Lawmakers stripped of committees amid workplace culture change

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

SALEM – Growing political tensions at the Legislature boiled over Thursday as House Speaker Tina Kotek stripped a powerful Portland Democrat of two committee chairmanships because of his behavior.

Kotek at the same time booted a Republican legislator off a committee, justifying both steps as moves to keep governance in the Capitol civil.

She acted, she said in a statement, “to uphold the new standards we are all trying to model.”

Committee placements are not just a matter of ceremony or title. Chairs have significant influence over legislation, with authority to kill a bill by never giving it a hearing or advancing legislation to a floor vote.

Legislators came into the session already under a cloud over behavior, relating to complaints and investigations of harassment of legislative employees and others. Legislative leaders have were sued twice in the past week for overlooking harassment allegations by employees.

Kotek removed state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, as chair of the House Health Committee for calling a pharmaceutical representative “stupid” during a recent meeting. Greenlick has chaired the committee since 2007 and will remain as a member. 

The committee this session is handling major legislation such as the governor’s proposal to raise tobacco taxes and a handful of bills concerning vaccines amid a measles outbreak.

A public health researcher, Greenlick has been a stalwart of Oregon health care policy, leading legislative efforts to expand government health care to more low-income Oregonians. 

Greenlick also lost his position as chair of the House Conduct Committee, which convenes to review complaints of misconduct by lawmakers. 

Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer.

Kotek also removed Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, from his seat on the House Judiciary Committee due to provocative tweets. The committee handles legislation governing the justice system.

Greenlick riled Republicans twice in recent weeks. The first came Feb. 5 when he cut off Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, in a committee meeting in attempt to move on to the next bill. Boles complained on the House floor that she was “shushed.”

On Tuesday, Greenlick publicly criticized a pharmaceutical representative.

“I’ve been listening to your guys’ comments for 16 years,” Greenlick said. “Generally, you’re not stupid. In this case, you appear to be stupid.”

Greenlick then accused Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, of “showboating” when she expressed concerns about those remarks during the committee hearing.

That prompted Republicans to boycott a Wednesday evening meeting of a legislative committee focused on improving the Capitol work culture. House Republican leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, asked Kotek to strip Greenlick of his chair position on the health care committee.

Greenlick declined comment Thursday.

Kotek said in a House speech Thursday morning that her moves weren’t politically motivated.

“Mitch Greenlick is a friend and mentor and someone whose service to Oregon has been profound,” Kotek said. “And yet, we must all be held to a high standard.”

Kotek said Greenlick acted inappropriately.

But she also dressed down Republicans, saying their outcry over Greenlick was sensational.

“We will fail in this endeavor if we don’t embrace constructive dialogue first before we proceed to public incriminations,” she said. 

Kotek warned Republicans of overplaying grievances in public rather than constructively working to fix workplace issues. 

“Playing this out with a press release or two won’t advance our common goal,” Kotek said.

In a letter to all representatives, Kotek noted Post’s history of online exploits. He’s known for active and off-the-cuff Twitter usage. 

This week, he called state Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, “cray cray” — slang for crazy — in reference to her proposal to lower the voting age to 16. Post said he later deleted the tweet.

Post caused a stir when he retweeted a tweet from pro-gun control group called Moms Demand Action promoting their upcoming rally at the Capitol. Post tagged the Twitter account of the Oregon Firearms Federation and said “be ready, be there!”

The tweet was viewed as insensitive because of violent clashes between protesters and counter-protesters in Oregon over the past year, and because he sent it days after the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“Given the pattern of his behavior, I believe it is necessary to remove him from his position on the House Committee on Judiciary, effective immediately,” Kotek said. 

It’s not the first time Post has drawn ire for his posts on social media.

Last year, in the midst of a ballot measure campaign to restrict gun ownership led by three clergymen, Post publicly posted their home addresses and phone numbers.

Post apologized for the offense that his tweets caused Thursday, but also defended himself. Post said body language and tone isn’t exhibited on social media, causing statements to be misconstrued. He said he was inviting balanced debate on gun control, not violence or intimidation. 

Post also warned about censorship of lawmakers.

“Free speech is free speech,” Post said.

“Words from the presiding officers ring hollow,” Greg Stiles, a spokesman for House Republicans said in a statement. “Instead, an inflammatory and disrespectful atmosphere persists the Capitol.”

Wilson on Thursday said Republican legislators would return to duty on the culture committee.

But he expressed concern about proposed legislation that addresses lawmakers’ conduct on social media.

“(The bill) could put any in danger, depending on how someone feels about what you’ve done, and we’ve got to be extremely careful about that. I mean we have to be way careful about that,” Wilson told the House. “Social media is implicated, and also other media as well. If you appear on a radio talk show and say something that could offend someone, that happens all the time.”

Wilson declined an interview but released a statement vowing to work toward improving the Capitol culture.

That may take some work. A month into the session, every legislator’s comments are facing more intense scrutiny. That attention shows no signs of letting up. 

Public lawsuits and investigations allege the Legislature is inhospitable for women to work. The rise of the #MeToo movement and resurgence of mainstream feminism in the Trump era have put a microscope on lawmakers’ day-to-day interactions.

This week’s events show the friction among individual members about what changes need to be made. 

Last year, Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, was ousted over his unwanted touching of women at the Capitol, and allegations of sexual harassment that surfaced publicly with the labor commissioner’s report led to the recent resignation of Senate President Peter Courtney’s communications director. 

Legislators and their employees recently took sexual harassment training, but several legislators complained that a trainer brought in earlier this month made inappropriate remarks, making light of harassment. 

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. [email protected] or 971-304-4148. Wieber and Withycombe work for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.