A recent survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that fewer than twenty percent of respondents could name their state legislators. It may be reasonable to suppose, then, that fewer respondents still would have been able to expound on the hierarchical structures of the chambers and caucuses that further define the roles of their state legislators. The results of the Johns Hopkins survey and the supposition proceeding them are in no way presented here as a means of indictment against those who identify with the majority of the survey’s respondents. In fact, they are presented in the introduction of this paper on legislative leaders and party caucuses in order to assure readers of all levels of familiarity with the subject of an accessible and informative analysis of state legislatures to follow. Be that as it may, the findings of the Johns Hopkins survey will come as no surprise to the handful of people who are able to name their state legislators. Even among the third who can name their governor, there would likely be found a consensus that the cultural malaise endemic to the citizenry of the United States is not something that occurred spontaneously. A narrative emphasizing the primacy of presidential elections has for generations been perpetuated by political actors and media outlets to the detriment of participation in state and local elections. Professor Zoltan L. Hajnal of the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego notes in an opinion piece for the New York Times that just over a quarter of eligible voters regularly participate in municipal elections. It seems beyond any coincidence that this percentage should align between that of the few people who can name their legislators and those who can name their governor, and it seems an even farther stretch to dissociate these findings from the current accessibility of state politics. At the national level, politicians and journalists reduce legislation to its rhetorical elements in order to appeal to the identity politics of the majority of their constituents and consumers. At the municipal level, however, even this reduction of information is not nearly as ubiquitous, and consequently, scarce local electoral participation becomes defined by the parenthetical initials following candidates’ names. Furthermore, bills presented by state lawmakers are often referred to, even colloquially and amongst activists, by the numerals they are assigned in the legislature. Something like this may seem innocuous, but it alienates people not already familiar with the bill’s subject and policy matters. The state electorate, the citizenry in all its districts, is reasonably apathetic. In the manifold and nuanced instantiations of this paradigm of political apathy are exemplified just some of the faults of representative democracy in the United States. How, then, may we begin to substantively address issues of participation and accessibility in contemporary American politics? How, as individuals and as members of our immediate communities, may we begin to obscure the sanctimonious distinctions made between the represented and their representatives? Many scholars and theorists have considered this conundrum within a sociopolitical framework, with authors like Benjamin R. Barber aiming to “... reorient democracy away from leadership and representation and towards stronger forms of citizenship and participation... ”. In his book Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, Barber delineates the ways in which we, as a society, may meet these ends through selectively employing electoral lottery systems, establishing volunteer programs with a focus on community development, enhancing lateral communication by way of a national network of voting neighborhood associations, and through other concerted efforts geared toward a “civic reorientation”. These are all meritorious proposals that appropriately direct the onus of political participation toward local communities in an attempt to blur the lines between citizens (or followers) and their leaders. The implementations of these massive cultural and societal shifts, however, seem pitched against an idealized political system in which tenets of socialism could be considered by those in power with even a semblance of intellectual integrity. These proposals are also predicated on the notion of a society wherein every person earnestly and actively cares about the welfare of their community at large. Alas, they do not; and what’s more, perhaps they shouldn’t. The crux of any legitimate system of government is found in the protections and provisions that system is able to peripherally offer its citizens. Barber and others seek to rectify this archetype altogether, at least academically, with theoretical social and cultural machinations that engender among the masses an elevated political awareness and willingness to meaningfully engage with their communities. This paper does not intend to dispute the fact that fundamental systemic and institutional changes to American democracy would be imperative to consolidating the country’s rhetorical proclamations of freedom with its de facto oligarchy and plight of late stage capitalism. Neither does it endeavor to provide an argument for the responsibility of political awareness and participation being solely that of the individual. It does, however, aim to equip a rare breed of budding policy wonk with the basic structural knowledge of the state institutions that have a direct impact on all of our lives. As individual observers of systemic political causalities, we may look to the Bundestag for more efficacious systems of representation, or even to the achievements of compulsory voting in other highly democratic countries such as Australia or Luxembourg.6 We cannot shift a centuries old paradigm of the laissez-faire economics that continue to necessitate the subjugation of millions of people in the United States. It is, however, within our prerogative as individuals to pursue a more comprehensive insight into the systems that immediately effect our material conditions. Moreover, when we do, we are emboldened in our endeavors of progress and justice. When cogently and authentically disseminated, individual knowledge can benefit entire communities. This is to reiteratively say that while a uniform technical understanding of government and politics is unnecessary to a well provided society, progressive movements are nonetheless defined in collective action that is incited by the complementary knowledge and experience of individuals. The movement toward better representation and more holistic approaches to governing, then, begins here, with you. After all, it’s much more difficult to escape a prison to which you have never seen the blueprints. To this end, we shall briefly consider some history and structural delineations of state legislatures that are more or less the same in every state. Then, we may contextualize legislative power dynamics through an exploration of leaders and caucuses in the Oregon Legislative Assembly. Finally, this paper will offer courses of direct action into which readers may channel their reinforced, if not improved, knowledge of legislative leaders and party caucuses.
To begin, it bears mentioning that in most circumstances, state legislatures operate in many of the same ways as does the United States Congress. In fact, this is because Congressional structures and norms are the culmination of the structures and norms that were borrowed from legislative precedents long established in the original colonies. In Virginia, for instance, the legislature has roots that can be traced to the early seventeenth century. What’s more, nearly all of the signatures endorsing our Constitution belonged to men who had served in state legislatures or colonial assemblies. The thirteen colonies destined to unite against the tyranny of a rapacious monarchy first established for themselves bicameral institutions of government, with the exception of Georgia and Pennsylvania. Here, the word ‘bicameral’ can be defined by the two chambers characteristic of all state legislatures today in which lawmakers debate policy and, hypothetically, draft legislative solutions to the problems their constituents face. Also here, all state legislatures can be taken to mean all but Nebraska, whose legislature is uniquely unicameral. Other standards of state legislatures that follow colonial precedents may be found in formal procedural rules and committee structures. Committees of the whole are constituted of the entire membership of a chamber, while committees considering specific policy areas are typically stacked by legislative leadership to ensure an advancement of their party’s platform and power. Standing committees are permanent, and cyclically consider bills that fall under their particular purview, often through several legislative sessions. To which committees bills are assigned, however, remains the purview of the speaker of the house and the president of the senate, in their respective chambers. It is important to note here, as political scientists Peverill Squire and Gary Moncrief do, in their book State Legislatures Today: Politics Under the Domes, “The key thing to understand is that the relative power of leaders and committees is just that - relative. Circumstances change, lawmakers and leaders come and go, and norms such as seniority may erode or strengthen over time.” Common standing committees are those of ways and means, rules, health and human services, judiciary, education, transportation, and agriculture. Joint committees are those consisting of members from both chambers. They consider matters of more immediate import or that have a particular need for expeditious review, and their chairs are appointed by both the speaker of the house and the senate president. Subcommittees are exemplified in those such as the COVID-19 subcommittees that formed under so many standing health committees across state legislatures this year. Select committees, or special committees, then, are usually associated with legislative projects and are sanctioned for specified amounts of time. It is of relevance to note here, as Squire and Moncrief put it, the “... inherent contradiction between party and committee leadership. Party leadership is centralized; committee leadership is decentralized.” Their power is often mutually exclusive of that of the other, yet in the case of Oregon there remains a rather coherent structure across the Democratic Party and state institutions of government. Committee leadership is an extension of legislative leadership, which is an extension of party leadership. Turning to more structures that are familiar in their federal iterations, the two chambers continuously aforementioned are the lower and upper houses of a state legislature, with lawmakers in the upper houses often, though not always, serving longer terms than their colleagues in the lower houses. The upper houses of state legislatures are consistently referred to as either the senate or state senate, while the lower houses are more often than not referred to as their state’s house of representatives. Further, state legislatures are generally referred to as such, although they are, in some instances, called general assemblies, general courts, or in the case of Oregon, the Legislative Assembly. In Oregon, the upper chamber of the legislature has a senate president, a president pro tempore, and majority and minority leaders. The Oregon House of Representatives has a house speaker, a speaker pro tempore, a majority leader, minority leader, majority whip, and minority whip. Whips, however, are generally more affiliated with parties than official chamber leadership, and are also something to which this paper will shortly return. The amount of power vested in the leadership of any given legislature is, commonly, directly proportional to how many positions of leadership there are available to members in each chamber. The power ably wielded by legislative leaders is further proportional to things such as legislative professionalism and available resources, party politics, chamber sizes, and the political culture of the state at large. Legislatures are like precarious orreries, balancing many integrated, moving parts that define and illustrate their power structures. Even the size of a legislature has fundamental implications for its culture and dynamics of power. In his book, Legislative Life: People, Process, and Performance in the States, Alan Rosenthal puts forward, "Size has its effects on the following: the atmosphere, with more confusion and impersonality in larger bodies and friendlier relationships in smaller ones; hierarchy, with more elaborate and orderly rules and procedures and greater leadership authority in larger bodies and informality and collegial authority in smaller ones; the internal distribution of power, with more concentrated pockets possible in larger bodies and greater dispersion of power in smaller ones." The size of the Oregon Legislative Assembly is most prudently discussed in relation to its status as a semi-professional legislature. This is because, as a rule, the size of any legislature is reflective of its state population, with elected members of the legislature representing proportionately equal constituencies. Size, then, should always be considered alongside institutional capacity. Oregon is a peculiar case in this regard, with the numerous and sophisticated demands on its legislature recurrently exceeding the institution’s capacity. We shall return to these ideas later, as well as delve into the political culture and regional divisions of ideologies in the state. Meanwhile, a structural reorientation of legislative leadership and power dynamics within the legislature lends itself to the overlying comprehension of the nuances specific to the state of Oregon. The house speaker and senate president are not only the leaders of their respective chambers, they are leaders in their parties. In the former role, these premier members of the legislature assign their colleagues and subordinates to committees, appoint the chairs of those committees, refer bills to the committees they deem germane to the legislation, manage administrative affairs, and, of course, preside over their chambers, facilitating legislative sessions and floor debate. The authority to recognize speakers, make parliamentary rulings, and to assign committees and appoint their chairs gives chamber leaders considerable control over the way policy debates are held as well as the way votes take place. As leaders in their political parties, the heads of the senate and the house further strategize around campaigns and legislation, substantiate and advance their party’s platform, and negotiate compromises in and between the parties and chambers in order to facilitate the general operations of the legislature. As a distinctive institution, yet in accordance with Congressional patterns, the Oregon Legislative Assembly biennially confers power unto its leaders through abstruse considerations of optics, the candidates’ relationships with the executive branch, their fundraising abilities and efforts, municipal and commerce alliances, and their political capital. Preceding the first legislative session after an election, high ranking lawmakers and other active party members meet to discuss, nominate and vote on positions of leadership that they can then to bring to the legislature for a vote. This foregoing convocation of legislators and party officials is also where gets decided positions of leadership that are ex officio and party centered. Ex officio is employed here by its latin intent in ‘by right of office’. Ergo, ex officio positions of leadership are those that are inherent in the responsibilities and authority imbued in important committee chairs, such as those to Ways and Means or Revenue. In Oregon, the only constitutional officers to speak of are the senate president, the senate president pro tempore, the house speaker, and the speaker pro tempore. Other positions of leadership manifest differently in different state legislatures, based on factors such as the legislature’s professionalization status, its resources, party control, size, et cetera. Whips are key players in both the senate and the house of the Oregon Legislative Assembly. These aptly named representatives of their party are wranglers of sorts. Much of the work involved in being a party whip has to do with providing legislative support for the members of one’s caucus as well as performing certain administrative aspects that ultimately facilitate party goals. As official representatives of their party, they are champions for their chamber caucuses and for policies pertaining to their party’s platform. There are numerous ways in which one can whip, but as extensions of party and legislative leadership, it is not unheard of for whips to act as the police and gatekeepers of their chamber’s caucus. Party caucuses are embodied separately in the upper and lower chambers of state legislatures, adding to an internal culture of estrangement between the senate and the house. Still, the state party at large remains a coherent gestalt, serving its members and leaders in the house and senate strategically in order to advance the primary doctrines of its platform. The Democratic Party of Oregon, for instance, prioritizes business in its first article. This is a consequential acknowledgment of what truly drives the liberal agenda in Oregon. Following economics as the Democrats’ primary concern are articles addressing education, the environment, foreign policy and national security, good governance, and so on and so forth. Caucuses, then, are further divided by specific areas of policy concern. Many of the legislative caucuses formed in the DPO are ultimately nebulous designations of liberal identity politics and directly serve their legislative members more than they serve the people for whose identity the caucus exists. Further, many of the DPO’s legislative caucuses fail to maintain a discernible presence in the legislature or anywhere in media. Thus far, we have focused on the legislative leaders and party caucuses from the perspective of the party that has unified control of the state of Oregon and a supermajority in its legislature. Does the conservative minority in the Legislative Assembly have any stake in the bills and agendas that pass the house and senate? Squire and Moncrief, in State Legislatures Today, profess “The importance of party caucuses appears to be a function of the size and the degree of party competition in the chamber. The more evenly matched the parties and smaller the chamber, the greater the importance of caucuses.” Normally, minority leaders at least serve as arms of their party to ensure that members of their caucus are on record pursuing the party’s platform. It is, however, nothing if not scathingly honest to admit that the party leaders and caucuses of the Oregon Republican Party are entirely extraneous. With such a debilitating minority in the legislature and such a negligible legitimate political power in the state, the only consistent goal for the party in the Legislative Assembly has been shown in attempts to create, and capitalize upon, contention. In recent legislative sessions, this has been demonstrated through walkouts, one wherein a Republican state senator even went so far as to threaten to murder any officer who should come looking for him. Walkouts for the past three sessions have been illustrative of the arrested development within a party that continues to offer tantrums rather than any substantive legislative solutions to the problems their constituents face. In the current session, Republicans in the Legislative Assembly walked out in protest of Governor Kate Brown’s response to the COVID-19 public health crisis before issuing a list of demands to Democrats. Oregon happens to be one of a few states whose legislature requires a quorum of two-thirds in the House or the Senate to do anything. Just prior to this, a Republican legislator conspired with far right protestors, taking lengths to clandestinely lead a violent throng of them into the state capitol. That legislator has since been stripped of his committees. For the past decade, Oregon has steadily progressed under the unified control of the Democratic Party. It is considered a competitive state, however, for reasons related to the Democrats’ all too well known vie for rural America. The ideological divide in the citizens of Oregon is evidently geographical, with small but populous metropolitan areas in the west accounting for the state’s liberal majority, and a vast expanse to the east accounting for some of the most conservative conservatives of any state. Nonetheless, there is a considerable number of unaffiliated registered voters in Oregon, in large part due to a formidable independent voting bloc. The Independent Party of Oregon plays a significant role in state politics, consistently garnering over five percent of votes. Often cross-nominating Democratic candidates, however, the IPO in practice is a bastion of the liberal voting bloc in Oregon.
“Unaffiliated” and “other” voters in Oregon constitute well over four hundred thousand more people than do Republican voters. Taken together, the unaffiliated and other voters even have a slim margin on the Democrats. This faction is not visibly reflected in the legislature, however, largely on behalf of the state’s automatic voter registration that went into effect in 2016. Dr. Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College, compiled a study for a neoliberal think tank in Washington D.C. wherein its results pointed to an increase in Oregon voters who were “previously disengaged”. Further, the study found that the increases, overall, led to “... more voting by ethnic minorities, younger people and those who are low-income and more rural.” The Motor Voter Act, as it was christened by the Oregon House of Representatives, seemed to be a coup for working people and voters of all ideologies in the state, for urban and rural citizens alike. It even addressed a portion of the largest section of nonvoters who political scientists Nicholas Clark and Rolfe Peterson termed in a recent study, “incapable”. Such nonvoters were not considered incapable in the sense of experiencing any deliberate voting obstructions or restrictions, rather these nonvoters found themselves amongst the forty percent of nonvoters who have to work on election days, lack transportation to polling places, or who are not registered to vote. All voting is done by mail in Oregon, and so the Motor Voter Act set out to engage an apparently diverse range people who were not already registered to vote. In a vacuum, or on paper, this is a seemingly sound premise that was corroborated by rhetorical campaigns touting preemptive fortifications of Oregonians’ democracy leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Taking into consideration, however, the DPO’s strategic acquisitions of power across the state over decades, it may not be unreasonable to interpret the Motor Voter Act as more of a white knuckled grip on power than a genuine commitment to justice and democracy. Let’s pursue this further in the context of the legislative and party leaders of Oregon, analyzing politics under the dome in Salem. Broadly, the differences in nomenclature between state legislatures do not constitute any substantive divergences in their legislative operations. Internally, however, the hierarchical distinctions between the upper and lower houses within state legislatures represent important components to understanding the conduct of legislative leaders and party caucuses. For even in state politics, there has been inculcated within the separate legislative bodies, separate clubhouse cultures reverent of their own titles and institutional echelons. The ancient intent behind the two legislative chambers is often reconstructed in arguments for the legislative body’s ability as a whole to consider, in more measured and complete terms, the bills that it passes. In practice, however, this bicameral system often allows feckless politicians to redirect public misgivings toward the other chamber. Moreover, it promotes an unproductive exclusivity amongst members of the same chamber, despite party lines or ideologies. In Oregon, there is not a strong case for Democrats in the legislature to capitulate to such a slight majority, hence the numerous walkouts. The shrewdest route, then, to protect the interests of every member of your chamber is found through procedural obstructions.
Senate President Peter Courtney is Oregon’s longest serving legislator and Senate President in the state’s history. Yet, the Senator’s long standing tradition of considering only the bills he knows to be able to comfortably pass in the senate is steadily drawing criticism from even members of his own party. In 2017, for instance, a rent control bill that passed the house was shot down in the senate due to a lack of appetite for it among both Republicans and conservative Democrats. Prioritizing the veneer of cohesion in his chamber over the welfare of the citizens of Oregon, Senator Courtney ignored the bill, effectively killing it. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan took issue with Senate President Courtney’s approach to legislative leadership when she served in the Oregon House of Representatives. “You can’t put the same people in charge - under the same rules, under the same caucus - and get substantially different results”, Fagan told Dirk VanderHart for OPB after Courtney’s refusal to consider the 2017 house bill aimed at rent control. She went on to cast the lone vote in her party against Courtney’s ninth confirmation for senate president after she, herself, was initially confirmed as an Oregon State Senator in 2019. Fagan cited the Senate President’s gross misconduct, and maintains a power struggle with Courtney to this day as she and leaders in the legislature separately petition the State Supreme Court for control of legislative redistricting privileges. State Senator and Majority Whip Lew Frederick, on the other hand, sees Senate President Peter Courtney in a different light. Also speaking to VanderHart for OPB, Senator Frederick offered that, in his view, Courtney has taken an approach from the perspective of “I want to get something accomplished, and I don’t want the Senate to look bad trying to get something accomplished... I think he believes that the whole Senate works better when we work together, not just spend our time attacking each other.” It is a tale as old as time that has been staged ad nauseam by members of the U.S. Senate. Senators and Democratic Party leaders pay incredible lip service to progress, building campaigns and coalitions around platforms that extol virtues of socialism, at least through liberal utilitarian and pragmatic conceptions of the greatest good for the greatest number. Yet, under the guise of moderate populism or some arcane parliamentary procedure, Democrats eventually renege on their promises, voting progressive legislation down on strict party lines in order to protect donor interests along with the institutional structures that keep them comfortably in power. This is admittedly a more convoluted instantiation of Congressional dynamics that have translated seamlessly into the Oregon Legislative Assembly, but they are present nonetheless. Returning to more foundational framework, however, the Oregon Legislative Assembly typifies a one to two ratio in its chambers, although somewhat counterintuitively. In one chamber, sixty elected members of the Oregon House of Representatives each serve two year terms for just over sixty thousand constituents. Only thirty elected members of the Oregon State Senate, then, each serve four year terms for constituencies of nearly one hundred thirty thousand people. Even upon a cursory consideration of this system, one could easily ascertain how it could foment trivial pecking orders through pomp and circumstance. State senators are seen, at least by most state senators, as proverbially bigger, better, and stronger than their counterparts in the house, whose high rate of turnover in Oregon is indicative of the state’s legislature being one that is semi-professional. Also termed hybrid or grey legislatures, these are institutions that fall somewhere between operating at a part time and full time capacity. In Oregon, the average legislative session amounts to only three months out of every two years. Accordingly, most legislators identify legislating as an ancillary vocation to their places of business, medical practices, and law firms. After all, the salaries for elected officials in the Oregon Legislative Assembly are modest, as are staffing budgets. Peverill Squire and Gary Moncrief, in State Legislatures Today, note that “The more days that a legislature meets each year, the better lawmakers come to grasp the complexities of the legislative process.” They go on to observe of individuals, “Professional legislators are not just longer serving but also better equipped as policymakers for reasons beyond their longevity." These reasons are likely found not only in the inclination of individual lawmakers in professional legislatures to assert their independence from party caucuses, but also in the higher roll call vote attendance that comes with professionalization, a marked improvement in legislative efficiency overall, increased efficiency in policy mediation, greater flexibility and the chambers’ consequent ability to quickly pass corrective legislation, and the ways in which professional legislatures foster movements toward better defining, and even reforming, the processes of government. In 2017, the very same Dr. Peverill Squire, currently the Hicks and Martha Griffiths Chair in American Political Institutions at the University of Missouri, revisited his illustrious and eponymous index of 1992 whereby states were assessed by measures of legislative professionalism. In that assessment, the ever consummate moderately liberal state of Oregon was ranked twenty-fifth (of fifty) in terms of legislative professionalism for the year 2015. Semi- professional, indeed. Squire, along with Moncrief, goes on to assert in State Legislatures Today, “Longer leadership tenures are considered important because they are thought to increase the power wielded by leaders...” This power dynamic in relation to Oregon’s legislative semi- professionalism is evinced in the legislature’s absence of term limits, along with the relatively strong influence of its seasoned leaders. If you’ll remember, Peter Courtney is Oregon’s longest serving legislator and senate president, and wields a considerable amount of power, particularly in his ability and tendency to surreptitiously kill progressive bills at the closed door, bipartisan behest of his colleagues. Under the speakership of its longest serving leader to date, The Oregon House of Representatives has, similarly to the senate, been used as a vessel for promotion by its chamber and party leaders. Tina Kotek’s election in 2013 as the first openly lesbian state house speaker in the United States perfectly encapsulates the performative liberal identity politics that veritably define the political culture of the Oregon Legislative Assembly. Although news of the first openly lesbian state house speaker in America was nationally celebrated by gay rights advocates and liberal media outlets, Kotek made trenchant political efforts to distance herself from the queer community, even offering such glib one liners as “People have worse comments about me as a politician”. On why she had no interest in pursuing the legalization of gay marriage in Oregon, the Speaker purported that the ballot initiative was the most direct way to accomplish such equality in the state. This position was taken despite the Oregon Supreme Court’s commitment in the new millennium to adhere to state constitutional precedents disallowing changes to the constitution that address more than one thing. Since then, and since the legislature passed a bill in 2007 curtailing petition incentives, the ballot initiative has seen a substantial decline in its usage and overall efficacy. And, for what it is worth, a ballot measure intended to persecute the queer community in Oregon sparked a violent, statewide controversy not too long ago. This information is presented here, to the extend that it is, for two reasons. First, insight into the political culture of a state has great relevance to the power dynamics of legislative and other leaders in that state. To that end, we will further consider the political cultures of the state of Oregon and the DPO later. Presently, and secondly, it is important to note that among the slim margin of representatives who passed the piece of legislation diminishing ballot initiatives in 2007, was Tina Kotek. It is unreasonable to deny that power begets power, whether in Congress or in the Oregon House of Representatives. In 2015, Kotek once again championed a voting reform, the previously mentioned Motor Voter Act, to bolster democracy or to shore up a Democratic majority in the legislature. “In part,” notes Priscilla L. Southwell in Governing Oregon: Continuity and Change, “many of these reform efforts have reflected the state’s populist heritage, which has sought to open up the political system to ensure broad public participation”. In separate but related part, this paper is inclined to recognize the probability of a legislative leader and party figurehead, who actively eschews their target identity in order to further identify with a small group of politically powerful people, to take legislative strides upon the impetus of maintaining power and advancing platforms rather than upon the genuine concern for the disenfranchisement of rural gun owners. Neither is this to say that there is anything inherently disagreeable about gun owners, nor is it to intimate that Tina Kotek has ever pursued any robust forms of legislative gun control. It is merely an honest reflection of the political strategy that drives legislative and party leaders to pursue the kinds of legislation they do. The state of Oregon may be further characterized by its moralistic political culture, such as the characterization was formulated and defined by political scientist Daniel J. Elazar. In congruence with the individualistic and traditionalistic cultures that amalgamate the incoherent national political culture of the contemporary United States, moralistic cultures are those wherein the “commonwealth conception as the basis for democratic government” is emphasized through ideations of citizen participation and policy that elevates the greater good. In Oregon, the moralistic political culture is manifested in a liberal pragmatism whose praxis often yields to business interests. This is unmistakable in the platform of the Democratic Party of Oregon, as well as in the type of legislation that is (or is not) pursued by party and chamber leaders. Once again, however, a concession of the limited abilities of a semi-professional legislature must be made in good faith. That said, the remainder of this paper will set out to offer a conclusive illustration wherein all of the themes discussed thus far can be observed. Think of themes of external accessibility to state politics, the political culture of opportunistic liberalism in Oregon, and the internal power struggles and dynamics of hierarchy within the state legislatures as a microcosm of the U.S. Congress. During the biennial convocation of top DPO officials proceeding this year’s legislative session, Tina Kotek faced the first ever challenge to her seat as Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives. After some internal disagreement about the Speaker’s handling of a house member’s misconduct, and a growing concern among Republicans and conservative Democrats in the house regarding Speaker Kotek’s amenability to taxation, Representative Janelle Bynum complicated nomination proceedings for Democrats by seeking the seat for herself. Here, and in the case of Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and others, the Oregon Legislative Assembly could be seen as an example of a springboard legislature, which Squire and Mocrief describe as a “body that gives members substantial electoral advancement opportunities”. They go on to say that, “In general, legislators in springboard legislatures invest less power in their leaders, preferring instead to have the ability to promote their own ambitions and agendas”, which might be true of Oregon if there weren’t already such strong cohesion amongst a Democratic Party with unified control of the state. Still, lawmakers tend to seek political clout wherever it can be found, and liberal identity politics in Oregon are a ripe field.
Representative Bynum is a business owner and member of the Democratic Party of Oregon’s Black Caucus. Echoing concessions of identity such as the ones made by Kotek when she first sought the position, Bynum said in an interview for Willamette Week’s Rachel Monahan, “I think it would be meaningful for everyone. I am Black, but that's not all that I am.” Here, once again, we see identity politics exploited in a way that is effectively useless. The same liberals in Oregon who cheered Kotek’s identity as the first openly lesbian speaker of the house while she abnegated any substantive political or legislative engagement with the queer community, are the very same liberals who would be delighted in seeing the state’s first speaker of color (who also just so happens to be even more commerce friendly than the state’s first lesbian speaker). Bynum cites old traditions and customs for there not being a precedent in the state for a person of color being nominated for the house speakership. This is undeniable; Oregon was the first and only state founded as an all-white haven. The exclusionary laws that founded the state, and the horrific violence with which those laws were enforced, are reflected not only in Oregon’s contemporary systems of government and law enforcement, but in its demographics as well. Fewer than ten percent of all Oregonians identify as people of color, with only two percent identifying as Black or African American. Perhaps, then, representation in skin color is not as important as representing the ethnic and racial minorities throughout Oregon, though particularly in urban areas, who are experiencing the brunt of iniquitous economic policies. Taking a closer look at policy, Bynum’s unavailing, centrist approach to police reform fundamentally aligns with that of Kotek. This is the most substantial arena wherein change is needed for the advancement of the Black community in Oregon. Moreover, Bynum boasted of a leadership that would have been more focused on helping the Black community in Oregon through capitalistic means, channeling aid to businesses before people. Eventually, Bynum settled for Speaker Kotek’s sacrifice of greater transparency in party proceedings in order to go along with the Speaker’s fifth nomination. These maneuvers all seem to track with one staffer’s recent observations of Kotek in noting that the Speaker is “Purely transactional and knows how to use both the carrot and stick effectively, if occasionally ruthlessly,”. To this end, a lobbyist corroborates that the Speaker “has really elevated her game in terms of behind-the-scenes bargaining, vote trading, playing one side against the other... Not the most admirable of qualities, in my opinion, but then again, I've never been speaker”. The concession of transparency that was dealt by Kotek in order to maintain power was naturally presented as a win for the Black community as a whole in Oregon, who, according to Bynum, will now be afforded greater accessibility to positions of leadership within the Democratic party. This is not necessarily dubious in and of itself, although it does, in reality, do very little for a community who is disproportionately faced with poverty, and who continues to be terrorized by a racist police force and militias of white supremacists. This procedural victory for Bynum has palpably less to do with disenfranchised Black people and constituents of color than it has to do with a class of people who are already advantaged enough to garner political capital within a select group of powerful people. In order to truly lead and represent the Black community in Oregon, Bynum might have pursued instead, informational campaigns and outreach programs to rural communities, expanding benefits and accessibility within health and human services, pursuing a citizen’s basic income and reparations, defunding the state police apparatus, or pursuing a competent course of action to substantively and equitably address one of the most conspicuous issues the state of Oregon faces, that of its mounting population of unhoused people, poised to spike dramatically after the expiration of a statewide eviction moratorium in June. Already in the current session, however, Representative Bynum, as the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, initially cancelled a hearing for a housing bill that would essentially decriminalize homelessness, effectively deleting the testimony of eighty constituents. The liberal voters and lawmakers in Oregon cling to a neoliberal ideation of an identity politics whereby the co-optative success of one privileged person of color, or that of any other minority, amounts to satisfactory progress being made toward social justice. This, of course, comes with the caveat of the successful person in question primarily pursuing the interests of the free market over the interests of the community of their target identity. Just as queer leadership funds and liberal activists were thrilled to extol the virtues of trickledown empowerment when Tina Kotek was elected the first openly lesbian Oregon House Speaker, counterproductive aspects of representation were platformed by Bynum when she ran to allegedly empower the Black community in Oregon. With a Democratic supermajority in both the house and senate of the Oregon Legislative Assembly, and with a slate of regressive tax proposals intent on tackling a looming budget crisis, the 2021 legislative session is shaping up to be another performative struggle for legislative leaders and party caucuses as they try to achieve goals with at least some appearance of bipartisanship. This system tends to propagate the liberal, moralistic political culture of the state at large, whereby white nationalist and obstructionist Republican ideals are legitimated alongside policy proposals to better the lives of underserved citizens. The incentive of legislative leaders and party caucus in the Legislative Assembly, particularly those of the Democrats, can further be found in the prioritization of business and commerce over state social programs. This paper set out to investigate some of the nuances relating to legislative leaders and party caucus through structural delineations and examples within the Oregon Legislative Assembly. It further intended to lay out an actionable means of contextualizing the information it has presented. For whatever information this exploration was able to provide for its reader, was provided in the hope of equipping individuals and communities with the structural and cultural knowledge that is necessary to political revolution. There is a consensus among community development specialist that in the small group is found the true unit of change in our society. If we want a more equitable society, we must offer our immediate communities support through our individual talents and abilities. Familiarizing your community with the internal power structures and motivations of legislative leaders and party caucuses is a valuable way to engage in social reform by redirecting the conversation, as well as any financial allocations and physical efforts, toward the areas of greatest impact. It may be more judicious, for instance, for an organization to route their funds and energy toward direct service in their communities (through the distribution of food or supplies to communities in need) instead of pursuing legislative appeasements of identity politics. After all, the power of the state government belongs to the people, not its institutional leaders.