It appears House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, is a bit taken aback by the intensely "personal nature" of the "Get Minnis" campaign launched by Oregon Democrats. Oregon Democrats need to win just a few seats to take back control of the Oregon House they lost in 1990. Minnis, who represents a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by eight percentage points, is a tempting target.
"In order to generate excitement," Minnis told The Oregonian, "they have to demonize people." Minnis ought to know. The Oregon Democrats are taking a page out the Republican campaign play book.
Minnis is the latest in a long line of of Oregon Republican legislative leaders who sold out their state. In exchange for campaign contributions from national Republican and conservative organizations, Republican legislative leaders agreed to a Faustian bargain. They shepherded state companion pieces to the Republican and conservative national agenda through the Oregon Legislature -- whether Oregon lawmakers really believed in them or not.
Oregon's long-standing independent, maverick political culture tends to resist national agendas and trends. Republican "discipline" on behalf of their national agenda undermines Oregon's traditional independence. But retribution toward non-conforming Republicans is swift and of an intensely "personal nature." A far right candidate is quietly chosen by the party and backed by campaign contributions from national "conservative" organizations. Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment, "Though shalt not speak ill of another Republican," is dead if you don't go along with the national or movement conservative party line.
This approach to "party discipline" began in 1991 when House Speaker Larry Campbell, R-Eugene, unilaterally repealed a long-standing unwritten rule that the leadership could not ask lawmakers to vote against their constituents or their conscience. On procedural issues lawmakers owed their vote to the party leadership, but on substantive matters lawmakers were free to make up their own minds.
But that long-standing tradition of independence often got in the way of the Oregon Republican leadership's implicit promise to deliver the votes for state versions of the right-wing national agenda in exchange for the campaign contributions that help keep Oregon Republicans in the majority even though the number of registered Republicans is declining.
The issue of national vs. state control of Oregon Republicans came to a head when Lynn Lundquist, R-Powell Butte, was elected House Speaker in 1997. Lundquist, a rancher and businessman, refused to go along with a national Republican strategy of defunding the teachers' union. Because education is a labor-intensive enterprise, increases in public school appropriations tend to wind up in the salaries of unionized school teachers. So the Republican national strategy has been to hold down school appropriations.
Lundquist, however, was listening to business groups, especially from the high-technology industry, who saw the Republican strategy of starving education as self-defeating in the global economy. Lundquist sought to increase Oregon school appropriations.
Lundquist was punished. Conservatives recruited and financed a more pliable candidate to run against Lundquist in the May, 1999 primary. In a campaign that was of an intensely "personal nature," Lundquist lost his House seat and his job as Speaker -- the same fate Oregon Democrats hope will befall Minnis.
Imposing national "party discipline" on unwilling state lawmakers often requires high-handed tactics. Polls showed that while Oregonians were clearly going to vote for a constitutional amendment that limited "marriage" to a male and a female, they might favor giving homosexuals similar rights and obligations in "civil unions."
But the success of "marriage protection" initiatives in several states emboldened Christian Republicans to change their national strategy and oppose civil unions anywhere. Oregon Democrats regained control of the State Senate in 2005 and passed a civil union bill. It appeared there were enough Republican votes in the Oregon House to help Democrats pass a civil union bill if it came to a vote.
Rather than run the risk of losing control, Minnis simply refused to hold hearings on the measure and let it come up for a vote. Voters had approved a ban on same-sex marriages, she reasoned, and would react more strongly against civil unions. But that was not the Speaker's decision to make. That is up to Legislature to make that decision and live with the consequences.
The House Speaker and Senate President are first among equals. They should expect loyalty from party members when it comes to procedural issues. But they are "presiding officers," not dictators. They are not enforcers of national party ideology or national policy agendas at the expense of the wishes of the elected members of the Legislature who may be listening to constituents who have different ideas.
The implicit issue in every legislative race next year is this: Who are these candidates representing, the voters who send them to Salem or the national agenda of the organizations that contribute the money to finance their campaigns? Voters should ask that question of every candidate and get an answer that satisfies them before making a choice.