Senate President Peter Courtney seeks political civility in the approaching session of the Oregon Legislature. (Portland Tribune/Jaime Valdez)
SALEM — Peter Courtney is worried.
His party is in power. He’s been nominated yet again for Senate president. In Gov. Kate Brown, he’s working with an experienced Democratic governor.
You’d think all this might satisfy him.
But Courtney’s on edge. He worries about the institution of the Legislature.
He fears its collapse under the pressure of today’s political atmosphere, with Democrats and Republicans retreating to their corners two years after Donald Trump’s election.
For a man who, observers say, has spent the later years of his political career reshaping the state Senate into a more professional, more collegial body, the upcoming session feels like a steeplechase.
“The whole political world’s a challenge now, because no one wants to work together, no one wants to join together, no one really wants to,” Courtney said in a recent interview. “We don’t approach the political process or decision-making like we used to.”
Last month’s election tilted the scale in favor of Oregon Democrats to the point where, if they were all in agreement, they wouldn’t need Republican votes in the Legislature to raise taxes.
Courtney doesn’t take that for granted. He’ll still be counting votes.
He gets hit with a new challenge every day. One day, it’s how the state releases mentally ill people who commit new crimes. Another day, it’s the state Department of Human Services concealing child deaths.
Courtney has two main priorities when lawmakers convene in January. Neither will be easy votes.
He wants to significantly increase money for education from preschool through high school. And he wants to limit the state’s carbon emissions.
He said his role is to keep the political wheels turning.
“The general public is fed up,” Courtney said. “They want their institutions of government to work.”
The Senate, though, is confronting internal challenges.
Two Republican state senators — Brian Boquist of Dallas and Herman Baertschiger of Grants Pass — are suing Courtney, House Speaker Tina Kotek, Brown and the state Revenue Department.
They contend that tax legislation approved last year violated the state Constitution. The law disallowed certain Oregon taxpayers whose business income “passes through” to their personal income taxes from taking a new federal deduction from their state tax returns.
If they win their point, the path to tax changes would be more challenging.
And lawmakers and staff are still struggling to change a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol after the March ouster of Jeff Kruse, formerly a state senator from Roseburg investigated for subjecting multiple women to unwanted touching.
That’s been complicated by allegations against legislative leaders by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian.
Avakian claims that presiding officers created a hostile work environment for people working in the Capitol by not acting quickly enough to address reports of sexual harassment.
Courtney, 75, has been in the Legislature since he was elected a state representative in 1980.
Even as a freshman, Courtney drew attention for his rhetorical flair, said Pat McCormick, who at the time was chief of staff to then-House Speaker Hardy Myers and is now a partner at Portland firm AM:PM PR.
“When he was on the floor to speak, people would gather and hang out in the galleries to watch,” McCormick said.
That characteristic holds true nearly 40 years later.
“I don’t know, maybe I’ll start drinking,” Courtney quipped when asked how he would deal with the challenges ahead in 2019. “No, I don’t have some magic plan.”
Courtney may demur, but observers say he is a savvy actor who has a keen sense of the political atmosphere.
Democrats are eager to forge ahead on issues like climate change, education and housing. Their numbers and momentum can pose challenges to the caucus’ unity and focus.
A good leader, in that situation, has to manage expectations and set a course to keep people on task, skills that Courtney has, according to colleagues and advocates.
“Everybody’s going to want to solve all the problems in the world, and we can work on some of the problems, and solve a few of them,” said Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, “But if we try to give the moon to everybody who asks for it, we’re going to be in trouble. And nobody understands that better than Peter Courtney.”
And large majorities risk fomenting resentment on the other side.
Sen. Ginny Burdick’s first year in the Senate was in 1997, when Republicans had 20 members to Democrats’ 10. Burdick, of Portland, is now Senate majority leader.
“Their attitude was, ‘We don’t need you for anything,’” Burdick said. “And they just rolled us on everything.”
Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, earned the nickname “Dr. No” in that era, owing to his roughly 200 vetoes of bills passed by the Legislature in his first term.
Courtney joined the Senate two years after Burdick, in 1999.
“We learned from that, and I think it’s a big reason why we have maintained our majority,” Burdick said. “We just try to include not only the Republicans but we’ve got a lot of diversity within our own caucus. You can’t look at our caucus and say Oregon is being run by a bunch of left-wingers, because we have all ends of the spectrum in our caucus, which reflects all the areas of Oregon.”
Burdick said Courtney has left a significant imprint on the Legislature.
Before 2012, Oregon lawmakers only met in odd-numbered years.
Courtney helped win voter approval for a 35-day short session in even-numbered years, added more deadlines to keep lawmakers on task and helped establish regular policy committees to work between sessions.
He also made seemingly minor changes that colleagues say improved the chamber’s atmosphere, like allotting desks on the Senate floor, office space and parking spaces by seniority regardless of political party.
He is a political realist, a trait he showed last month when he appointed two senators to share leadership of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the budget.
In Democrats Elizabeth Steiner Hayward of Portland and Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, Courtney picked lawmakers with complementary professional experience who represent very different communities.
“They have 25 years of Ways and Means experience between them,” Courtney said in a statement. “They are accomplished individuals. One is a doctor. The other is pilot with a law degree. They know and respect each other. One is private sector. The other is public sector. They have worked well together in the past. I know they will make a formidable team.”
One skill of Courtney’s, colleagues said, is assessing senators’ strengths and assigning them to relevant committees.
Burdick said she was skeptical in 2007 when Courtney assigned her to a committee on finance and revenue.
It turned out to be a good fit, she said, because she could guide difficult decisions required when the Great Recession hit.
“He just has a sense of who can do the job in what capacity,” Burdick said. “And then he lets them do their job. He does not micromanage.”
Interest groups are eager to capitalize on Democrats’ advantage to push for policies like paid family leave and gun control.
Brad Reed, a spokesman for Renew Oregon, a coalition of renewable energy advocates, said he believes Courtney is “all in” on cap and trade legislation.
“The scientists have painted a pretty bleak picture if we don’t act boldly on that. I think that sort of aligns with his sense of morally doing the right thing for the children of Oregon,” Reed said. “I think he will be a champion for this.”
Arthur Towers, political director for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, said Oregon’s education system is “near crisis.”
His organization expects “bold action” from Courtney and the Legislature.
“His long tenure in the Legislature provides him the experience to get things done,” Towers said. “He thinks five steps ahead.”
Others believe Courtney’s in the way.
“This is our moment to really declare Oregon blue. I mean, I think that’s the message we got from voters, but now we need to deliver on the public policy side, right?” Jillian Schoene, co-executive director of candidate training organization Emerge Oregon, told guests at a City Club of Portland forum days after the election. “I just want to point out that those of us on this side still have Peter Courtney to deal with. He needs to step up or step aside. We are ready to get stuff done.”
In a text message, Schoene said that her comment referenced “how he has long chosen to manage the Senate.”
Courtney has a history of not bringing bills to the floor unless he knows they will pass. Some advocates and interest groups say they’d prefer the public vote even if legislation fails.
“That debate and votes are how Oregonians will know who stands with us — and those who don’t,” Schoene said.
Courtney said core Democratic issues like labor and environmental quality are personal.
He worked in construction in college. He said animals have been kinder to him than people. He is horrified by environmental degradation in on the East Coast, where he was born, grew up and attended college and law school.
“I’m never allowed to be seen in these ways,” Courtney said.
His office points to legislative milestones on his watch.
Since 2015, state lawmakers increased the minimum wage, boosted equal pay protections, created automatic voter registration, set tough clean air standards and subsidized tuition for community college students.
Kotek and many environmental advocates wanted to create a cap and trade system earlier this year. Courtney felt there wasn’t enough time in the short session.
After a “robust exchange,” Kotek said, both decided to keep working on the policy after the 2018 session and jointly lead a committee tasked with that issue.
“My goal is to have the best program possible,” Kotek said, “And sometimes when people just feel like it’s not ready, you don’t get the engagement you need to make the best policy. And what I read from the Senate was, ‘We’re just going to stop engaging.’ And when that happens, you’re just not getting the best product.”
Courtney wants to be sure Democrats don’t act so aggressive they alienate Republicans. He needs two on the Senate floor for the quorum needed to act.
Courtney worries they won’t show up.
“People on the right are equally energized to shut it down,” Courtney said. “Both sides are radicalized.”
Courtney has appointed Republicans to chair policy committees and asks senators for their committee preferences, said Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena.
“I have been very appreciative of how he reaches out and seeks opinion and seeks your input on things like that, and then the same thing happens during the session,” Hansell said. “Again, if there’s issues of concern or whatnot, he’s available to listen to, and we’ve had some bills that were saved because we had the chance to talk to him, explain to him.”
Courtney seeks compromise, said Sandra McDonough, CEO of Oregon Business and Industry.
“He builds very balanced committees. He looks for bipartisan kinds of solutions,” McDonough said. “I’m expecting that he’s going to continue to do that, where he makes sure that there’s a lot of thought given to the issues and that there’s balance in the conversation.”
Courtney said he is happiest when parties work together, like last year, when they agreed to a $5 billion transportation appropriation.
“I was euphoric,” Courtney said. “I mean, that is a team, that is an institution that’s working.”
Legislation in 2017 to strengthen the state’s equal pay laws succeeded because of bipartisanship in the Senate.
One version of the bill passed the House with one Republican vote. Courtney asked Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend to work together on amendments that unanimously cleared both chambers.
Knopp said Courtney has made commendable efforts to include Republicans.
But when Senate Democrats’ majority grows, Republicans’ impact on legislation tends to wane, Knopp said.
Despite his penchant for hyperbole, Courtney hates the word “supermajority.” He hates the word “partisan.”
“I want to win,” Courtney said. “I want my bill, the bills to get there. I want the bills to get there. And I don’t mean the bill cannot change, because I really, I love this process and I want the bills to get there, so I’m very competitive. But I don’t think I’m partisan.”
Courtney wants Oregonians to understand that most laws pass the Senate with little fuss and bipartisan backing.
If necessary, he would let priority bills like cap and trade pass with just Democratic votes — but that’s not his preference.
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it, if I have no choice, because I think it’s so important I’ll do it with just D votes,” Courtney said, “But I gotta tell you. That breaks my heart, and that is not a victory. So don’t ask me to celebrate.”
Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.