged in a large square, with Dembrow joining them on one side instead of having a "head table." He began by going around the room, asking participants to introduce themselves and briefly mention what issues they wanted discussed.

Such simple details can have a profound difference in whether participants feel involved and heard. Isn't that something we all want, whether we're talking with a legislator or a family member or a workplace colleague: to feel that we have been heard … and understood.

Dembrow's "Big Four" topics were the Legislature's actions on housing, health care, education and climate change, but the discussion ranged far and wide.

Here is a brief sample. Along with discussing climate change and such issues as PERS, I wanted to take you behind the scenes and provide a look at things that don't get as much public attention:

Climate change: Dembrow believes that HB 2020, Clean Energy Jobs, had the votes needed to pass the Senate and become law. Otherwise, he said, the Republican senators would not have walked out to stymie the bill's passage.

However, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, announced in the final days of the Legislature that the bill lacked the votes. It ultimately was sent to a committee to die. "I really disagreed with his decision," Dembrow said.

He has been working on the carbon cap and trade concept for years. He saw the final legislation as a middle path, in that it remained a strong bill but mitigated some of the economic impacts, especially for low-income Oregonians.

A coalition of lobbyists worked non-stop to oppose the bill. "There was just relentless pressure going on," he said.

He expects the bill to return in next year's legislative session. "From my perspective, it remains fundamentally a very solid bill," he said, but there was an aggressive misinformation campaign against it.

"People around the rural parts of the state had real fears. Some were fanned by misinformation. Some were legitimate. We need to have a real dialogue" about the tradeoffs in confronting climate change.

Like abortion, he said, the issue is so polarized that he has a hard time seeing any Republican legislators voting for the bill and then getting re-elected in their district.

Legislators are overwhelmed: "We're barraged by so many things that it's often in one ear and out the other," Dembrow told the group. Unless legislators have been on the committee handling a particular bill or issue, they generally don't deal with it until it comes to a floor vote,

Legislators count on advocates on either side — including the professional and volunteer lobbyists — to keep track of legislation, keep lawmakers updated and keep the pressure on. Legislators have told me of various bills this that passed or failed — and should not have — because those things did not happen.

Dembrow cited one, House Bill 3309, which was backed by coastal lawmakers to support economic development and which passed the Legislature with little debate or opposition. Among other things, it repeals a state law that bans construction of essential public facilities — including schools, hospitals, jails, and police and fire departments — in tsunami zones.

Dembrow said he was now embarrassed by his vote for the bill.

"It also demonstrates the extent to which we rely on advocates to attune us to things," he said. "This is a case where a lot of people seemed to have dropped the ball."

HB 3309 passed the Legislature in June and was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown. The only public hearing was in April. Reps. David Gomberg, D-Otis, and David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, were key advocates and proposed the amendment that became the final bill.

The only public hearing was in April. No members of the public signed up to testify, only Gomberg, according to legislative records.

PERS: Dembrow said the passage of Senate Bill 1049 will help stabilize, if not slightly decline, rates paid by PERS employers. The new law includes a controversial cost-sharing provision for public employees that could slightly reduce their pensions.

"It was a very difficult vote for me, I must tell you, but we were faced with much worse alternatives," he said.

Higher education funding: "This was not a good session for higher education," said Dembrow, a retired community college instructor.

There were issues of trust and believability, which contributed to lack of legislative support for higher funding.

Legislative relationships: "The closer you get to deadline, the more tempers fray."

Constituents also talked about dozens of other issues, including urging Dembrow and other Democratic legislators to keep their supermajority strong, to not give up on gun safety legislation and to stand up against the Republicans' ability to deny the Senate a quorum for conducting business.

Like many legislators, Dembrow puts out an email newsletter. You can sign up through legislators' websites at OregonLegislature.gov.

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.