Vowing to protect incumbents, Republican state legislators in the House on Monday picked a Portland-area freshman legislator to lead them, replacing Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass.
The legislators voted in Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, as House Republican Leader. As such, she manages the political fortunes of the 22 members who are in the minority party.
The move was made as many Republican legislators felt Wilson was taking the wrong approach to elections, focusing on a few core issues that play well in rural areas while ignoring a platform appealing to voter-rich urban areas.
Over the years, Republicans have continually lost seats in the Portland metro area, including several in last year's legislative races. That left the caucus with three fewer seats in the House.
"It has to be a priority to defend all of our incumbents," Drazan said in an interview Tuesday. "We have to keep all of our existing seats. We can't go backward."
Wilson did not return a request for comment.
Serving with Drazan will be Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, as deputy leader and Lynn Findley, R-Vale, as whip. Bonham said the group represents a wide swath of Oregon, from urban to the most rural, and in between.
That diversity was tactical, he said.
"We are a party of opportunity, we are a party of prosperity and affordability," Bonham said. "At the end of the day, what happened under the supermajority? Life got more expensive in Oregon."
Bonham said the push to change leadership happened after the 2019 Legislature ended in June, but Drazan declined to say how long she's been working on her bid.
Both declined to discuss what role was played by the business community, a significant donor to Republican campaigns.
Five employees of the caucus staff resigned in the wake of the change, leaving only the newly hired spokesperson, Tayleranne Gillespie.
Several legislators declined to say how they voted, and the caucus as a whole agreed to keep the vote count private.
Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said she voted for Drazan to get a more modern approach to campaigning. Wallan said leading during campaigns requires different skills than managing a legislative session.
Wallan said her southern Oregon district has become more blue over the years, similar to the districts in the greater Portland metro area that have flipped from Republican to Democrat. Drazan said she wants to promote a bigger, more inclusive party.
"I do think Republicans need to be responsive to the wide range of Republicans who are out there," Drazan said. "I do think we need to do our best possible work representing that Republicans can vary on a whole lot of issues."
Wallan said Wilson and his team were too focused on issues like opposing gun control and vaccine regulation or promoting small government.
"We have a message of prosperity, looking out for peoples' wallets," Wallan said. "I don't think the same message that plays in some of the more rural parts of the state plays in Medford, Bend, Wilsonville, Beaverton, Hillsboro. That is a different message and I think we need to have a more open view of where we are really at."
Wallan said she has been pushing a broader dialogue of what works in more urban swing districts. Drazan, as the only Republican in the greater metro area, was a natural choice, she said.
Findley supported the change.
"This was the time. Let's pivot and make a little change," said Findley, also in his first term. "I think it's a positive thing."
Findley said past leaders worked hard, but he said a different perspective will be helpful.
"I think she's an incredibly gifted person," Findley said of Drazan. "She has great, forward-thinking visions."
Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Linn County, said Drazan brings institutional knowledge from her time as a legislative staffer.
Drazan worked for top Republican leaders in the 1990s and 2000s. In a press release Monday evening, she stated that she looks forward to leading the caucus to work on behalf of all Oregonians.
"Hard-working Oregonians must always be our priority. We are committed to supporting and serving the interests of families and communities while making Oregon more affordable," Drazan said.
Findley said he doesn't know how the change will play out long-term, but he hopes it's for the better.
"The intent is we should be a united caucus and move forward," he said. "Now will everybody be 100% united? Perhaps not, but I think we can get there."
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