Oregon Legislators gloat & Oregonians lose big time

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Posted by Chris on September 06, 1999 at 11:08:01:

Democrats say votes will turn their way

At a convention in Coos Bay, delegates are optimistic that discontent will help them win GOP seats

Monday, July 19, 1999

By Laura Oppenheimer of The Oregonian staff

COOS BAY -- Democrats and Republicans finally agreed on something this weekend: They both gloated over Republicans' legislative victories.

Democrats hate what they've seen in Salem this year -- and plan to tell voters exactly why.

At their state convention in Coos Bay, Democrats said the GOP-led Legislature had given them the perfect strategy to reclaim the House and Senate in November 2000 elections.

"As a Democrat, I'm tickled pink to see the collapse of the leadership," said Jim Edmunson, state party chairman. "As a former legislator, it sickens me. As a chairman, it energizes me to go the extra mile."

About 100 Democrats from across the state echoed Edmunson, ticking off a list of Republican policies that fueled their anger. This Legislature has shown Oregonians that it doesn't care about families and workers, party delegates said.

Democrats' biggest complaint
GOP leaders forced a budget showdown with Gov. John Kitzhaber by passing a schools budget of $4.811 billion, which is significantly lower than the governor's $4.95 billion goal. This anchors the Democrats' list of gripes.

They also complained about the slow action on a proposed gas-tax increase that would pay for road repairs and construction, and the failure of a gun-control bill that would have expanded criminal background checks at gun shows.

But Republicans don't see these moves as bad policy. Voters will respect the Legislature for keeping spending in check and giving families educational options such as charter schools, said Darryl Howard, executive director of the state Republican party.

"There are a lot of good votes Republicans have made to show they're doing the right thing," Howard said.

Democrats need to convince voters that Howard is wrong if they hope to wrestle legislative power from Republicans, who have a 34-25 advantage in the House and a 17-13 edge in the Senate. Democrats lost control of the House in 1989 and the Senate in 1993.

On a statewide basis, Democrats dominate Oregon politics. They claim the governor's office and five of seven seats in Congress. Edmunson said he expected the state's four Democratic U.S. House members to vie to keep their seats, and the party will fight to keep control of the secretary of state's office. That position will be especially important because of upcoming legislative redistricting, which could shift political power.

Democrats also boast a numerical advantage: About 792,000 Oregonians were registered as Democrats last year, compared with 705,000 Republicans. Still, the party has struggled to win state legislative seats during the 1990s, especially in heavily Republican districts in Eastern Oregon and the Portland suburbs.

Democrats will need to divert attention from divisive issues such as abortion and gun control and instead focus on problems that affect people's everyday lives, said Maria Smithson, state vice-chairwoman.

"Wedge issues have overtaken the spotlight during the last eight years," Smithson said. "This has been an advantage to Republicans, because they like it when they can hide what they're doing with pocketbook issues."

If Democrats want to reclaim control of the Senate, this will be their chance. Republicans hold 11 of the 15 seats up for vote. And unless the Legislature passes a pending bill that would loosen term limits, all five of the senators who will be ousted are Republicans, meaning that there will be no incumbent in those races.

At the convention, Smithson presented a grass-roots strategy that includes lots of letter writing, column writing, radio talk-show appearances and door-to-door campaigns. Democrats also will host their first volunteer education workshops and distribute more information about incumbents' voting records.

Making politics personal
In Lane County, Democrats plan to use the party strategy of publicizing what they see as this Legislature's failures. Candidates can tie voters' daily lives to decisions made by Senate President Brady Adams, R-Grants Pass, and House Speaker Lynn Snodgrass, R-Damascus, said county Democratic Chairman Philip Barnhart.

"As we drive through (and) the roads and potholes get worse, we need to remember that these are Brady Adams' and Lynn Snodgrass' potholes," Barnhart said. "When your child doesn't have a counselor or art classes at school, remember that this detriment is thanks to Brady Adams, Lynn Snodgrass and the people who support them."

Democrats also said they planned to recruit tirelessly for local positions such as school board member or county commissioner. These officials will serve as the "farm team" for future legislative spots.

Republicans are also canvassing the state for candidates. Howard said Democrats in conservative districts would struggle to play ball in Eastern and Southern Oregon.

"For the most part, that's a Republican stronghold," Howard said. "They'll have to look somewhere other than the farm team for House and Senate races."

The Democrats see legislative power as their only means of victory. Having a Democratic governor doesn't do much good when the Legislature can't pass bills that Democrats support, Edmunson said. "There are certain things we hold dear," he said, "and we've decided the only way we can accomplish them is to seize control of the Legislature."

You can reach Laura Oppenheimer at 503-221-8234 or by e-mail at loppenheimer@news.oregonian.com.

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