In his final legislative session as a state representative, Marty Wilde, a Democrat, has ruffled feathers with leadership in the Oregon Legislature.
“I one hundred percent dedicated myself to institutional reform. We need to change the way the institution operates,” Wilde tells Eugene Weekly. “I wanted more transparency in the process and more responsiveness to the people, and that’s what I still hope to get.”
Wilde spent his final, lame-duck legislative session, which ran through the month of February, speaking out about the Legislature’s Democratic leadership, saying it’s not transparent in how it passes bills. Wilde isn’t the only legislator claiming this. Former state Rep. Brian Clem of Salem says he experienced similar roadblocks to drafting legislation and avoidance of voting on bills that would force legislators to have a political view on record.
Clem started a political action committee to support more “independent-minded” Democrats, but Wilde says there needs to be campaign finance limits and possibly a change in how Oregonians vote.
Wilde, who was first elected to the House in 2018, isn’t running for re-election and says when his term is over in January 2023, he’ll continue serving in the Air National Guard, but he hasn’t decided on whether he’s running for office again.
In summer 2021, when the Oregon Legislature was redistricting the state’s congressional and legislative districts, Wilde started a public fight with the party’s leadership. The Legislature’s redrawing of political boundaries is a constitutional duty it does every 10 years based on changing population from the U.S. Census Bureau, but Wilde alleged that Senate Democrats drew a map that favored incumbents. After he spoke out about it, he told EW that the Senate committee retaliated against him and made his House district unwinnable for a Democrat.
In October 2021, after the state Senate worked on redistricting the state’s legislative districts, Wilde filed a declaration in support of a lawsuit filed by two Lane County residents. Wilde said his new district isn’t consistent with the law regarding communities of interest.
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the redistricting was constitutional in November 2021.
House District 12, which Wilde would represent if he were to run for re-election, includes parts of south Eugene as well as rural precincts to the north and west of Cottage Grove and Creswell. Wilde says Republicans are favored by 10 points in the newly drawn district.
Wilde says he’s not running for re-election in the district because it could cost a lot of money, and the party wouldn’t likely help him out. “There’s no way the party is going to spend a million dollars on someone who’s as independent as me,” he says.
In summer 2021, Wilde says, he left the Legislature’s Democratic Party caucus because it is anti-democratic and lacks transparency. “We certainly weren’t perfect as a caucus going into pandemic,” Wilde says. “The pandemic worsened all of the worst impulses of leadership.”
The Legislature’s Democrats would meet together in its caucus to plan on which legislation it would support, he says, but the problem with that is that a quorum of the legislative body was meeting, which is a violation of the Oregon Constitution.
Besides violating the Constitution, Wilde says the ruling party wouldn’t allow legislation to be introduced for a vote if it wouldn’t pass. This robs voters of knowing where their legislator stands on issues, he adds. For example, he says a Republican-introduced bill that would empower the Legislature to impeach the governor failed to make it to the floor because it could’ve forced Democrats to be in a position that could be seen as a condemnation of Gov. Kate Brown. Oregon is the only state without an impeachment process.
“It’s not the end of the world to have the Legislature have a public debate and then not have something pass,” he says. “That’s what people expect: You discuss some things and you’re being responsive to their concerns.”
Clem, the former legislator from Salem, resigned from the Oregon House of Representatives earlier this year to take care of his mother. He says he experienced similar political obstacles as Wilde. In the Legislature, where he served several terms, “There is a strong preference for having the debates about bills be private and in caucus meetings only,” Clem says.
If leadership doesn’t have the votes, he adds, bills don’t go to the floor to be voted on. And if you want to introduce your own bill and have it voted on on the floor, you have to prove that you have enough Republican votes, he says.
This creates a complex bill process, one that Clem says isn’t portrayed in the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon short “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” Even if a bill had enough votes in committee to move to a floor vote, he says if the Speaker doesn’t approve of it, it doesn’t move there.
Introducing legislation that the Legislature’s leadership didn’t first approve of takes a lot of convincing, both Wilde and Clem say.
Wilde references House Bill 4092, a veterans dental bill that he worked on with Rep. Cedric Hayden (R-Cottage Grove). It faced obstacles from uninterested leaders, he says. The bill would end up passing unanimously in the House and later become law, but the two lawmakers had to work hard to get a vote, he says. “The price tag was $1 million just for set-up costs, and the begging, borrowing, arm-twisting, because it wasn’t in the budget that was decided in advance by leadership,” Wilde says.
Leadership in the Democratic caucus is chosen by how well legislators can fundraise, both Clem and Wilde say.
“They have the ability to go to what they call ‘the partners’ and raise $400,000 and use that as an example as to why they should be elected into leadership,” Clem says. “If the people they’re raising money from don’t want the bill to be voted on because it’s awkward, since it’s popular with the public, you’ve got a real problem on your hands if that person is the gatekeeper.”
Clem formed a political action committee (PAC) called Oregonians Are Ready to recruit more “independent-minded Democrats” to the Legislature. So far Clem is the only person to give to the committee; he loaned it $500,000. He says the PAC doesn’t intend to influence politics or politicians, but to encourage more Democrats to run for office who don’t fit the current mold of who’s in power today.
Wilde says the PAC could have mixed results. It could recruit more Democrats to the Legislature who may not fall in line with Democratic leadership, but it doesn’t address the role campaign money has had in Oregon. Although campaign finance transactions are publicly accessible in Oregon, the state has no limits on contributions.
Both Clem and Wilde agree that one way to address the Legislature’s leadership issues is through campaign finance reform and different forms of elections, such as ranked-choice voting. And current speaker of the House Dan Rayfield has supported those policies in the past. Combined with the minority Republican Party, who Wilde says is in a position to demand good governance bills, the Legislature could be in a place to address campaign finance and the state’s voting system, which could encourage bipartisanship in Salem.
But unless the Legislature addresses campaign finance and its voting system, Wilde says the state’s governance model is “bury your brother,” when it used to be “run, govern, run.” “It’s about who’s funding the elections and who has a say,” he says. “By keeping no limits on campaign donations, you’re guaranteeing that a small group of people will control the agenda.”