Sen. Tim Knopp and Rep. Cheri Helt represent the middle of the state. Since mid-February they have found themselves in a new political middle.
They are the only Republicans who have not participated in a boycott against a proposal that aims to cut Oregon's greenhouse gas emissions. All other Republicans left the building Feb. 24, a move that effectively halts most legislative activity. The state constitution requires that each chamber have two-thirds of its members present to vote on bills. They might not return before the constitution requires lawmakers to close up shop Sunday, March 8. That means dozens of proposed bills and budget stopgaps could perish without legislative action.
With days left in the 2020 Legislature's short session, hope for a resolution is a rare sentiment around the Capitol. Helt, of Bend, may be the exception.
"I'm here in hopes that we can reach a compromise," Helt, a restaurant owner, said in an interview Tuesday, March 3. "We need both parties to come together and be able to create legislation that's good for all Oregonians. And my hope is that leadership can come together and we can continue to finish off session."
Walkouts not popular
Both Helt and Knopp, also of Bend, represent districts where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in rapidly growing Central Oregon. Jason Kropf, a Democrat, has filed to run against Helt, while two Democrats, Eileen Kiely and Brian Hinderberger, have filed to run for Knopp's seat, according to state Elections Division records.
But Knopp and Helt insist their presence is not intended to appease voters who could give them a pink slip in November if they disapproved of Republican walkouts. "For me, these choices are not about elections," Helt said. "These choices are about representing my constituents."
"You have to represent your district," Knopp said in his office, where he'd propped open a window to let in the early spring breeze. "And it's not about what would please Democrats. It's about representing the entire district."
"I think if you are looking to avoid criticism, serving in the Oregon Legislature is not the place for you." — Sen. Tim Knopp
In January, the public opinion research firm FM3 interviewed 750 Oregonians on the phone and online who were likely to vote in November, asking them whether they supported or opposed "repeated walkouts by Republicans in the state Legislature." Thirty-six percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat supported repeated walkouts by Republicans, while 59% said they somewhat or strongly opposed the tactic. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4% at the 95% confidence level.
These days, Oregon voters can't be sliced up into two neat halves. Non-affiliated voters — those who register with no party — make up a larger share of voters than registered Republicans do.
In Knopp's district, there are more non-affiliated voters than there are Democrats, and in Helt's district, non-affiliated voters are only slightly outnumbered by Democrats, according to the secretary of state's office. The FM3 poll also asked non-affiliated voters whether they were more or less likely to vote for a state senator who had walked out, and found that 63% were somewhat or strongly less likely to vote for such a candidate.
'Compromise and move forward'
On Tuesday, two proposed measures to rein in the use of walkouts got incrementally closer to the ballot, according to a press release from Service Employees International Union 503, one of the state's largest unions.
One petition would disqualify a lawmaker from running again for their House or Senate seat if they had ten or more unexcused absences from a floor session, while the other petition would fine each lawmaker who walked out $500 a day, cancel their salary and daily expense payments, and would prohibit lawmakers from using campaign funds to pay for expenses associated with walking out.
Knopp, who is executive vice president of the Central Oregon Builders Association and executive director of Partners for Affordable Housing, participated in a walkout last year because of a version of the climate bill. He said he had "a lot of input" from constituents over the last six months. "They want me oppose cap-and-trade, but they want me to do it in the building and try to be constructive to try to find a consensus solution," Knopp said. "My district likes bipartisanship."
Helt said she made it clear to her fellow Republicans that she would not walk out, but said she couldn't recall the moment she made that decision. "I do yes votes. I do no votes," Helt said. "I don't do walkouts. I don't do boycotts."
During the past week, Knopp and Helt have attended floor sessions. Knopp has attended policy committee meetings — which have been rare in the waning days of session — and Helt traveled back to Bend on Monday, March 2, to host a roundtable discussion on the coronavirus.
Helt said she is not caucusing with Republicans, and Knopp said that he's not talking "formally" with his Republican colleagues.
"They're caucusing and have their own strategy, and my strategy is to be here," Helt said.
"And hopefully we can get people to work together and compromise and move forward."
Can't avoid criticism
Knopp and Helt have broken with their party before. Last year, Helt proposed tightening immunization requirements for public school students, a measure that drew fierce Republican opposition. That proposal was sacrificed by Democrats in a deal to get Senate Republicans to end their May 2019 boycott over a school funding bill.
"I do yes votes. I do no votes. I don't do walkouts. I don't do boycotts." — Rep. Cheri Helt
Knopp ticked off a list of issues that he's worked on over the years with Democratic colleagues, including a recent law creating a program for workers to take paid leave from work when they have a child or need to take care of a sick relative.
Helt said she had received positive remarks from constituents about not participating in the boycott. "They're glad that I'm here," she said. "I think that Bend wants a sensible center, pragmatic representative, and I'm hoping that I meet those needs…they will be deciding in the election."
Knopp said his office has received a lot of emails and calls. "Most people are respectful, but there's a lot of passion behind the issue," Knopp said. "I understand that. I think if you are looking to avoid criticism, serving in the Oregon Legislature is not the place for you."
By Claire Withycombe
Oregon Capital Bureau
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