Dan Rayfield

From Jungle Cruise to Oregon Legislature

Dan Rayfield hasn’t had the typical politician’s life, but he says that’s provided him with a different perspective as House speaker 

Being speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives isn’t Dan Rayfield’s first leadership job.

In 1997, Rayfield worked as a skipper of Disney World’s Jungle Cruise, a staple of the amusement park where the captain tells scripted corny jokes throughout the ride. His own jokes were improvised and on the racy side, he tells Eugene Weekly. After some riders egged him on, he pushed the boundaries a little too far, and he says he got fired. 

Getting fired from Disney World was a wake up call for him that he says put him back on track. He went back to school and, 25 years later, the Corvallis Democrat is leading the Oregon House of Representatives as its speaker.

First elected as speaker at the start of the 2022 short session and again Jan. 9, Rayfield now looks to his first regular legislative session in the leadership role. 

Disney aside, Rayfield didn’t have a slick political life. He has a minor criminal record, flunked college the first time around and struggled to keep a job at Disney World. Years later, he’s leading Oregon’s House, looking for ways to address the state’s looming problems, such as housing, as well as finding ways to wrangle in the state’s bottomless cash pit that is its campaign finance system. 

Rayfield’s parents divorced when he was a year old, and he says he lived with his mother in Southern California until he was in fourth grade, when he moved to Oregon to be with his father. 

In a 2022 speech he gave after he was elected speaker for the first time, Rayfield said that he didn’t graduate high school on time after failing an entire term because he didn’t show up to class. Around that time, he says he drank, did drugs and struggled with ADD. Rayfield was arrested four times, an arrest history that included a DUII and reckless endangerment, and he dropped out of Western Oregon University after two terms with a 1.4 GPA. 

It was during a bout of mono that he says he had to withdraw from WOU, and that’s when he decided to go work at Disney World, a job he held for a few months. When his mother found out that he had gotten fired weeks before finishing the Disney World program, Rayfield says she was disappointed. She hoped that it would be his first success, he recalls, something that he could build upon. 

Rayfield was working at a Kay Jewelers in Washington Square Mall in Portland when he decided to go to community college for the fall ’99 term. He took three classes, he says, which he earned C’s in. Studying at community college provided him with opportunities to connect with faculty that helped him find academic direction. “There’s a level of personal connection,” he says. “They really care about what they’re teaching and in a way that just resonated with me, like pretty heavily.” 

Rayfield would go on to graduate from WOU and earn a law degree at Willamette University. In 2014, he was elected to the Oregon House. In 2022, after then-Speaker Tina Kotek stepped down to focus on her gubernatorial race, Rayfield was elected speaker. 

Most of the bills in Rayfield’s first legislative session weren’t too controversial, as the Legislature was in a position to approve $1.4 billion in spending. It was a way to make a visible impact in communities throughout the state, he says. 

But during that short session, Rayfield says the Legislature was able to pass the farmworker overtime bill, legislation that he says no one thought it could pass. “Somehow we were able to find goodwill, keep people in the building and do something that historically we were unable to do in a long session,” he says. 

The 2023 regular legislative session began Jan. 9 and runs through June 25. One of the more urgent issues, Rayfield says, is housing. “One of the things that we’re challenging all of ourselves is that we need to deliver a housing package within the first 60 days,” he says. “Whether you’re in Eugene, Portland, or you’re in eastern Oregon, this is something that’s impacting every community.” 

During the monthslong legislative session, Rayfield says there’s time to talk about some of the broader issues around housing, such as land-use laws and rent stabilization, topics that are difficult to discuss during a short session. “We have this tremendous opportunity in the session to be immediately responsive in terms of housing but also thinking in a 10- to 20-year mindset,” he says. “There’s the now and then there’s the future.” 

In a state where the 2022 three-way gubernatorial race raked in about $70 million, Rayfield says he also hopes to see some progress on addressing campaign finance reform. He says he’s been “tilting at the windmill” that is campaign finance reform since he was 19 years old, back when he was gathering signatures to put it on a ballot. It’s a difficult policy conversation where every legislator has a different view of campaign money, he says. “If we’re not successful in this session, I’ll be the first one out there working to gather signatures,” he says. “Oregonians want to see this done.” 

The speaker is fourth in line for the governor’s office, preceded in order by Senate president, state treasurer and secretary of state. Among the office’s responsibilities is to appoint members and chairs to committees, refer bills to committees and preside over deliberations. 

The position of speaker isn’t as powerful as some may think, Rayfield says. A bill’s pathway to law typically begins in committee, and if it’s passed there, the legislative body votes on it. The speaker cannot stop that process, Rayfield says, though the Senate president can sit on legislation that has passed a committee in that chamber of the Legislature. 

Unlike last year, the Democratic Party doesn’t have its two-thirds majority in the House. But Rayfield says he’s not concerned about that. Members of the Oregon House are able to know each other on a personal level, he says. He and House Republican Party Leader Vikki Bresse-Iverson of Prineville recently took a three-day trip to eastern Oregon, where part of the itinerary was exploring the area’s approaches to its extreme drought. 

Relationships matter in building a culture of respect in the House, which is important when debating policy, he says. And what he says helps him build that commonality between legislators, whether Democrat or Republican, is the road he took to become speaker. “The people who take the different path and have a different lens or a different look on life,” Rayfield says. “That adds value in all different aspects.” ν

Track bills, find your legislator and learn more about the lawmaking process at OregonLegislature.gov.

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