SALEM, Ore. — A power-sharing agreement between Oregon Democratic and Republican state lawmakers for the process of redrawing legislative and Congressional districts has gone down in flames, with the conservative party accusing their opponents of gerrymandering.
When the redistricting process began earlier this year, the Democratic majority in the House agreed to compose their redistricting committee of equal parts Democrats and Republicans in exchange for a promise that the latter party would stop blocking legislation.
Oregon's Congressional map at present, as drawn after the 2010 Census. The Census in 2020 gave Oregon a sixth Congressional district, ensuring that this new redistricting session would be more complex and politically high-stakes.
That agreement appeared to hold through the release of the first map proposals in early September. The first rumblings of major dissent came on September 17, when Oregon Senate Republicans accused Democrats of releasing a revised map "designed to keep Democrats in power for the next decade." The latest map appeared broadly similar to the 'Plan A' map released by the redistricting committees prior to public hearings.
As lawmakers met on Monday for a special legislative session to consider the redistricting proposals, House Speaker Tina Kotek rescinded the earlier power-sharing agreement on the House redistricting committee. Kotek said that "after many months of work, House Republicans did not engage constructively despite many attempts to address their concerns," the Associated Press reported.
"She lied and broke her promise not just to us but to Oregonians," said House Republican Leader Christine Drazan in a statement. "She just sold the soul of our state for Democrats' political gain. She's determined to gerrymander Oregon's congressional maps. Republicans have been at the table extending a hand so we can work together on fair maps. We wanted to be responsive to public testimony. This map doesn't do that."
Democrats in the state Senate succeeded Monday in passing their redistricting plan, over objections from Republicans.
“I believe the plan that was passed violated the law by not following the criteria,” said Republican Senator Tim Knopp, vice-chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee. “They must do logical and legal gymnastics to justify pairing the rural and urban communities that they lumped together. No matter how Democrats try to spin it, the only reason to spread downtown Portland into three districts is to silence the voices of rural communities.”
“As written, this plan will rig the next 10 years of election to favor Democrats,” said Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod. “Fifty percent of Oregon’s congressional representatives will serve the City of Portland, but only 15% of Oregon’s population live in Portland. The urban-rural divide will continue to grow wider under this plan."
Senate Democrats disagreed, maintaining that the plan passed on Monday ticks all the boxes — contiguous districts with roughly equal populations, informed by transportation routes, utilizing existing geographical and administrative boundaries, and designed to avoid breaking up communities of common interest "wherever possible."
“The committee did phenomenal work and heard from many across our great state during 22 public hearings and many submissions of public testimony,” said Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner in a statement. “These are balanced maps that meet all integrity tests. I appreciate my colleagues' work, and I was glad to vote ‘yes’ today.”
Monday's developments put Republicans between a rock and a hard place. They do not have the votes in the House to oppose passage of Democrats' redistricting plan — and walking out of the Capitol to deny a quorum, the favored tactic of the minority party in recent years to gain some semblance of leverage, would inevitably put redistricting decisions into the hands of Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.
If lawmakers miss a September 27 deadline to cement the new districts, Oregon law places the duty on Fagan, a Democrat, to finish the job. While Fagan has promised to form a People's Commission to advise her on the process, horrified Republicans this week referred to the former state senator as an "extreme left-wing partisan," suggesting that they do not consider her a feasible alternative.
House Speaker Tina Kotek came to the podium briefly Tuesday morning to say both she and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan were eager to take up congressional and legislative redistricting plans. When Kotek returned to the podium again in the afternoon she informed lawmakers that the session would be adjourned until Wednesday, as someone in the Capitol the day before had tested positive for COVID-19.
Rep. Drazan released a brief statement shortly afterward, acknowledging the delay and committing to continued dialogue on redistricting:
“At this time we are following recommended guidance to postpone today’s legislative session in the interest of member and staff health. In the meantime, we will continue ongoing conversations with Democratic leadership on the redistricting process.
"It’s in the best interest of Oregonians that we salvage an opportunity to pass fair maps. They deserve fair representation despite the unexpected actions taken by the Speaker yesterday. We need fair maps for Oregon and that’s still possible.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Article updated Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. with the news that the session would be adjourned until Wednesday.