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Capitol Influence 

Central Oregon might lose all four of its state representatives. Will the region's clout go with them?

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R

ep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, is running for governor. He is happy to discuss taxes, the Public Employees Retirement System and transportation with voters, but there's one touchy topic he does not want to talk about with Central Oregon voters.

When asked what might happen to the region's influence in the Capitol when he and perhaps all of Central Oregon's House delegation leave office in the next year, Buehler and his team go silent. "This is not something that we'll be commenting on at this time," his campaign manager Rebecca Tweed wrote in an email.

That's unfortunate, because the region's voters need to pay close attention to what comes next if they want to keep a strong voice in Salem.

A political turning point?

In recent legislative sessions, Central Oregon has enjoyed out-sized influence thanks to a combination of political circumstances and experience.

Buehler is the early frontrunner to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2018. A $500,000 campaign donation from Nike co-founder Phil Knight helped cement his standing.

He didn't announce his candidacy until August, but during this year's legislative session, many assumed he'd run. As the nominee-in-waiting, then, he had the Republicans' largest megaphone. When he spoke up on Republican issues – and Central Oregon issues – reporters, lawmakers and Oregonians tended to listen.

But running for governor means he won't be running for another term as Bend's representative. Goodbye megaphone if he loses.

It's a gamble for Central Oregon. If Buehler wins, the region will have the strongest advocate in the Oregon State Capitol since the late Ben Westlund was Treasurer. If he loses, the region will have nothing to show for it.

And that's just the start. All four representatives whose districts include large parts of Deschutes County have declared they are not seeking re-election, or at least are considering not running.

Rep. Knute Buehler is running for governor.

Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, is the House minority leader. He could land a Trump administration appointment as Oregon's U.S. attorney any day. He's also being floated as a potential challenger to Buehler in the Republican primary.

Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, has announced he will not seek re-election and is a candidate for appointment to be the State U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development director.

Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, is still talking things over with his family and has not decided if he will seek re-election next year.


At least two and potentially all four of Central Oregon's representatives might not be around after the 2018 election. Then what?

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, will continue to be power players. But in the House, the region could lose a lot of influence.

"Whether you love them or hate them, we have political veterans over there now who understand the game," said Erik Kancler, a veteran lobbyist and owner of Kancler Consulting who represents clients from Central Oregon.

Leadership and experience

C

entral Oregon's entire House delegation is Republican, the minority party in Salem. Nevertheless, they had a decent record this year when advocating for the region's need.

"It's no secret that we are far from the Portland and Salem power base," Kancler said. "Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, it's important to understand that there is a geographic and in some sense a cultural divide that needs to be addressed."

click to enlarge If Kate Brown announces her bid for re-election, she will be against Bend Rep. Knute Buehler, a republican. - COURTESY OF GOV. KATE BROWN
  • Courtesy of Gov. Kate Brown
  • If Kate Brown announces her bid for re-election, she will be against Bend Rep. Knute Buehler, a republican.

Huffman has been in the House for 10 years and Whisnant for more than a decade. You learn a few tricks in that time, including how to compromise.

"I have the experience of 14 years and the experience of being in the majority, in a 30-30 house, and in the minority and super minority," Whisnant said. "I wish my career had more time in the majority but I worked hard to be a contributor to the overall work regardless of the partisan makeup of the legislature."

McLane, as House minority leader, has considerable sway with his party and in negotiations with Democrats.

And Buehler is running for governor.

That combination of experience and leadership helped secure some choice committee assignments. McLane, Whisnant and Huffman all serve on the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee, making budget decisions. Whisnant is also vice-chair of the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, a prominent position to advocate for Oregon State University-Cascades. Buehler, meanwhile, serves on the Revenue Committee.

The four of them – or subsets of them – frequently collaborate on bills important to Deschutes County and Central Oregon. Not all of those bills pass, but even when they do not they become part of the larger conversation.

This year, there was some of the typical feel-good legislation, like a bill to name Highway 20 the "Oregon Medal of Honor Highway" and another to commemorate Deschutes County's 100th birthday. Both passed.

There were substantive bills, too. One that became law requires the Oregon Arts Commission to consider regional differences when determining eligibility for grants. It should help arts groups in Central Oregon better compete for state funding. Another, which Huffman said he is proud of, will improve economic development opportunities around the Madras Airport.

Others bills from the quartet that didn't pass but drove conversations included changing rules about Urban Growth boundaries after Bend's controversial expansion and a bill to block construction of a trail bridge across the Deschutes River. That one passed the House but died in the Senate.

Sen. Knopp, whose district encompasses Buehler's and Whisnant's, was a frequent collaborator with the four representatives. "It's definitely easier with experienced members and people who have relationships with the other representatives and senators," he said.

Not that experienced lawmakers guarantee success every time.

"Probably my greatest disappointment, and shock, from the session was the gross underfunding of OSU-Cascades," Huffman said.  "We got a fraction of what we thought we were going to get and don't really know why."

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How will the freshmen fare?

I

f two, three or four of the delegation bow out, it's unclear how much the region's influence will suffer. The biggest hurdle for freshmen is just figuring out how things work in the Capitol.

"Who's going to coach those guys? Who's going to teach them political lessons?" Kancler asked. He said that in his experience it takes lawmakers at least a couple of years to get up to speed and be truly successful.

Judy Stiegler, a political science instructor at Central Oregon Community College and OSU-Cascades, represented Deschutes County in the House from 2009 to 2011 as a Democrat., (Stiegler is now also a regular contributor to the Source.) She said there will be some challenges for new representatives, but they're not insurmountable.

"It puts us in a little bit of a disadvantage for maybe advancing legislation right from the start, but the way the system is set up and the position that Central Oregon holds in the state mean that people can hit the ground running," she said.

She pointed out that both the Democratic and Republican caucuses realize that time is of the essence, so they train newcomers before the session. Legislative offices are also very helpful at helping new lawmakers.

Lindsey O'Brien, communications director for House Speaker Tina Kotek, agreed that it's in everyone's best interest to train new lawmakers. "The speaker has a track record of working with all new legislators to make sure they have the tools they need to start serving their constituents as soon as they're sworn in," she said.

Knopp sees some reason for optimism in a new group of representatives. "New members bring new energy, new ways to look at things and new perspectives," he said.

That idea was echoed by McLane. "There is certainly a learning curve involved in serving in the Legislature, but I don't think being a freshman precludes anyone from having an impact in the Capitol," he said. "Regardless of my own plans, I am very optimistic that Central Oregon will continue to be well represented in Salem. There are a lot of highly qualified servant leaders in our communities, and I am excited about what the next team will be able to bring to the table."

Voters will decide

W

ho voters choose to fill vacancies will affect how much influence the region retains.

"It's a question that ought to be on everybody's mind as they consider running and what sort of people they want to elect," Kancler said.

The race for Buehler's seat will be hotly contested. The other seats are in fairly safe Republican districts, but in Bend's District 54, Democrats hold a voter registration edge 36 percent to 26 percent with the remaining 38 percent non-affiliated or registered with a third party.

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That advantage is not enough to make the county blue, though. Republicans hold a 2000-seat advantage and the current president carried the county as a whole by more than 3 percentage points.

Patti Adair, chairwoman of the Deschutes County Republican Party, said she's not too worried about the region's influence slipping, because the candidates will be solid.

"There are a lot of really intelligent people in Deschutes County. We just need to get them to run and fill those spots," she said. She hopes those people are Republicans, of course.

"Oregon is surpassing California in what's happening on the negative side, if you're a conservative," she said, pointing to recently passed bills to fund abortions, tax health care and "take your guns away."

Jason Burge, chairman of the Deschutes County Democratic Party, sees some potential improvement no matter what happens. "The last four years have really been Knute Buehler asking what's best for Knute," he said.

He noted that a Democrat will have a seat at the table of the majority party. "Wouldn't it be great to have a Democrat from this side of the mountains who is able to articulate the issues of Bend and rural Central Oregon ... instead of just opposition that is monolithic Republican?" he asked.

If a Democrat wins in Bend and no other House seats flip, Democrats would secure a supermajority in the House large enough to pass tax increases without Republican support.

Voters will have a much better sense of the caliber of their potential next representatives throughout the region as candidates begin to file.

"You don't want someone who is passive. You want someone who will be a vibrant spokesperson for the people of Central Oregon," Stiegler said. "Because of the uniqueness of Central Oregon, there is a desire to ensure legislators from this area have a voice and a little more clout."


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