Monday marked the start of a new era in the Oregon statehouse, as lawmakers elected a new Senate president and witnessed the inauguration of Gov. Tina Kotek.
In about five hours, lawmakers set the framework for the 2023 session with new leaders for both chambers to set the course for Oregon for years to come.
The state Legislature is still controlled by Democrats, but they no longer have a super-majority that allowed them to pass tax measures without Republican support. But they have new leaders, which could mark a new direction and potentially greater cooperation in the Oregon statehouse amid the departures of the longest-serving House and Senate leaders.
In the House, Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, will begin his first full term as speaker after taking office last February as former Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, stepped down to run for governor.
Kotek was sworn in as governor Monday afternoon, beginning her own new role after serving as speaker from 2013 to 2022 – the longest in Oregon’s history.
In the Senate, Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, is the new president. He replaces former Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who retired after serving as the president of the upper chamber since 2003, a record.
Among the rank-and-file lawmakers, the session also includes changes. Nearly one-third of all lawmakers are new to the job: 27 among the 90-member Legislature. There are 21 new representatives in the 60-member house and six new senators in the 30-member Senate, with a seventh opening to be filled soon.
It’s also a record for diversity in the Oregon Legislature, with 19 people of color in the Legislature. That’s up from 13 in January 2021, and a rise stemming from the election of five Vietnamese-Americans and a second Indigenous woman in November.
Both Wagner and Rayfield emphasized in addresses to the joint assembly that they feel obligated to work with all members of the Legislature and to ensure that legislators treat each other with respect. Kotek also described moving past a divisive election season and focusing on shared values as a top priority.
In Rayfield’s speech, he talked about his upbringing as the son of an Air Force colonel and lessons learned about responsibility and leadership. His father taught him that leaders are responsible for everything on their watch, Rayfield said. He learned that lesson, he said, when his father told him a story about a helicopter pilot’s accident that hurt a wing commander’s military career.
“This story has been on my mind lately because in a way, we are all like that wing commander,” Rayfield said. “All of us are united as part of a team that is collectively responsible for helping to solve our communities’ greatest challenges and seizing on the unprecedented opportunities facing our state right now. So many Oregonians are relying on us to find solutions to stop their skyrocketing rent, their inability to get behavioral health care, feeling a sense of insecurity in their neighborhood. The weight of this responsibility can be scary.”
Rayfield spoke broadly about what’s ahead, but stressed that housing, behavioral health and addiction services all need attention. He didn’t provide details, but said he’s calling on lawmakers to deliver on a package of housing investments within the first 60 days of the session.
“Oregonians have called out for fast, decisive action to fix this crisis and we have to deliver,” Rayfield said.
Rayfield said lawmakers will differ – but he urged civility.
“Now, I don’t want to suggest that every moment of this session is going to be unicorns jumping over rainbows,” he said. “We are going to have differences.”
Wagner, in remarks to the joint session, said the arrival of new lawmakers – and the experience of working in the Capitol building after the pandemic – created fresh opportunities and a chance to look for improvements.
“I’d say it’s an amazing opportunity,” Wagner said. “We get to hit refresh and question how we have always done things.”
Wagner also told lawmakers his three principles: His door is always open, good ideas come from everywhere and “there is always room for kindness.”
House members start work
Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, nominated Rayfield in a floor speech, adding jokingly that when he was freshman lawmaker, he was a bit jealous of Rayfield, who he considered to be slightly better-looking and smarter.
Nosse gave a snapshot of Rayfield’s life, including his firing from a job at Disneyland.
“Failure is often pretty informative in my opinion,” Nosse said. “People that have struggled and failed make better leaders.”
Republicans made a symbolic pitch for the House to consider Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville.
The House members voted along party lines, 35-25 to pick Rayfield over Breese-Iverson. After that, Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, moved for the House to cast a unanimous ballot for Rayfield for speaker, which he received by voice vote.
In his acceptance speech, Rayfield said the House needs to address big challenges, including homelessness, housing, behavioral health and public safety.
The House needs to make sure it “delivers for the people and we give Oregonians what they need to thrive,” Rayfield said.
Rayfield said the 21 new representatives taking office this session add fresh perspectives on the issues but he said they will require some adjustments. New lawmakers have just over a third of the seats in the 60-member House.
“There’s a genuine compassion in our state,” Rayfield said, urging lawmakers to remember all Oregonians. “Let that spirit and compassion guide us over the next six months.”
He followed tradition by giving a gift to each member of the House: an orange hard hat labeled with their names.
He said it was a reminder of the construction zone in the Capitol – and the work that lies ahead for lawmakers.
“We are here to work together,” Rayfield said.
Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, was picked as the new president of the Oregon Senate following a 17-12 party line vote.
Wagner, who has worked in and around the Capitol for 20 years and served in the Senate since 2018, was the Democratic party’s pick to succeed outgoing Senate President Peter Courtney. In an earlier interview with the Capital Chronicle, Wagner said he plans to lead by listening.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, nominated Wagner, saying he will keep an open door to ideas from anyone.
“When you talk to him, one of the things you hear often is that good ideas come from everywhere,” Steiner said. “Regardless of who you are, if you think you have a way to make this state better, he wants to hear from you.”
Republicans nominated Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, who they also put forward in 2021. Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, said Thatcher would bring experience, wisdom and character to the role.
Senators also re-elected Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, as the president pro tempore. In that role, he’ll preside over the Senate in Wagner’s absence.
Wagner reflected on his childhood hikes around Oregon and walks around the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as he addressed the Senate in his first speech as president.
As a child carrying a small knapsack on hikes with his parents in 1970, he said he kept asking them “Are we there yet?” Twenty years later, as he sought his master’s degree from George Washington University, Wagner said he would walk around the National Mall, thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s comments about striving to form a more perfect union and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comments about the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice. The same question – “Are we there yet?” – was still on his mind, Wagner said.
Over the next several months, Wagner said, lawmakers will find themselves in agreement more often than not. But when they disagree, he urged his colleagues to give each other grace and assume best intentions.
“Let us lead with kindness and charity and goodwill,” he said. “Let us remember that it is an honor of a lifetime to serve the people of Oregon. Let us fight that trail with all the switchbacks to form a more perfect union, to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Mom, Dad, we aren’t there yet. But we’re on our way.”
Six new senators took their seats in the Oregon Senate on Monday morning.
Democrats Wlnsvey Campos, Mark Meek and Aaron Woods and Republicans Daniel Bonham, Cedric Hayden and Suzanne Weber were sworn in alongside 10 returning senators. All but Woods have previously served in the state House.
The 16 lawmakers who took their oaths Monday morning join 13 others who are at the midpoint of their four-year terms.
The Senate still has one vacancy to fill because Republican Dallas Heard resigned at the start of the year. Several Republicans, including Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, have indicated their interest in finishing the remaining two years of Heard’s term, and county commissioners in Coos, Curry and Douglas counties will meet soon to appoint his replacement.
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