Oregon lawmaker faces outcry after state Capitol breach

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FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2020, file photo, pro-Trump and anti-mask demonstrators hold a rally outside the Oregon State Capitol as legislators meet for an emergency session in Salem, Ore. During the protest Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mike Nearman, physically opened the Capitol's door letting protesters, who clashed with police, gain access to the building. There have been calls for Nearman to resign ahead of the upcoming 2021 Legislative session that begins Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Sixteen days before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and nearly 2,900 miles away, an eerily similar incident occurred at the Oregon Capitol when 50 protesters breached the building — where lawmakers were working — and clashed with law enforcement.

Security video shows a Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mike Nearman, had physically opened the Capitol's door — letting protesters gain access to the building. Since then, there have been calls for Nearman, a representative from the small northwest Oregon town of Independence, to resign ahead of the upcoming Legislative session that begins Tuesday.

“Representative Nearman put every person in the Capitol in serious danger,” Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek said. “As we tragically saw last week during the insurrection at the United States Capitol, the consequences could have been much worse had law enforcement not stepped in so quickly. I believe he should resign immediately."

The incident occurred during a one-day special session on Dec. 21, as Oregon lawmakers met to discuss and pass four bills mainly related to coronavirus relief. The Capitol was closed to the public because of the pandemic.

Tensions rose outside the building, as more than 100 far-right protesters opposing statewide COVID-19 restrictions gathered. Some toted guns, carried Trump flags, chanted for the arrest of Gov. Kate Brown and assaulted reporters as they tried to force their way into the building by breaking glass doors.

Based on security video, Nearman, 56, walked out of a side door of the Capitol building, where two protesters stood. Nearman pushed the door all the way open and moved out of the way as a protester carrying a flag with stars, stripes and a Punisher logo rushed into the building, catching a second door that also electronically locks.

Another protester held the outside door as both waved for others to follow them. Within 30 seconds, officers rushed into the vestibule, pushed out the protesters and tried to close the door, but they were unsuccessful. As officers and protesters gathered, chemical spray was used by both sides and police officers reported not being able to see clearly before they ceded the area.

The intruders faced officers and chanted “enemies of the state” for an hour before police were able to clear the area, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

“They were focused on disrupting the proceedings, not unlike what happened in our nation’s Capitol,” Kotek said.

At least five people were arrested, including one man who state police say sprayed bear mace at officers.

The legal consequences that Nearman, one of the chamber's most conservative Republicans, might face are still unfolding as state police investigate his actions and the Legislative Equity Office discusses if they will pursue further disciplinary actions.

“If the investigation finds that actions taken were criminal, legislators are not above the law and will be held responsible,” Rep. Christine Drazan, leader of the House Republican Caucus, said in a statement. “As we affirm the need for due process and the right of the public to fully engage in the work of the Legislature, we commit to protect public safety and hold accountable those who would willfully undermine that commitment.”

In the meantime Kotek has stripped Nearman of his committee assignments, rescinded his commission appointments and will bill him $2,000 for damage done after he let people inside, according to the news release.

Nearman has agreed to forfeit a badge granting access to the Capitol, give 24-hours notice before arriving there, and not allow “non-authorized personnel” access to the building. Nearman read those terms Monday on the House floor.

Nearman issued a statement Tuesday in which he said that he has received “criticism, attacks at my home and threats" since the incident. In the statement, Nearman did not apologize for his actions.

“After several terms in the legislature, I’ve grown thick skin -- and while nobody likes to be called names and described in profane language -- I can handle it as part of the job that I do,” Nearman said.

The lawmaker went on to say that Kotek had subjected him to “mob justice."

“As the Speaker pretends to know my motivations, I will guess at some of hers,” Nearman said. “The fact that she was in possession of a video for sixteen days, and only chose to reveal the video and implicate me on the day after an ugly mob descended on the Capitol in Washington, DC, tells me that her motivations are about politics and not about safety.”

Nearman has been a vocal opponent to the statewide COVID-19 restrictions, which have been described as the strictest in the country. As part of that, Nearman has urged Capitol leadership to open the building to the public, which he repeated in his statement.

“I don’t condone violence nor participate in it,” the statement said.

On Monday, lawmakers gathered at the state Capitol building, under a heavy police presence, to swear in reelected and newly elected legislators. Officers and police stationed on the Capitol mall carefully monitored all vehicles arriving in the area. Inside, state police stood by the entrances and checked the identity of those entering the building.

The Oregon State Police said they were aware of further “rumors that armed groups are considering taking over and/or occupying the State Capitols” and are monitoring “several possible events" ahead of the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.

Brown has activated the Oregon National Guard because of possible violence at the state Capitol and elsewhere. Oregon State Police said the National Guard would be used as necessary and its deployment locations wouldn’t be made public.