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Capital Chatter: Field trips to rural Oregon

Urban Democrats go East to learn about water use and irrigation in the Columbia Basin.

In the spring of 2013, environmental groups, cattle ranchers, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and other folks were fighting — in court and in the statehouse — over wolves killing livestock. So a first-term Republican state senator invited a veteran Portland legislator out to Eastern Oregon to get the cattlemen's perspective.

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, still remembers what Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, said when he thanked her later: "I was happy to come. You're the first person to ever invite me to visit their district in Eastern Oregon."

Hansell has never stopped inviting Portland Democrats and other colleagues to head east. On Saturday, Portland Democratic Sens. Michael Dembrow and Lew Frederick took a dozen constituents 160 miles east to the Boardman area. The trip's focus was on water use and irrigation in the Columbia Basin.

Dingfelder had chaired the Senate natural resources committee on which Hansell served. Dembrow, who succeeded her in office, now chairs that committee.

The participants on Saturday toured the Port of Morrow and enjoyed a lunch hosted by the Eastern Oregon Women's Coalition at the SAGE Center, an interactive visitor center that the Columbia River port developed to showcase the area's sustainable agriculture and energy industries.

"I think they were pleasantly surprised to discover that clear out in little Boardman we have the Port of Morrow, which is the second-largest port in the whole state of Oregon — second only to the Port of Portland," Hansell told me.

They also toured the site of the former Lost Valley Dairy, now owned by Easterday Farms; learned how farmers are using digital technology to monitor irrigation systems in real time; and went into sweet corn and watermelon fields.

"I heard over and over again, 'We had no idea. This is incredible. The technology that is there. The water conservation. The environmental concerns that you folks have that you're fulfilling,'" Hansell said. "They were just amazed at what was going on."

The participants returned to Portland with edible souvenirs: sweet corn and watermelons.

On a previous trip, a Portland contingent had visited Threemile Canyon Farms, Oregon's largest dairy. This time, the participants learned how Easterday Farms is reclaiming the defunct Lost Valley Dairy, which had racked up more than 200 citations from regulatory agencies and which left behind more than 30 million gallons of manure and wastewater.

Dembrow's Senate committee this year considered several bills that would have further regulated or blocked such large-scale dairies. The bills died. Hansell, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, were among those who joined dairy producers in testifying against the legislation.

Hansell said Saturday's tour showed why large-scale dairies make sense in the arid climate and wide open spaces of Eastern Oregon. He said the demise of Lost Valley Dairy demonstrated that the existing regulations work. He praised Easterday Farms for restoring the property and planning to turn it back into a working dairy.

"They have come in and just absolutely done everything that needs to be done. Environmentally, they cleaned it up. They got the right permits. They're working with the state," he said.

Speaking of wolves: Weeks after Dingfelder joined Hansell and Pendleton Rep. Bob Jenson on that Eastern Oregon trip in 2013, the two senators jointly carried the wolf legislation on the Senate floor, where it passed 30-0. The measure, HB 3452, enacted a settlement agreement on ranchers' killing predatory wolves.

Jenson had carried the bill in the House, where it passed 57-2. (Voting against it were Democratic Reps. Mitch Greenlick of Portland and Joe Gallegos of Hillsboro.)

Yet the debate over wolves remains unresolved. To the consternation of Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission in June approved a revised Wolf Conservation and Management Plan that dissatisfied environmentalists. The nine-hour meeting included sometimes-contentious testimony from more than 40 people, with commissioners occasionally recessing behind closed doors to individually talk strategy.

No love for PERS politicians: The Oregon AFL-CIO has voted its anger against politicians who passed legislation this year that tweaks the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System.

At their 56th convention in Seaside last weekend, delegates passed a resolution restricting future support for those lawmakers. Retiring president Tom Chamberlain issued a statement saying: "The Oregon Labor Movement is only beholden to workers, not a political party. It's clear to me that the Democratic supermajorities and Governor thought that workers would continue to support those who attacked their retirement and then failed to pass other key pro-worker priorities."

Delegates also passed a resolution sanctioning former Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, who is a strong advocate for meaningful PERS reforms.

Speaking of unions and Democrats: Hannah Love is the new executive director of FuturePAC, the campaign arm of the Oregon House Democrats. She previously was political director of Our Oregon, which is a coalition of public employee unions and liberal organizations, and before that had worked for FuturePAC.

New Republican leadership takes shape: The Oregon House Republicans who toppled caucus leader Carl Wilson of Grants Pass have now filled out their leadership team — and it includes more than a third of the 22 caucus members.

They previously elected Christine Drazan of Canby as House Republican leader; Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, deputy leader; and Lynn Findley of Vale, whip. This week they added Kim Wallen of Medford as assistant whip. The new assistant GOP leaders are Jack Zika, Redmond; E. Werner Reschke, Klamath Falls; Cedric Hayden, Roseburg; and Rick Lewis, Silverton.

Bruce Anderson has been hired as the Republican caucus' chief of staff. Anderson is a well-respected longtime lobbyist, former Keizer city councilor and former legislative staffer. He most recently was community affairs manager for NW Natural and previously worked for the Northwest Food Processors Association and other trade associations.

And on the supermajority side: The 38 House Democrats already had changed leadership, although it was a friendly switch. They elected Barbara Smith Warner of Portland as majority leader to succeed fellow Portlander Jennifer Williamson, who is weighing her political options, such as a run for statewide office next year.

House Democrats have now added two members to their leadership team. Pam Marsh of Ashland and Mark Meek of Oregon City were chosen as assistant majority leaders.

The rest of the Democratic Caucus leadership includes Tina Kotek, Portland, House speaker; Paul Holvey, Eugene, speaker pro tempore; Rob Nosse, Portland, whip; Julie Fahey, Eugene, deputy whip; and assistant majority leaders Karin Power of Milwaukie, Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego and Janeen Sollman of Hillsboro.

Whereas the Republican leaders represent rural and suburban districts, the Democratic leaders come from urban and suburban areas. However, political scientist Jim Moore of Pacific University points out that few legislators of either party are actually rural themselves. Most live in cities or towns.

To bring this column almost full circle, let me note that Smith Warner holds the House seat that Dembrow vacated when he was appointed to the Senate — and she spent considerable time visiting communities in Eastern Oregon and other parts of the state as a co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Student Success.

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.