The top Oregon political stories of 2011

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

As we head into 2012, I thought I would put together a list of the top ten political stories of 2011, loosely ranked - along with a handful of honorable mentions. After all, it was a relatively eventful year in Oregon politics.

Any list like this is, of course, a matter of interpretation. As I see it, stories are worthy here if they had wide-ranging impact, were particularly shocking or surprising, or confirmed (or disproved) a trend. You are, of course, welcome to your own interpretations - and I'd love to hear 'em. What did I miss? Or misinterpret?

1. David Wu resigns

No doubt, Congressman David Wu was the big story of 2011. Since Wu was elected in 1998, only one seat in Congress had changed hands in Oregon (when Darlene Hooley happily retired in 2008.) That alone would have made his departure a big story. But it was much bigger than that.

From the long drip-drip-drip of revelations starting in January, to the six-part interview here on BlueOregon in March, to his resignation in July, to the special primary election campaign between Brad Avakian, Suzanne Bonamici, and Brad Witt, and the forthcoming special general election between Bonamici and Rob Cornilles, we had some 85 posts here on BlueOregon on the topic in 2011.

2. The 30/30 House

As the 2010 elections entered the history books, it looked like we might be headed for a lot of parliamentary fireworks and not a lot of meaningful action. After all, a House tied with 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans would be nearly impossible to organize, much less move effectively through legislative business. Even if they could agree to share power, the sheer number of details to sort out augured for a dicey start to the session.

Instead, we got co-speakers Bruce Hanna (R) and Arnie Roblan (D), and a power-sharing agreement that largely seemed to have worked. To be sure, advocates of all sorts were irritated at policy choices that were made; the sausage-making process turned out some real stinkers. But the wheels of the legislative process turned quickly and mostly smoothly; an important thing for those of us that are fans of annual sessions. And the production of bipartisan redistricting maps for legislative and congressional seats was nothing short of stunning.

Of course, there's a discordant note in all this for Democrats. Having dropped from 36 to 30, there was a healthy amount of acrimony within the Democratic caucus - made all the more real going into 2012 with the impending departure of so many legislators (including quite a few in leadership): Arnie Roblan, Dave Hunt, Mary Nolan, Jefferson Smith, Jean Cowan - and the already-departed Ben Cannon. If history is a guide, 2012 should be a good year for Democrats, though candidate recruitment and fundraising will be critical.

3. Sam Adams retires; competitive mayor's race underway

Do a Google search for mayor sam adams "expected to run" and you'll get dozens of hits. Supporters, opponents, and outside observers considered a re-election campaign a foregone conclusion.

Of course, Sam himself didn't see it that way. Shortly after announcing his decision not to run, he told Willamette Week:

Well, The Oregonian has been printing for almost a year that I'm expected to run for reelection. I'm not sure where they got that. Maybe it's because I've been a fixture in city government for so many years, I think the idea of just not continuing was maybe a shock to people.

And as a result, Portland will now have a mayor's race featuring three competitive candidates for the first time since...? I don't know how long it's been since there have been three serious candidates for mayor - longer than I've been a voter, for sure. And the race has been off to an early start - with the first debate six months before the primary election, and nearly a year before the general election. Pass the popcorn.

4. John Kroger retires; will there be an AG race?

While Adams was drawing early opposition, Attorney General John Kroger was considered such a political powerhouse that it seems that no one - Democrat or Republican - was ready for his bombshell announcement that he would not run again.

Kroger asked for privacy as he cited a mysterious "significant but not life threatening medical condition" in announcing his withdrawal from re-election. Whatever his reasons, they were certainly a surprise to him - as he had been the most productive fundraiser in the state over the previous year.

Certainly, his withdrawal radically reshaped the future of Oregon politics. Kroger had been at the top of most prognosticators' lists for Governor - or even U.S. Senate (should Merkley or Wyden be defeated or decide against re-election.) To date, no candidate has formally announced a campaign for AG. Expect at least some sort of competitive race, though the clock is ticking loudly toward filing day.

5. Greg Walden ascends to senior GOP leadership

The increasing power of Congressman Greg Walden has begun to bring him increased visibility - despite his carefully cultivated persona as a behind-the-scenes technocrat. His loyalty to Speaker John Boehner has put him right in the middle of many of the big decisions. In noting his appointment last month to the payroll-tax conference committee, the National Journal called Walden "one of Boehner's closest allies and most trusted vote-counters". (And he's nothing if not a loyal soldier; remember the financial scandal that engulfed the NRCC that could have been avoided if Walden had simply figured out how to pick up the telephone?)

The big question: In 2014, will Walden take on Jeff Merkley for a seat in the U.S. Senate? Or seek to replace Kitzhaber at Mahonia Hall? Or will he bide his time, cultivate his relationships in the House, and seek the Speakership? Pay attention to what he does in 2012: Does he travel around Oregon building his statewide profile, or around the country recruiting House candidates? Does he pile up campaign cash, or give it away to vulnerable Republican candidates?

6. The dog that didn't bark: Measures 66 & 67 don't cause businesses or rich people to flee

Opponents of Measures 66 and 67 promised that if the measures passed, rich people and businesses would flee Oregon for lower-tax areas. And since passage, opponents of the measures have continued to peddle the false line that businesses are fleeing.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. To date, there's not a single example of a business that closed or left because of the measures. In fact, we've seen a huge amount of investment in Oregon, both from big Fortune 500 companies to start-ups raising venture capital.

Measure 66 - the measure that raised income taxes on $250k/yr households - included a provision that partially scales back those tax increases starting this week. But Oregon's not out of the budget wilderness yet, so Our Oregon is calling on legislators to extend Measure 66 further. Without any evidence that it caused harm, it seems that the arguments in favor of extending 66 are strong.

7. Basic Rights Oregon decides against 2012 campaign

For Basic Rights Oregon, 2011 was about building the support for a 2012 campaign to overturn Measure 36, the measure that restricted marriage rights to opposite-sex couples. They organized in every corner of the state, and even ran several substantial flights of television ads to build support for marriage equality.

But in the end, BRO determined that it didn't just make sense to move ahead with the first attempt in the nation to overturn a gay-marriage ban at the ballot box. The good news? The numbers get better every single year.

8. Occupy Portland

The Occupy movement accomplished one very big, very important thing - it dramatically reshaped the narrative in American politics. Despite the media's obsession with the small handful of kooky protestors and the encampments, the real political dialogue shifted amongst the public and in DC. We went from an obsession with spending cuts and deficit reduction to a discussion about economic fairness and job creation. And it seems to have emboldened President Barack Obama, who is now holding a tougher line with the GOP leadership in the House.

Here, the Occupy Portland movement was part of the national story - but accomplished mostly in that Portland-polite sort of way. We largely avoided violent conflict, and disputes seemed to handled smoothly and with a minimum of disruption to the workings of the city (though downtown merchants in the immediate vicinity probably disagree with that assessment.) And now, Our Oregon is considering a series of 2012 ballot measures inspired by the themes of the Occupy movement.

9. Kitzhaber imposes death penalty moratorium

In November, Governor Kitzhaber responded to the impending execution of Gary Haugen by imposing a moratorium on all death penalty executions in Oregon for the remainder of his term. Kitzhaber called the death penalty "neither fair nor just; [nor] swift or certain" and "not applied equally to all." He called on legislators to engage in a "long overdue reevaluation" of the death penalty.

Most interesting were the three Republican legislators who also spoke out on the death penalty. Rep. Patrick Sheehan called on conservatives to "keep an open mind" and decried the cost, the unequal application, and the notoriety the death penalty brings to murderers. Reps. Julie Parrish and Mike McLane also expressed skepticism, according to the O's Jeff Mapes.

10. Bill Sizemore goes to jail

No top-ten list of 2011 Oregon political events would be complete without a mention of Bill Sizemore's trip to jail. In August, Sizemore pled guilty to tax evasion and sentenced to 30 days. Yeah, the anti-tax activist who evaded taxes. So boring and predictable. Of course, more interesting is the anti-crime hard-liner who spends time in jail and comes out talking about how the food (the food!) is "cruel and unusual punishment".


The Oregon story that could define national politics in 2012: In mid-December, Senator Ron Wyden released a Medicare reform plan with Rep. Paul Ryan. The plan, to be sure, is deeply controversial. Whether it sets the terms of the debate ahead is yet to be seen. But rest assured: We're all going to be studying up on the intricate details of how Medicare works.

The story that could define Oregon politics in 2012: Are we looking ahead at an Oregon Year of the Woman? Suzanne Bonamici appears to be on track to win handily, making her the fifth Congresswoman in Oregon history. Legislative appointments have already been won by Alissa Keny-Guyer and Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward. Rep. Tina Kotek has become the House Democrats' leader. Eileen Brady is leading in fundraising and polling for the Portland mayor's race, while Mary Nolan and Amanda Fritz are facing off for a city council seat. And we seem to be seeing an increasing number of women jump into legislative races. We'll see how things turn out, but it certainly seems to me that the work of Emerge Oregon is paying off.

The big story that's been largely ignored: Just north of Portland, the Cowlitz tribe has plans to build a massive casino in Clark County - "3,000 slot machines, 135 gaming tables, 20 poker tables and a 250-room hotel, plus an RV park, 10 restaurants and retail shops", according to the Columbian. It would be a half-billion-dollar project funded by the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, operators of the second-largest casino in America. Should they clear a few legal hurdles, Oregon voters may take a fresh look at locating a new tax-paying casino in Wood Village. After all, the question will no longer be "Should there be a casino in the Portland metro area?" but rather, "If there's going to be a casino, how do we keep the jobs in Oregon? And why not use it to fund our schools?"

The stupidest story of 2011: No doubt, the stupidest Oregon political story of 2011 was the attempt by Rep. Tim Freeman (R-Roseburg) to pass a resolution codifying the "Code of the West" in Oregon. Along with meaningless aphorisms like "take pride in your work" and "be tough, but fair", it included nonsense like "ride for the brand" and "know where to draw the line." As I wrote back in March, if we're going to be codifying rules of conduct, I vote for "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten".

What do you think? Did I miss any big ones?

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    And many thanks to the BlueOregon contributors and editors that helped me brainstorm up my list. (The ranking and commentary are entirely my own, however. Don't blame them for any errors or faulty analysis.)

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    Kari, I like your list. I think future historians will note a few other things that did not happen:

    (1) The Columbia River Crossing project was not funded (and may that be true in 2012 as well!).

    (2) No gas (or carbon) tax, revenue neutral or otherwise, was passed to give economic incentives to cut back on carbon emission in transportation.

    (3) Faced with rapidly increasing business opportunities abroad and stagnant domestic opportunities, educators and politicians did nothing to strengthen foreign language and study abroad programs in Oregon's public education. Nor did they increase Mandarin programs in response to a rising China's potential security threat.

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    The phrase "inside the beltway" has taken on new meaning with the passage of the NDAA and the provisions making the President a King. That said, there is a new inside and that is inside Blue Oregon. Obviously, the Wu resignation was number one. Where does the nuclear meltdown in Japan rate? With one hundred million tons of waste headed to the west coast and sea lions in Alaska being tested for contamination we must observe that it is not in the top one hundred or one hundred thousand on this site. Funding for the bridge? Easy. Close the loophole for options treatment.

    When I was a child I lived as a child. But when I matured I lived in the real world. It is a new year. The President has returned America to a pre thirteenth century treatment of civil rights. Not on the top ten thousand for BO.

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      Well, certainly there are lots of national and international stories. There are other places to get those.

      Being a blog about Oregon politics, my list is one of the top Oregon political stories.

      Now, some of those stories - like the Japanese waste headed our way - may end up big stories for 2012. But they weren't in 2011.

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      Kari is just being polite.

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    <h1>4. Looks like there will be a race for AG. Two candidates have filed committees for the position. Three if you count AG Kroger's still active committee.</h1>

    Retired Judge Ellen Rosenblum filed just today. Attorney Katherine Heekin filed about a month ago. Both Democrats.

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    Thanks for doing this. It pretty much summed it up.

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    I agree with Knudson that the waste island floating toward the coastline of the NW, which according to some reports is the size of California, SHOULD be a top story this year. It seems destined to degrade the quality of life in the NW, including B.C. and Alaska as well as, eventually, Hawaii, for a generation to come. Worse, an adequate response will require large-scale funding and expertly coordinated planning--where will we get those?

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    One additional point or two. My reason for adding to this or any other thread is, hopefully, to share information which has come to my attention. To be sure many more know much more than do I and in the case of the March 11, 2011, events I was on the Oregon coast and watched some of the damage take place. In the case of TEPCO it has been documented that the structures were known to not meet standards. The books were cooked.

    Relevance? TEPCO has been given approval to build four plants in Texas. Falsification of standards required for safety being established and the current meme being how horrible regulations are one must ask if the American people as insurers want these plants built or if they are should they be safe.

    Nukes are not viable unless Price- Anderson under writes it. Why then has this administration made the choice to do this instead of alternative energy sources?

    It is great to see ads on BO for solar. Thanks, Kari.

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    Good list, Kari. I could offer a sniffly 'What about us?" barb from Southern Oregon; eg, we thought it was a pretty big deal that two of our reps from adjoining districts but otherwise different planets, Dennis Richardson and Peter Buckley, managed to co-pilot Ways & Means through such a fiscally brutal session. But I won't.

    I WILL offer up what was more of a stirring than a  full-fledged story in 2011.  At

    you'll find a 51-minute dialogue we produced between Southern Oregon Occupy and Tea Party organizers in November. This Tuesday, January 10 at 7:30pm, a 28-minute version will air on public television and stream live at Like I said, just a stirring. But if a functional alliance can be forged in 2012, then we have (using my nominee for most overused cliche of 2011) a game-changer. Thanks to BO for staying on the case steadily in 2011. Jeff

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