Do What You Can Do 9/23/2021

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Senator Jeff Golden

 *  “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”  
—Helen Keller

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Back to the office...

  Well, not the office, exactly. Our offices in the Capitol Building are closed for construction until the 2022 session begins, but we did convene in the Senate chamber Monday for a special session to approve new maps for state House and Senate districts and for federal Congressional districts. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Senate Chamber

The maps passed through the Senate on a party-line vote, but they’re mired in a bitter clash on the House side. Just in case another level of drama was needed, the House has recessed until at least Saturday because of a newly-discovered case of COVID in their chamber. So as I write this on Thursday, there’s no way to know if the votes are there to meet the deadline—this Monday, September 27—for the legislature to submit final maps. If they’re not, the state legislative maps will be drawn by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, and the Congressional maps by a five-judge panel selected by the Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.

If I had to guess I’d say that if Republicans don’t walk out to deny quorum in the House (not a small if), SB 882, the new maps for state House and Senate districts, will pass and become law. While Senate Republicans didn’t vote for it, their criticism was mild and they praised the process that shaped the bill. SB 881, the new map proposed for Oregon’s Congressional districts, is a whole different story. 

The Big Drama: a new congressional seat shakes up our politics

It’s impossible to understand the heft of this issue through a statewide lens. This is a national story to the core.

Oregon’s one of five states awarded new Congressional seats after the 2020 census. The legislatures of three of the others—Florida, Texas (which is getting two new seats) and North Carolina—are in Republican hands, and the latter two routinely make the top tier of national lists for brazen, over-the-top gerrymandering to grab as many seats as they can in Congress. So Oregon’s the only blue state (the fifth, Colorado, is still considered purple) with a brand-new seat to map. Add to that the current scorecard in the House (220 Democrats, 212 Republicans and three vacancies) as well as the size of the stakes in today’s major issues, and it’s easy to understand how ferocious the battle for these new districts will be. The forces in play dwarf the resources and clout of Oregon leaders.

This led to a zigzagging process that infuriated Oregon House Republicans and a showdown between two congressional maps. Map A, adopted in the bill we passed in the Senate Monday SB 881, favors Democrats more by sharing the Metro Portland area’s abundance of blue votes among four districts; Republicans and some pundits think that will produce a 5-1 Democratic majority in Oregon’s Congressional House delegation. They prefer Map B which is more likely to yield a 4-2 split.

Map A:

LC3 Congressional district map

Map B:

Republican congressional redistricting map

Both sides brought credible arguments to the table, and both maps seem to meet redistricting’s legal requirements. In the end I voted with my party for SB 881 and SB 882. I didn’t walk away believing our version was perfect, but that’s rarely the feeling you have after casting a big vote. What came to me was reinforcement of my core belief about redistricting since long before Monday’s vote: We shouldn’t be the ones making this decision. No matter where legislators draw the lines, there’s no way we won’t leave a lot of people confirmed in their disillusionment and cynicism about government when we desperately need to move in the opposite direction. At the close of our Monday session I filed a formal Vote Explanation, here, to make the point.

The dilemma

The premise that “Voters should pick their representatives, not the other way around,” seems so clear that you can wonder if it’s possible to mount a valid counter-argument. But it is.

While it’s true that both parties have manipulated maps in their favor around the country, Republicans in recent years have plainly carried gerrymandering to extremes that Democrats have barely imagined; that partisan-sounding statement is backed up by pretty much every nonpartisan analysis you can find. The mischief of recent map-making explains the huge disconnect on major issues between congressional decisions and the views of large majorities of Americans in opinion surveys. If gerrymandering didn’t exist, we’d be on very different paths when it comes to climate policy, regulation of banks and Wall Street, consumer protection, money in politics, tax fairness, firearm background checks and more. 

This deeply shapes what some people think about redistricting. This sample from my inbox lays out the justification for Oregon Democrats to take advantage of our majority.

     This is a constant pattern at all levels of government in which when Rs
are in power they use every available lever to enact their agenda,
regardless of chatter about past practice, norms, bipartisanship, teamwork, etc. etc. -- and when Ds are in power they get distracted by that kind of
chatter and give away part of or all of the store.

     In every state where Rs hold power, they are going to use that power to redistrict in ways that maximize elections of Rs. They will ignore every newspaper editorial and op-ed and floor speech to the contrary. If Ds don't
do that in Oregon, they are failing the economic and social agenda they
were elected to carry out. It really is not more complicated than that.

That argument’s compelling, but I don’t buy that it’s not more complicated than that. It gets more complicated when you start considering where this eye-for-an-eye politics is likely to take us over time. If both parties unapologetically use their majority to distort electoral maps, will government ever have the legitimacy and public trust to solve critical problems in a lasting way? I don’t see how.

What if instead one party says “Let the other guys gerrymander all they want. We won’t budge from our commitment to the most ethical and rationally fair systems of representative democracy we can possibly achieve, and we’ll campaign on that commitment. In the end we’ll prevail because that’s what American voters are really looking for.” Is that hopelessly naïve, or a more likely approach to get us eventually to the kind of politics and governance we want?

I’m not confident I know. If you are, I want to hear from you:

Redistricting animated graphic

Where to from here?

In my vote explanation I mentioned the fourteen states that have already transferred redistricting authority from their legislatures to nonpartisan commissions. I think Oregon will join them before redistricting comes around again in 2031.

Because the legislature’s redistricting power is in Oregon’s constitution, that change requires a vote of the people. A citizen’s initiative to create an independent commission nearly made it to the November 2020 ballot and built impressive momentum in the process. If it reaches the ballot—more like “when,” I think—I’m guessing it wins by a healthy margin. You can find out more by contacting the League of Women Voters of Oregon.

Alternatively, the legislature itself could decide to put the measure on the ballot. I’m considering introducing a bill in the 2022 session to do just that. But because it’s a short session, each legislator is limited to proposing just two bills. I’ll use one for limits on contributions to political campaigns, so a bill to refer an independent redistricting commission to voters would fill up my 2022 quota. If you have an opinion on that, I’d like to know. 

Other issues

There are plenty. Between now and the beginning of next session, I hope to use newsletters to write about a few of them at length. The one that’s been dominating my inbox in recent weeks is COVID vaccination mandates, with something like 90% of your emails opposing them. I let the Governor know that in a recent letter and described the position I’ve come to after months of study and conversation.

What makes this issue uniquely hard for public comment is the culture war that’s risen around it. War doesn’t leave room for nuance; in this case, if you don’t favor vaccinations so completely that you’re ready to force everyone to vaccinate, you must be against them. That’s a terrible framework for setting public policy.

I believe that the COVID vaccine is a worthwhile and generally effective tool for suppressing the pandemic. I’ll continue encouraging unvaccinated people who don’t have conditions that put them at unusual risk to roll up their sleeve. All in all I think that will shorten the path to Oregon’s safe reopening. At the same time, in this explosive historical moment, I want decision-makers to reflect more deeply on the likely consequences of widespread vaccine coercion than seems to be the case. Again, I welcome your thoughts.

Speaking of reflecting at length...

Mother Earth Podcast featuring Senator Golden

This week the national Mother Earth podcast released the extended conversation I recently had with them. It covers the broad ground of what serving in this office feels like. Just click on the arrow above.  I hope you enjoy it.

I really appreciate the opportunity to serve you. Stay healthy and safe—

Jeff (Signature)

Senator Jeff Golden, Oregon Senate District 3


  • Are you still needing help to bounce back from last year’s wildfires? You might find some at the new Center for Community Resilience. Their number is 541-414-0318.

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COVID resources

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