State Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell is the target of a recall drive by #TimberUnity over her vote for cap and trade.
But House Bill 2020 — which would have squeezed industrial polluters and consumers to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and cut greenhouse gas emissions — wasn’t a difficult choice for the Astoria Democrat. She campaigned last year on the need for action on climate change.
Her hardest vote was in May for a new law that trims benefits to help contain the $26 billion unfunded liability in the Public Employees Retirement System. Mitchell, who worked for the state Department of Human Services and was a member of the Service Employees International Union, was elected with union help.
“For those who are angered by my vote, I hope they know that I looked at this issue from every angle, thought about it, fought against it, and only arrived at the final outcome after significant deliberation and, from a human level, a lot of tears,” she wrote in a vote explanation. “This was an incredibly complex issue, and I made the hardest decision of my life knowing that there would be a lot of implications and consequences for it.”
Two unions that represent public workers have already struck back. The Oregon American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will disqualify lawmakers who voted for pension reform from the endorsement process in next year’s elections. The Oregon AFL-CIO will restrict contributions and support.
Mitchell will learn in December whether #TimberUnity gathers enough signatures to force a recall election. If not, she would still be up for reelection next year in House District 32.
In an interview, Mitchell talked about her pension vote, cap and trade, the recall and the lessons of her first session.
Q: The state House approved pension reform 31-29 in May only after two Democrats switched their votes. Many of your supporters in the labor movement saw your vote as a betrayal. How much pressure was there from House leadership?
A: I like to say that I do my research on big bills and complex topics. So in the terms of personal pressure, there really wasn’t pressure.
There was obviously internal struggle because I had my values that I went in with, that I really wanted to represent, and found myself in a position of realizing that this issue was much larger than I thought it was before I had been elected. And having to wrestle with those values, essentially.
So, at the end of the day, I did the only thing that I could do, which was think about what was most important to me and that was protecting the pension and the people who I worked with. Because I was a state employee and an SEIU member, my own retirement is going to be through PERS.
As someone who believes that pensions are an incredibly important part of retirement security for people, I did what I had to to be able to protect that pension long term for the employees that desperately deserve them.
Q: In hindsight, do you still feel it was the right choice?
A: If there were a better alternative, I would take the better alternative.
But we didn’t have any better alternatives at the time, and I don’t see the potential for better alternatives in the future.
Q: You campaigned on the need for Oregon to take steps to combat climate change. But do you think the House should have moved forward on House Bill 2020 — and place lawmakers like you at political risk — when Democrats weren’t sure they had the votes in the Senate?
A: At the time that that bill moved forward, they were pretty sure they had the votes in the Senate to get it to pass. So there was confidence on that end of it.
It only changed, really, after the House had made that vote.
And, again, as someone who prides themselves on trying to do an awful lot of research on those big topics before making those big decisions, I did my due diligence in trying to understand every single component of that particular issue, spent a lot of time listening to people.
There was incredibly strong support from the district for that bill, so I moved forward and voted confidently on something that I knew would actually be beneficial to Oregon and the Oregonians that live here in our communities that are already being impacted by climate change.
Q: What should happen now?
A: For me, it means continuing to listen to the constituency here in what they would like to see moving forward in a climate bill.
I don’t think it’s a matter of if, but when, another bill is going to be introduced. I’ve heard rumblings that that will be in the short session.
So all I can do is say climate change is an actual real threat to our communities. We should move forward in doing something to help mitigate and adapt to the changes that we will see here, because we are in a very, I think, precarious position where we are geographically to be really impacted by climate change.
Q: You were one of 36 House Democrats to vote for HB 2020. Why do you think #Timber Unity has targeted you for recall?
A: I wish I could answer that question because I honestly don’t know.
Again, as you pointed out, I was not the deciding vote on that particular bill ... There were a lot of people that voted for that bill because it was the right thing to do.
I can’t control what other people do. All I can do is control what I do. And, as of right now, the way that I have chosen to deal with the situation and react to it is to still focus on what my responsibilities are as a state representative to the area, and to focus on my constituents and my work.
Q: This was your first legislative session in Salem. What did you learn that you didn’t know when you got elected?
A: You always know that there’s more nuance to an issue than probably you normally hear and see.
Typically, people only have exposure to issues at a very surface level, just based off of what they’re able to read and digest. As a legislator, you really have to be willing to do that deep dive and to understand just how complex all of these issues are.
I think that was the biggest thing that I learned, is that topics are a lot more complex and more nuanced when you get to those state-level problems.
Q: #TimberUnity mailers urging your recall have started to arrive at people’s homes. When you talk with voters individually, what do you most want them to know about you as a legislator?
A: The values that I presented to people about who I am are still true.
And that I am doing everything that I can to best represent the community in solving issues that people on their doorsteps told me they had concerns about. Things like wanting to make sure that their kids get a high-quality education, making sure that they can afford their health care.
Climate change is also one of those issues that people in their doors said that they were concerned about.
I feel like through a lot of the bills that we were able to pass this session ... I think we really delivered on those promises. And I am really proud of those accomplishments, and happy to defend myself whenever I’m up for election, because I think that we did a lot of really great things.