Capital Chatter: A talk with Mike McLane
Mike McLane has moved from writing state laws to interpreting those laws.
Until last month, McLane was a prominent legislator representing a sprawling Oregon House district that covers Crook County and parts of Deschutes, Jackson, Klamath and Lake counties. Now he is a circuit judge for Crook and Jefferson counties.
Before McLane resigned his legislative seat, I sat down with him to talk Oregon politics.
I was particularly interested in McLane's perspective because he served as the House Republican leader for six years and has seen a transition in Oregon politics from unity to more tribalistic behavior. As a side note, the resident of Powell Butte also has been a military officer for nearly 20 years, serving in the Oregon National Guard.
Again, let me emphasize that he made these comments while he still holding a partisan position as a legislator, before becoming a nonpartisan judge. So many other things have been happening in Oregon politics since the Legislature concluded that I haven't had a chance to share McLane's observations.
McLane's first legislative session was 2011. It was a challenging period because of the Great Recession. In the end, it was-regarded as one of Oregon's finest, most productive legislatures because partisanship could not rule. The Oregon House was tied 30-30 between Democrats and Republicans, and the Senate had a bare Democratic majority.
"It really was much more of a united purpose, and I've lived through the digression into what some are calling tribalistic behavior. I wish Oregon was exempt, but we're not," McLane said ,as we sat in his office only days before the tumultuous 2019 session adjourned.
"That's the biggest change that I saw since I came here, is the loss of a common purpose and more of viciousness and its partisanship.
"I don't know if Oregon can be unlike other states in what that means. That's a great disappointment. But I'm hopeful because we're a small enough state with a great tradition of being able to work through major challenges by working together, and I think that tradition gives us an advantage over other states during such a time of deep divide."
I asked McLane about what is known as "The Oregon Way" — the collaboration and cooperation that civic and state leaders describe when they work toward a common goal.
"Being a part of a tradition puts you down the path to being able to live up to that. And we have that in our DNA here in Oregon," he responded. "But right now, the culture of the nation seems to be what's pervasive."
He saw as The Oregon Way as absent in the 2019 Legislature, with its Democratic supermajority. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown could have insisted that legislation would not become law unless it had some Republican support. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem had that unofficial guideline in previous legislative session, before this year's Senate Democratic Caucus swung further to the left.
Perhaps a case can be made that legislative positions should be nonpartisan, like many local offices, allowing alliances to form from mutual interests instead of party dictates. I didn't ask McLane about that, but I did seek his thoughts on the future of the Oregon Republican Party.
"Republicans are good about knowing why they fight — why we go through the struggle of wanting to see free and safe communities, free people, free speech, free and fair markets. But we're not necessarily good at communicating who we're fighting for," he responded.
"And I think you have to know not only why you're fighting but who you're fighting for — that working class, the blue-collar rebellion so to speak that you're seeing going on in Eastern and Southern Oregon.
"The Republicans ultimately are about opportunity," he said. Republicans want people to be able to succeed or fail on own merits.
McLane was one of the finer orators in the Legislature, whether taking Democrats to task or simply filling time as part of Republican quasi-filibuster. He has a keen mind. He asked penetrating questions and expected thorough answers.
One of my favorite episodes, which stands out for its humor, occurred during the Capital Construction Committee's public hearing on state bonds for higher education construction. Higher ed officials were being quizzed by committee members, including McLane and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.
McLane wanted to know whether the officials' proposed matrix for construction priorities would take potential donations into account. As an example, he said, suppose Nike's Phil Knight wanted to donate money to build The Betsy Johnson Center of Debate, which McLane said would be "basically teaching how to give bureaucrats a good tongue-lashing."
When it was her turn, Johnson responded, "I want to know is this an undergraduate degree or an advanced degree."
McLane: "Oh, it would be advanced."
Johnson: "Thanks, just checking."
She then proceeded to adroitly give higher ed officials a chewing out for their lack of collaboration.
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.