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Capital Chatter: Youth movement takes over House GOP

Republicans have ousted their caucus leader, veteran lawmaker Carl Wilson of Grants Pass, and replaced him with a first-term representative, Christine Drazan of Canby.

The youth have taken over the Oregon House Republicans — young as in legislative tenure.

This week the 22 Republicans took the rare step of ousting their caucus leader, veteran lawmaker Carl Wilson of Grants Pass, and replacing him with a first-term representative, Christine Drazan of Canby.

Why? They feared that next year's elections could make House Republicans even more irrelevant unless they took bold actions and developed stronger campaign leadership. In 2018, they saw Democrats accumulate a supermajority in the House as well as the Senate, and they didn't like what that meant for Republicans the 2019 Legislature.

House Democrats have made a big deal of pointing out that most bills passed on a bipartisan basis this year. That is true, as it always is — because most bills deal with routine matters. On the big stuff, Republicans felt sidelined, with few exceptions.

The mood around the Oregon Capitol after Wilson's ouster was one of surprise. People said it could heighten partisanship in the short term but benefit Republicans in the long term.

Perhaps people should have seen this coming, although complaining about caucus leadership is not uncommon. The rumblings of discontent had intensified this summer, particularly over preparations for the 2020 elections. Newer legislators, especially first-timers, wanted a greater say instead of waiting their turn while things were done the same old way.

The votes for Drazan and Wilson were done by secret ballot and the results were not announced.

There is a saying in politics that you should never challenge the leadership unless you're assured of winning. Advocates for the change made sure they had an overwhelming number of votes lined up, and they continually nurtured those votes to avoid any last-minute defections.

That is a good lesson for any politician or group: Pay constant attention to your support, understand each person's level of support and never give people an opportunity to waver.

I recall that in the past, some House members were known to be so malleable that leadership stationed a colleague next to them to prevent their being influenced by last-minute lobbying. And famously or infamously in the Senate this summer, advocates of carbon cap and trade did not possess the crucial vote(s) needed for passage of House Bill 2020 even though they thought they did.

The most experienced member of the new House leadership is Daniel Bonham, who was elected deputy caucus leader. He was appointed to the House in 2017. Lynn Findley of Vale, the new Republican whip, arrived in 2018.

Drazan was elected last fall, but earlier in life she worked as a legislative aide and chief of staff for some of the most powerful Republicans in the Oregon House. Her political expertise has not gone unnoticed.

As a woman and a suburban legislator, she also is the face Oregon Republicans need to attract more voters. Both major parties are losing ground to unaffiliated voters, and the electorate in each party is aging.

Most Oregon legislative districts are dominated by one party. To gain a stronger bargaining position in the Legislature, the swing districts around the Portland metro area and elsewhere are where House Republicans must make inroads while also not giving up any of their current seats.

In any case, more change is on its way. Most of the House Republican Caucus staff has resigned and Wilson said he will not seek re-election to his House seat. Throughout the Legislature, there likely will be other political retirements as well.

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.