Redistricting highlights urban-rural divide within Columbia County
For decades, Columbia County has been represented in Salem by a single state representative.
But at least two redistricting proposals considered by lawmakers this year would divide Columbia County, pairing parts of it with neighboring Clatsop County.
The Oregon Legislature is in the process of redrawing congressional and state legislature districts.
The districts — six for Oregon's congressional delegation, 30 for the state Senate and 60 for the state House of Representatives — are being redrawn based on 2020 Census numbers.
State House and Senate districts will be redrawn, but the number of districts isn't changing. For the U.S. House, the number of districts will increase from five to six, meaning that each of the current districts will have to shrink.
Legislators proposed draft maps of new districts, and residents were invited to submit their own proposals.
Plan A, put forward by Senate Democrats, and Plan C, offered by House Democrats, would cut up Columbia County.
Oregon House District 31, which includes all of Columbia County and parts of Washington and Multnomah counties, has seen significant growth in the past decade, putting the population 5,414 above the average. Democrat Brad Witt currently represents HD 31.
Plan A would cut out the Clatskanie area and place it in House District 32 on the North Coast. Witt, who resides a few miles east of Clatskanie city limits, would stay within the HD 31 boundaries. HD 31 would add much more of rural western Washington County, withdrawing from parts of Multnomah County and suburban Washington County.
Plan C would dramatically shrink down HD 31, keeping Scappoose, St. Helens and Sauvie Island in the district along with portions of Washington and Multnomah counties. HD 32 would expand to include most of Columbia County, while taking in less of Tillamook County — drawing incumbent Rep. Suzanne Weber, a Tillamook Republican, out of the district.
Both Witt and Sen. Betsy Johnson, who represents Senate District 16, which includes HD 31, would be drawn out of their current districts under Plan C as well.
While Johnson's home is included in HD 31, the map constitutes SD 16 differently; Senate Democrats propose to have it include House Districts 10 and 32, a swath of the coast stretching as far south as Lincoln County.
Johnson would live in Senate District 15, a much more strongly Democratic district than her current seat. Witt would live in HD 32, a likely swing district anchored by Democratic-leaning Clatsop County.
Republicans propose to keep Columbia County intact in their own proposal, Plan B. Under those lines, Witt's district would lose population by mostly withdrawing from strongly liberal suburban areas, without whose voters Witt would have lost re-election last year.
The draft of Plan B would switch the names for HD 31 and HD 32, though the actual boundaries for the two districts would not change significantly. Under that proposal, the district including Columbia County would shift westward into more rural parts of Washington County.
In written testimony, Robert Keyser, a Clatskanie resident and Port of Columbia County commissioner, urged the redistricting committees to adopt Plan B.
"Plan B is the best of the plans put forward in that it encapsulates the rural, agricultural and forest products-based economies of the communities throughout the district," Keyser wrote.
Keyser alluded to last year's election results, in which Witt was re-elected despite Republican opponent Brian G. Stout handily carrying Columbia County.
"Plan A will continue to subject all of the voters of Columbia and Clatsop counties to the whim of the narrow but heavily populated slim portion of western Multnomah and northern Washington counties. This frequently and almost exclusively results in the voters of Columbia County being overruled by this small portion of Multnomah and Washington counties, thereby denying us of a representative with our values or even much interest in our communities," Keyser wrote.
Johnson, unsurprisingly, panned Plan C, which was submitted by Reps. Andrea Salinas, Wlnsvey Campos and Khanh Pham. Salinas co-chairs the House Redistricting Committee.
"I think that Plan C splits communities of common interest," said Johnson, who caucuses with Democrats but frequently votes with Republicans. In recent elections, Republicans have cross-nominated her in SD 16, reflecting her popularity across party lines in the sprawling district.
In his testimony, Keyser wrote that the Plan C boundary that cuts Johnson out of SD 16 by just one block was "petty."
"To deprive Columbia and Clatsop counties of the choice to retain our senator is purely political and an affront to the voters of this district," Keyser wrote.
While some took issue with any proposal that would divide the county, other Columbia County residents said the county is already divided by which large city is closest.
"The Columbia County I live in today is very divided," wrote Greg Pettit, a Warren resident and chair of Columbia County Democrats. "North County residents generally work, recreate and shop across the bridge in Longview, Washington. Those of us who live in South County, which is generally St. Helens and Scappoose, tend to work, shop, and eat in Washington and Multnomah counties."
Pettit added, "Columbia County is comprised of several small towns, but our values in South County tend to be more in line with the communities in the Beaverton/Hillsboro area."
In testimony to the redistricting committee in favor of Plan C, Erika Paleck described her home of Vernonia as "the often-overlooked stepchild of Columbia County."
Vernonia is historically a logging town but, Paleck wrote, "the truth is these jobs are disappearing and being replaced by jobs in Washington County and Hillsboro."
She added, "This is also where most people shop, see their physicians, etc. They don't go back over the hill to St. Helens or Scappoose; they go to Hillsboro or Forest Grove."
Scappoose and St. Helens are the fastest growing areas in the county. In the past decade, Scappoose's population grew 21.5%, more than double the statewide rate of 10.6% and higher than the rates in Portland and Hillsboro, 2020 Census data shows. Columbia County grew 6.6%, but excluding St. Helens — which grew 7.2% — and Scappoose, the county population grew less than 3% over a decade.
As Oregon adds a sixth congressional district, where Columbia County will fall on the congressional map is also up for grabs.
Historically, the county has been part of the First Congressional District, a safe Democratic district currently represented by Beaverton's Suzanne Bonamici.
Columbia County would remain fully in the First District under Democrats' Plan A. The plan would cut out Yamhill County and part of Washington County while adding North Portland and parts of Northeast Portland to the district, which would remain a strongly Democratic seat.
But under Republicans' Plan B, Columbia County would become part of a geographically larger, much more Republican-friendly district. The Fifth Congressional District would include Columbia, Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill, Polk, Lincoln, Benton and Linn counties and parts of Douglas and Marion counties.
Republicans drew Fifth District Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Canby Democrat, out of his district in their congressional proposal, placing him instead in the new Sixth Congressional District. While Schrader could choose to run in the Fifth District anyway, that would presumably set up a wide-open race for the Democratic nomination, although the Republican nominee would likely be favored in the general election. State legislators have to live in the district they represent, but U.S. Representatives only have to live in the state, not necessarily the district.
The House and Senate redistricting committees will select plans — either already proposed or new versions — to send to the full legislature for approval.
Lawmakers have until Sept. 27 to approve district maps and have Gov. Kate Brown sign them. If they miss the deadline, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan will take over legislative redistricting, and a special panel named by the Oregon Supreme Court will oversee congressional redistricting.
The House Redistricting Committee is evenly split between majority Democrats and minority Republicans under a bipartisan deal forged between Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democratic candidate for governor, and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan earlier this year.
Brown has called a special session for the Legislature to take up redistricting on Sept. 20. The prospects of lawmakers reaching agreement on either legislative or congressional maps is unclear.
"In Oregon, we believe your vote is your voice, and every voice matters," Brown said in a statement Friday, Sept. 10, officially announcing the long-expected special session. "This special session is an opportunity for legislators to set aside their differences and ensure Oregon voters have their voices heard at the ballot box. Based on my conversations with legislative leaders, and the ongoing public testimony we are hearing from Oregonians across the state this week, I believe the Legislature is ready to begin the next step of the redistricting process."
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