Opening day at Oregon Legislature is about ceremony, getting acquainted

State Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, joins other representatives in the opening session of the House on Tuesday, Jan. 22. (Salem Reporter/Aubrey Wieber)

As state Rep. Cheri Helt, a freshman Republican legislator from Bend, left the floor of the Oregon House Tuesday, she introduced herself to two pages stationed at the exit.

They found an immediate commonality: It was the first day of their first legislative session, a time to figure out who’s who and how things work.

The first day of the 2019 Legislature wasn’t like a typical legislative day. There were no votes in the House.

Ismael Diaz, one of the newly pages, said he is looking forward to seeing the voting process.

“I am pretty sure there are going to be people against (proposed laws) and people in favor. I want to see how they get to a common conclusion,” Diaz said. “How do they actually approve stuff and resolve their differences?”

Helt was the only legislator leaving that exit who greeted Diaz and his fellow page, Isidro Hernandez, the pages said.

“It’s important to me to make sure I learn everybody’s names and everybody’s jobs that make everything work,” Helt said.

With more than a dozen new legislators this year, the Capitol was flush with optimism on the opening day of the session.

To convene the House, Speaker Tina Kotek chose Whitney Houston’s iconic 1991 Super Bowl performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“It’s one of my favorite renditions,” Kotek said.

Once legislators settled back into their seats, Kotek whipped through the order of business in 25 minutes.

“Her sense of efficiency is pretty incredible,” said state Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Tangent, another freshman.

As lawmakers old and new shuffled in minutes before the 11 a.m. start, they exchanged pleasantries and sat down at their desks to find a blue gift bag stuffed with items such as a state of Oregon key chain, courtesy of the speaker.

“I appreciate the blue bag,” Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, said. “Red’s also a good choice.”

Other representatives stood to share tidbits during the “remonstrative” period. Then, Kotek explained to the newcomers how to press a button on their desks to signal they are present.

Boshart Davis said she has been in the Capitol and testified to committees, so she knew some of the procedure. She would watch the livestream of proceedings from her office at Boshart Trucking, where she’s the vice president of international sales and marketing.

But Tuesday was different. She was participating.

“There is that absolute awe that you are sitting on the House floor, the House of Representatives for the state of Oregon in their Capitol.”

Boshart Davis said the responsibility voters bestowed upon her hit while she was on the floor.

“It was a pretty big moment for me,” she said.

Then she looked up to the front of the chamber, where Kotek continued slamming her gavel, moving on from item to item. She found the speaker’s confidence admirable.

“I have to think that it took her some time to get comfortable,” Boshart Davis said. “Maybe she was born to do this.”

State Rep. Cheri Helt is introduced by House page Ismael Diaz by Brian McKinley, the House sergeant-at-arms during the opening hours on Tuesday, Jan. 22, of the Oregon Legislature. (Portland Tribune/Paris Achen)

Meanwhile, the Senate launched its first session with celebratory flair.

State Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, led the invocation, quoting writers W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.

“A long time ago, an enslaved people heading towards freedom made up a song,” Frederick said, quoting Hughes, a poet. “ ‘Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.’ The plow plowed a new furrow across the field of history. Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped, and from that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow. That tree is for everybody, for all America, for all the world.”

Frederick concluded: “I think that’s appropriate for us as we begin this session. Let’s keep our hand on the plow, and hold on.”

Senators sang “Happy Birthday” to Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River and Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena.

Hansell put his arm around Thomsen as the Senate serenaded.

Hansell invited everyone for birthday cake on the third floor of the Senate office wing. Then there was lively chatter among senators as a clerk read summaries of the first bills at lightning speed.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, was elected to his first term in November.

He said the first day of session was “a little overwhelming.”

Golden described the atmosphere as “highly charged with a lot of anticipation that this is going to be a consequential session.”

He will lead his first committee meeting Wednesday as chair of the Senate Committee on Campaign Finance Reform. An important witness is on the docket: Gov. Kate Brown, who promised to take up the issue of campaign finance reform this session.

“Opening day is always exciting,” said Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who was elected to the Senate in 1996 and now leads Democrats there.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and others shuffled through the Capitol halls, popping in and out of the session’s first committee hearings or stopping for meals or coffee at the basement cafeteria. But by and large, the building was far less busy than it will be in days, weeks and months as decisions start to form.

Sen. Herman Baertschiger, the newly appointed Senate Republican leader, strolled into his office Tuesday afternoon fresh from a meeting with Senate President Peter Courtney. Baertschiger said that through the day he met with four or five reporters, lobbyists and others. He said it’s been a good day so far.

“I hope everyday goes like today,” he said, grinning ear to ear. “‘Cause nothing happened.”

Courtney said Tuesday had been one of the most “dynamic” opening days of session in his experience.

Among other appointments, he had a meeting with Kotek, fielded a call from Congressman Kurt Schrader’s office about what the state could legally do to help Oregonians weathering the federal government shutdown, and discussed a rent control bill with housing advocates.

“I’m worried about what we’re trying to do,” Courtney said of the session agenda. “It’s big.”

He likened the session to a football game: once the kickoff happens, there’s no going back.

The door to Boshart Davis’s private office was effectively a revolving one as people shuffled in and out, sitting down to get the new lawmaker’s thoughts and sample from her dish of hazelnuts grown on her family farm.

Forging those relationships will be critical for Boshart Davis, who wants to influence the policy areas where she has experience.

“There’s a line between being respectful and also realizing that you can speak up on an issue, but the kicker is as long as you know about that issue,” she said. “If you’re versed in that issue and you have something to bring to the table, bring it to the table.”

Boshart Davis is a part of the Future Caucus, a bipartisan caucus for lawmakers 40 and under.

“It doesn’t matter what gender you are and what age you are.” she said. “I will applaud the Republican House caucus. I feel like my voice is being heard, I feel it is in general in this building, so I think that is great. Of course, this is Day One so ask me in a couple months.”

Paris Achen: [email protected] or 503-506-0067. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.