Oregon Capitol

Oregon will draw new political boundaries based on census data.

Twenty years ago, Democrats in the Oregon Legislature were publicly incensed about the redistricting plan created by then-Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. The plan arbitrarily benefitted Republican candidates. Or so the Democrats said.

Ah, but their lamentations were for show. In reality, Democrats were downright giddy about how they would profit from fellow Democrat Bradbury’s plan. Their public hand-wringing was merely a ruse to dispel the notion that Bradbury was guilty of pro-Democrat bias.

The Democrats’ target audience? The Oregon Supreme Court.

The ruse largely succeeded. The court rejected almost all arguments against the plan, leaving Oregonians stuck with gerrymandered legislative districts. In one infamous example, the district boundary for Republican state Sen. Jason Atkinson, of Jacksonville, was moved slightly — just far enough to exclude his residence.

Bradbury’s blatant partisanship could be repeated this year under Secretary of State Shemia Fagan unless the Legislature bucks history and actually agrees on a redistricting plan.

This year’s process has been upended by court cases and late results from the 2020 census.

Generally, if the Legislature fails to settle redistricting, the responsibility moves to the secretary of state. If there’s no legislative agreement on congressional boundaries, the courts decide those districts.

In both instances, Democrats have an advantage. Fagan is a progressive Democrat. The Oregon Supreme Court remains reliably progressive, thanks to the judicial appointments by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.

These realities make the recent agreement between House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, of Canby, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, particularly intriguing.

House Republicans no longer will slow the process by insisting that bills be read aloud in full before voting. In return, Kotek reconfigured the House Redistricting Committee to have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. She and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, also deviated from the usual budget process and gave all legislators several million dollars in federal money to spend on projects in their district.

More about that unique agreement in a moment. But first, what’s at stake.

Redistricting is the process every 10 years of redrawing legislative and congressional lines to equalize the number of people in each district.

“It matters because it makes up the state Legislature and who represents you in Congress,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, the newly appointed co-chair of the House committee. She said having equal representation on the committee opens the door to having equitable political representation in Oregon for the next decade.

Redistricting is even more complicated this year because Oregon will gain a sixth congressional seat, thanks to the state’s population growth and other states’ declines. The boundaries of every district will be affected, including that of the lone Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, Cliff Bentz, in the 2nd Congressional District.

To reduce the likelihood of gerrymandering, some states have turned redistricting over to independent, nonpartisan commissions. A ballot measure effort to do that in Oregon died last year amid the pandemic. An independent redistricting task force convened by the late Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson previously faltered.

Regardless of which political party is in power, that party doesn’t want to give up its ability to draw partisan lines while keeping a straight face and promising fair, reasonable, nonpartisan decisions. Incumbents of both parties look out for themselves; they want district boundaries that ensure their reelection. Thus, Oregon has few competitive districts.

Drazan said the Republican agreement with Kotek at least gives Oregonians a chance for less-partisan redistricting. Kotek added Drazan to the redistricting committee and elevated Boshart Davis to serve as co-chair with Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego.

The committee is still collecting information, not drawing lines. That will happen late this summer and early fall, presumably followed by a special legislative session to turn the new boundaries into law. Of course, that assumes that the House, Senate and governor all agree.

For her part, Salinas did not appear pleased with her committee changes, writing in her constituent newsletter: “Prior to these appointments, Democrats held three of the five seats on the committee, and I held the gavel. I will now co-chair, and Democrats hold only three of the six seats.”

However, Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River, told her constituents: “I’ll be honest with you: this may be harder for me, politically, but I think it’s good for the state and for the country. As a swing member who narrowly won my last election, I probably stood to benefit from a redistricting process under Democratic control. Our district could have been reshaped in a way that would include more likely Democratic voters and fewer likely Republican voters. That outcome is unlikely now, under a dual-party redistricting system — and that’s a good thing!”

But the House is only half the Legislature. Courtney has given no indication that he will equalize membership on the Senate Redistricting Committee. It’s also telling that Kotek and Courtney did not create a unified House-Senate redistricting committee this year and instead had each chamber go its own way.

Democrats still hold the majority of the redistricting cards. But Republicans made progress and achieved a big win by getting $240 million in federal pandemic relief divided among all 90 legislative districts, instead of having that spending determined by the Democrat-controlled Joint Ways and Means Committee.

That is a fraction of the approximately $2.6 billion in discretionary funds headed to Oregon under the American Rescue Plan. And legislators previously suggested more than $30 billion in such projects.

Each senator will have $4 million for one-time projects and each representative $2 million. Legislators have until May 10 to submit their plans, which will be vetted against the rescue plan guidelines.

Probably because they’re being lobbied by constituents and interest groups, most legislators have not announced their choices.

Dick Hughes has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976.