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Salem Democrat gets accolades as he wraps up record 38 years in Legislature, 20 as Senate president.

Peter Courtney drew praise Wednesday, March 2, from most of his colleagues in the Oregon Senate as the veteran Democrat from Salem wraps up his record 38 years in the Legislature.

The occasion was Courtney's speech in favor of his legislation (Senate Bill 1504) that essentially bans greyhound racing in Oregon. Even in an age of political talking heads, his oratory still commands attention, though his speeches in the chamber have been far fewer since he became Senate president two decades ago.

Since Multnomah Greyhound Park closed in 2004 — and the buildings in Wood Village were demolished in 2016 — Oregon has had no active dog-racing track. It is among a relative handful of states that still have not banned greyhound racing, though Courtney said only one state will retain it by the end of this year. That is West Virginia, where Courtney graduated from Charleston High School in 1961. He likes to call it "West (by God) Virginia," and he made a return visit 50 years later, courtesy of contributions from his colleagues.

"I think if I were in that legislature, I'd probably have something to say about that," Courtney said. "That (dog racing) saddens me because I am very fond of the state and her people."

Courtney has been a champion against animal abuse.

"If there is ever an issue that is not Democratic, not Republican, not urban and not rural, it's animals," he said.

"I do not know how you could do this to an animal that you are using to make money. I do not know how you could treat an animal like that."

Last time around

Courtney, who turns 79 in June, will complete his sixth term in the Senate this year. He was in the House from 1981 until 1984, when he made a losing primary bid for Oregon's 5th District seat in the U.S. House. He returned to the House in the 1988 election and stayed through 1998.

His Senate district extends from Salem north to Woodburn.

Courtney will still preside at alternate meetings of the Emergency Board, the 20 lawmakers that decide budget matters between sessions of the full Legislature. But barring a special session, the 2022 session that will close soon will be his final one. It was his effort that led to Oregon converting to annual legislative sessions that voters approved in 2010.

Sen. Lee Beyer, a Democrat from Springfield, came to the House in 1991 when Courtney was the Democratic minority leader. Beyer and Courtney were elected to the Senate in 1998; Beyer left in 2001 to accept an appointment to the Public Utility Commission, but was elected to the Senate again in 2010.

Beyer said the first bill that Courtney was assigned to be floor manager of in 1981, when Courtney was in his first House term, was House Bill 2712. It required the secretary of state to consider the readability of ballot titles, the official summaries of election measures.

Two decades later, in 2001, Courtney was an advocate for bond measures — which Oregon voters approved in 2002 — to supply money for earthquake-resistant school buildings, and for police and fire stations, hospitals and other emergency facilities. It took several more years for money to get to school projects.

"He wasn't willing to bet on not having a plan," said Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp of Bend, then in his second term in the House.

The Supreme Court Building in Salem, built in 1914, is undergoing similar renovation. The Capitol is in a second phase of renovation — including strengthening the House and Senate office wings opened in 1977 — and lawmakers will soon vote on budget authorization for seismic renovation of the main building opened in 1938.

"I will bet he will be successful," Knopp said. "I know that in his retirement, Senator Courtney will also be kind to animals, especially dogs. I think it is fitting that Oregon becomes one of those states that protects greyhounds from racing."

Most offer praise

In addition to Beyer and Knopp, senator after senator — all but five of the 29 other members — rose to praise Courtney's accomplishments on a range of issues. The praise took up nearly two hours of Wednesday's session.

When it came time for Courtney to give his closing remarks, he was left uncharacteristically speechless, except for two words: "Thank you."

In the end, the Senate passed SB 1504 by a vote of 27-0, including three Republicans who had voted against it in committees. Independent Brian Boquist of Dallas and Republican Art Robinson of Cave Junction were excused, as they have been all session. Republican Dallas Heard of Roseburg was excluded from the chamber on Feb. 24 after he continued to violate a Senate requirement for members, staff and others to wear face masks while in the chamber.

The bill now goes to the House for an up-or-down vote.

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