Oregon’s Republican ‘Walkout’ Was a Serious Defeat For the Left

Oregon’s political crisis made national news after eleven Republican Senators fled the state, shutting down the legislature dominated by a supermajority of Democrats. Even with the governorship and legislature firmly in hand, the Democrats were soundly defeated by a tiny group that exploited the quorum rule in the state’s constitution, achieving their main goal of killing climate change legislation.

Initially Governor Kate Brown ordered state police to hunt down the perpetrators, but she lost her nerve after a Republican Senator threatened to shoot state troopers while a militia-endorsed rally at the legislature shut down the building. Afterwards the Governor dropped the tough rhetoric and the Democrat Senate President ended the drama by declaring the climate bill dead.

This was the 2nd successful Republican walkout in as many months, the previous one was also rewarded by Democrats with concessions: retirement cuts for public employees while gun control and vaccine legislation was killed. The huge success of the 2nd walkout has further emboldened the Republican base.

The outcome is that the results from the last election have been nullified: November’s “blue wave” election was supposed to be a blow against Trumpism, but Trump’s Oregon allies called the question and the supermajority ‘resistance’ crumbled. The promise of a bold progressive agenda has been stymied by the Republicans, who succeeded only because the Democrats made repeated concessions to corporations that allowed Republicans to pose as defenders of working class and rural Oregonians.

A Dangerous Precedent that Shifts the State’s Balance of Power

The Democrat supermajority has essentially given veto power to a small minority of Trump loving Republicans, in a serious blow to democracy.

Consequently, labor, tenant and other progressive groups will be given fresh excuses why their priorities will be watered down or dismissed. The already-weak climate legislation from Democrats will get weaker, as evidenced by Kate Brown’s recent announcement that she will seek further compromise with rural communities about the cap and trade bill that triggered the crisis.

More dangerously, Oregon’s extremist militia movement was given an important victory: the threat of marching to the capitol fully armed was enough to shut down the building and resulted in their demands being met, which means they too carry a veto of sorts. The militia— the ‘Three Percenters’ — essentially acted as the paramilitary arm of the Republican party in this conflict. The Three Percenters is a classic right-wing anti-government group that has been linked to violent acts across the country and Canada.

Another right-wing group called ‘Timber Unity’ also stands as political victor: the group began as a Facebook group against the climate bill— even though the bill excluded timber— and helped organize a large rally at the capitol building. Timber Unity published a rambling essay warning of civil war in Oregon that went semi-viral, and later President Trump invited the Facebook admins to visit the White House.

Although the Republicans were defeated decisively in the last election, they’ve successfully organized a legislative coup. The coup could have been stopped if the Democrats appealed to and mobilized the broader community, but no call was made and it’s possible that nobody would have responded, since their base has been deflated after repeatedly watering down important legislation.

More importantly, several of the Democrats’ bills actually hurt working people. For example, their climate bill would have raised gas prices 23 cents a gallon. This fact was always unmentioned in the Democrat talking points, but was blasted all over rural Oregon by Republicans and right-wing groups, who were allowed to play-act as protectors of working people.

Labor and environmental groups should have also been loudly denouncing the rise in gas prices, insisting that corporations and the wealthy should bear the cost of the legislation. Instead they meekly followed the Democrats off the cliff, refusing to criticize the part of the bill that would have negatively affected their own members. Other legislation should have been denounced from the Left as well.

Oregon’s labor and progressive groups have allowed state politics to be relegated to top-down backroom deals, alienating the rank and file in the process. The Republicans won this round because they organized from the bottom up, exposing the shallow base of the Democrats and their allies.

Leading up to the Fallout

At the start of the legislative session Democrats began dashing the high hopes that their electoral victory spawned, forfeiting many opportunities to galvanize their base.

The first failure involved renter protections. A key demand of the tenant rights movement is to end the ban on local rent control— enabling cities to pass their own laws— and ceasing no-cause evictions. But Democrats went to the landlords for advice on the bill instead, ignoring renters.

Democrats thus left the local ban in place, instead passing a statewide bill that limited rent increases to 10% annually— the highest ‘rent control’ in the country, allowing landlords exorbitant profits after more than a decade of aggressive price-gouging, while tenants will continue to see rent increases they can’t afford.

Large financial contributions from landlords to both parties played a key role in disfiguring the legislation, which also produced a ‘no cause eviction’ law riddled with loopholes that leave many of the most vulnerable renters still at high risk of displacement

The next failure was education funding. The legislation was celebrated by those who’ve attempted to raise revenue for years, but a major flaw was embedded in the bill that’s already being exploited by Republicans: the ‘business tax’ that was chosen to fund the bill— a gross receipts tax— was chosen because it’s preferred by many in the business community, since the tax is easier to pass on to consumers when compared to a regular corporate income or capital tax.

Republicans are calling the bill “a hidden sales tax”, and they’re partially right: some prices will rise as a result and the Democrats will be blamed for the fallout, allowing Republicans to pose as defenders of the working class.

This legislative failure was connected to another: Republicans insisted that the retirement of public employees (PERS) be cut if revenue for education was raised, and the Democrats happily acquiesced, enraging a key part of their base. President of the union federation AFL-CIO Tom Chamberlain wrote a damning op-ed called ‘We Must Not Forget Oregon Democrats’ Betrayal on PERS.

Furthermore, Democrats passed a ‘Paid Family Leave’ bill that will certainly help a lot of people, but again business groups were given free reign to water down the bill till it was acceptable to them, thrilled that they were able to prevent a more progressive version of the bill from passing.

The poison pill they were allowed to place in the bill was a new payroll tax that most workers don’t yet know they’ll be paying (1% of their wages starting in 2022). Republicans will happily blame the Democrats for the smaller paychecks, and because of the part-time, precarious nature of most employment in Oregon— an ‘at will’ employment state— many workers will pay for a benefit they’ll never receive.

The new payroll tax, retirement cuts, ‘hidden sales tax’ and barely-defeated gas tax were all examples of Democrats acting as useful idiots for big business. Some of the blow back from these concessions could have been mitigated had Democrats actually engaged in public discussion about them. But such information always come after the celebratory dust settles, planting yet more seeds of distrust that sprout into Republican electoral victories.

After the Republican walkout new calls will be made to elect a Democratic supermajority that is ‘quorum proof’, but the moment will have passed— whatever base the Democrats have will be deflated while the Republicans are energized. The supermajority could be lost in the next election since most voters don’t view it as something worth saving.

Without Bold Action Oregon’s Political Crisis Will Worsen

The rise and fall of the Democratic supermajority— and the consequences for working class people— is a perfect example of why Oregon needs an independent labor party, capable of acting boldly and transparently to express the interests and needs of working class people.

But even a new party would run into some of the same undemocratic barriers rooted in the Oregon Constitution, written in 1857 by a tiny elite who created a state government in their image, and amended over the years to further express wealthy interests.

Until state government is radically reformed the majority of Oregonians will feel distanced from and dominated by the government that should instead be working for them (to this day the legislature fails to pay a living wage, which discourages working class people to run for office— and/or encourages corruption after entering office).

Oregon’s political status-quo is increasingly untenable, worsening as inequality widens while the housing, wage, and climate crises go largely ignored (or addressed only symbolically). The recent Republican victory means that the already-slow pace of social change will crawl slower, drowning out the already-dwindling voice of unions and other progressive organizations.

In a time of the politics of Trump and Bernie, Oregon’s Democrats foolishly think they can govern successfully by administering a status-quo rejected by nearly everyone. Big change is desperately needed but structurally rejected by the Democratic party. An Oregon labor party combined with a constitutional convention— lead by newly elected delegates— could push the state in a more democratic direction.

Without bold pro-worker action— untainted by big concessions to corporations— the far-right will continue growing. Without labor and progressive organizations making bold demands and publicly rejecting pro-corporate compromises, the far-right will continue to gain legitimacy by telling the truth about the regressive policies that progressive groups willingly ignore. There’s a lot at stake but the urgency will not be reflected by the Democratic party. Labor, socialist, and other community groups have a lot of work to do to prevent a further slide— possibly even an avalanche— into full scale Oregon Trumpism.

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com