SALEM, Ore. – Oregon has long been seen as a quirky state whose main city was satirized in a TV comedy, where rugged country folk and urban hipsters could get along and political differences could be settled over a pint or two of craft beer.
But with a Republican walkout in the Democrat-controlled Oregon Senate in its third week, Oregonians these days are wistfully recalling "The Oregon Way,” when politicians of different stripes forged agreements for the common good. Famous examples include establishing the nation's first recycling program, ensuring public beach access for the entire coastline and limiting urban sprawl in a pioneering land-use program.
A quarter-century ago, former Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith and current Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden championed legislation together in Congress and even jointly appeared at town halls across the state, said Kerry Tymchuk, who was Gordon’s Oregon chief of staff back then. That spirit of cooperation was mirrored in the Legislature, he said.
“There were moderate Republicans in the Legislature who represented suburban Portland. There were conservative Democrats who represented some of the rural districts,” said Tymchuk, currently the executive director of the Oregon Historical Society. “And now there are no more Democrats in the rural districts. There are no more moderate Republicans.”
The crisis in Oregon's statehouse is a microcosm of the deeply partisan politics playing out nationwide, often pitting urban against rural areas, and the growing divide in Oregon shows the Pacific Northwest state is not immune.
The gridlock in the state Capitol in Salem comes as Oregon grapples with homelessness, mental health issues, a fetid open-air drug market in Portland and gun violence in the state's main city, where some businesses are fleeing, including outdoor gear retailer REI.
Elsewhere, a campaign to have rural eastern Oregon counties secede and join neighboring Idaho has gained steam amid growing complaints about the state's progressive politics.
"There is no turning back now,” Republican Sen. Daniel Bonham said of the GOP boycott.
“We are in it for the long haul. Oregon is in a leadership crisis,” he emailed his constituents, who live mostly east of Portland along the Columbia River and along the flanks of snow-capped Mount Hood.
The drumbeat of political discord has been building in Oregon for some time: Republicans walked out in 2019, 2020 and 2021. A breach of the state Capitol in December 2020 was an eerie predictor of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
In 2001, Democrat House members, then in the minority, walked out over redistricting. There was even a walkout in 1860, a year after statehood, with six senators hiding for two weeks in a barn to prevent a quorum.
The departure this year of an unpopular governor and the success of several bipartisan bills on affordable housing, homelessness and mental health funding early this session buoyed hopes that this year, things might be different — until this month.
The GOP boycott, which began May 3, now threatens to derail hundreds of pending bills, approval of a biennial state budget and the boycotters' own political futures. Neither side seems willing to give an inch over a bill on abortion rights and transgender health care and another measure on guns.
This year's standoff has disqualified nine Republican senators and one Independent from serving as lawmakers in the next term under a ballot measure approved overwhelmingly by boycott-weary voters last November. After 10 or more unexcused absences, a lawmaker can't take office in the Legislature, even if the secretary of state's elections division allows them on the ballot and they win.
A disqualified lawmaker running for reelection could disrupt Oregon's election system, already shaken by the resignation of Secretary of State Shemia Fagan this month for secretly moonlighting as a highly paid consultant to a marijuana business. Striking Republican lawmakers have pointed to Fagan's actions as a sign of corruption among Democratic politicians.
Senate President Rob Wagner, new to the job after his predecessor, Peter Courtney — the longest-serving Senate president in Oregon history — retired last year, accused GOP lawmakers of undermining democracy.
“This walkout must end," Wagner said from the rostrum Thursday as he gaveled closed another session because of a lack of quorum. "The people of Oregon desire it. Democracy demands it.”
In Oregon, two-thirds of the 30 members of the Senate must be present for a quorum for floor sessions. In recent days, 18 senators showed up but most Republicans and the lone Independent didn't.
Democratic and Republican leaders in the statehouse have met to end the boycott, but talks have repeatedly failed amid social media sparring, grandstanding to supporters and emailed accusations.
Republicans accuse Democrats of ignoring a long-forgotten 1979 law that says summaries of bills need to be written at an eighth-grade level — a law resurrected this month by the GOP. The boycotters also say they won't return unless “extreme” bills, like the ones on abortion, gender-affirming care and gun safety, are scrapped.
Wagner has said House Bill 2002 on abortion and gender-affirming care is nonnegotiable. Republicans object, in particular, to a provision that would allow doctors to provide an abortion to anyone regardless of age and bar them in certain cases from disclosing that to parents.
The last day of Oregon's legislative session is June 25. Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek has signed a bill to keep funds flowing to state agencies until September if no budget has become law by July 1 and says she doesn't think the state “is in crisis mode yet.”
She could call a special legislative session in the summer to get a budget approved and hasn't ruled out ordering the Oregon State Police to haul the protesters to the Senate. Such an order was issued in 2019 but not carried out.
Despite all the rancor, Tymchuk doesn't believe The Oregon Way is dead.
“I still remain hopeful and optimistic that Oregon will find its way back,” he said.