Johnson warns of 'negative ramifications' over redistricting deal
Columbia County's state senator says she believes the county's best interests are served by the redistricting maps the Legislature approved last month.
At the same time, however, Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson expressed disappointment with the way her fellow Democrat, House Speaker Tina Kotek, handled the process in Salem.
"The process is going to have negative ramifications going forward for a long time," said Johnson, who lives in Warren.
House Democrats had proposed drawing Johnson, a moderate Democrat who often votes with Republicans in the Senate and has been cross-nominated by Republicans in her recent re-election campaigns, into a far more liberal district based in the Portland suburbs.
The final House and Senate maps were based on what Senate Democrats proposed instead, leaving Johnson in a district similar to the current version of Senate District 16 that she represents, which the senator described as a "good thing." If she runs for and wins re-election, she will continue to represent all of Columbia and Clatsop counties, as well as parts of Tillamook and Washington counties.
While Johnson is very popular in her district and has consistently won re-election without any serious opposition, the new district would likely be an electoral battleground if Johnson retires.
Meanwhile, Columbia County remains part of Oregon's First Congressional District in the new congressional map. That district is represented by Beaverton Democrat Suzanne Bonamici in the U.S. House, and it is expected to remain a safely Democratic district, despite Columbia County's conservative leanings.
"I voted yes on all of those (maps), knowing that Columbia County's interests were protected in the House and Senate districts and believing full well that no matter what happened with the congressional maps, they were going to pass on the Senate floor, and they are going to be litigated," Johnson said.
While Johnson gave the maps her approval, the same cannot be said for how redistricting was handled, in her view.
Kotek and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan swung a deal in the spring: Minority Republicans would stop using delaying tactics in the House, clearing the way for bills to receive floor votes in a timely fashion, and in exchange, Kotek would give them an equal number of seats on the House's redistricting committee.
The same agreement was not reached in the Senate, where Republicans remained in the minority on the redistricting committee led by Democratic Sen. Kathleen Taylor.
During the special session that Gov. Kate Brown called to handle redistricting, with a Supreme Court-imposed deadline fast approaching, Kotek altered the deal. She effectively split the House redistricting committee into two: a committee with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans to finalize legislative maps, and a committee with a Democratic majority to fast-track the congressional map, a Democratic gerrymander that analysts say will likely result in Democrats representing five of Oregon's six congressional districts.
"One of the most fundamental problems out of this whole thing is that Speaker Kotek made a deal with the House Republicans to have an equal number of souls on the committee on the House side."
Johnson said. "She backed out of that deal."
Johnson added, "I think the ability for the parties to work together — and frankly, the House and Senate to work together — has been very damaged by this process."
Democrats argue that Republicans were slow-walking the redistricting process and not engaging in "good faith" negotiations over the proposed maps, leaving Kotek — who is running for governor next year — with no choice but to appoint a new committee.
House Republicans expressed outrage, boycotting the special session until the day before the deadline, when they returned to the floor to allow the maps to pass, largely along party lines. They say Kotek's actions are proof majority Democrats cannot be trusted to work with the minority.
Legislative and congressional maps need to be updated every 10 years, when U.S. Census numbers become available.
"Of course it's a struggle," Johnson said. "It decides power for the next decade."
Johnson added, "What everybody knows is that this is the most highly partisan process, and the party in power controls the process and is interested in making sure their interests are fully manifest in how the lines are drawn."
While redistricting has been completed, Johnson noted the process will likely continue to play out in court. Republicans have vowed to sue, saying the congressional districts were drawn illegally to benefit Democrats. Johnson said she thinks disaffected Democrats may also challenge the lines.
"The congressional maps are going to get litigated one way or the other," Johnson said. "I think both the R's and the D's sue on those maps, saying that they were gerrymandered and failed the basic tests that should have been employed to set up the boundaries on the congressional maps."
Johnson is less certain that the legislative maps will face litigation. While no Republicans voted for the maps on the floor, some Republicans acknowledged that Democrats had made concessions after receiving feedback from members of the public and the minority party. Nonpartisan analysts say the legislative maps appear to be relatively fair, although considering Democrats' substantial edge in Oregon, they are still likely to result in Democratic majorities in Salem.
Two Democrats, Brian Clem and Brad Witt, voted against the legislative plan in the House.
While Columbia County remains intact within Johnson's Senate district, it is split between two House districts. Clatskanie was drawn into House District 32, held by freshman Rep. Suzanne Weber. R-Tillamook. Witt — who resides in unincorporated Columbia County, east of Clatskanie — will still live in House District 31.
The redrawn HD 31 favors Republicans, as it drops strongly Democratic suburban areas north of Hillsboro and Beaverton and instead takes in rural parts of Washington County, along with the suburban city of North Plains. While North Plains is trending toward Democrats as it grows and diversifies, those rural areas are more heavily Republican. If Witt runs for re-election, he will do so as a distinct underdog.
Asked if she spoke with Witt about the maps, Johnson demurred.
"I've talked with dozens of people — House, Senate, Republicans, Democrats," Johnson said.
Reflecting on the process of redistricting, Johnson called it "tremendously politically supercharged and very contentious."
That contentious atmosphere is something Johnson has encountered going back several years in the Oregon Legislature.
"What people lose track of is that one of the last tools in the toolbox of either party is to deny a quorum," she said. "This is the third redistricting that I have been through. They were doing redistricting when I first went into the House of Representatives where I started."
Back then, Johnson noted, it was Democrats who were in the minority in the House, and House Democrats — including Johnson and Brown — walked out to deny a quorum when Republicans tried to push through their redistricting plan.
"This is high-stakes partisan ball," Johnson said.
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