Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest serving member of the Oregon Legislature, has told colleagues he will retire when his current term ends this year.
His sent a text to the 16 other Democratic senators on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 5, which reads:
"I am not going to be running again for the Legislature. I will serve out the remainder of my term. It has been an honor and a privilege to have been allowed to serve locally on the Salem City Council and for all these years in the Oregon State Legislature. I hope I've helped."
The Democrat from Salem will turn 79 in June.
Courtney has been a champion of more state aid for mental health — he won legislative approval of a tobacco tax increase in 2013 for children's programs — and a reconstructed Oregon State Hospital. He also has been an advocate of change for the Legislature itself and its place in state government.
Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend is the seventh Republican leader during Courtney's presidency. He said in a statement:
"President Courtney's service to Oregonians and the legislative branch deserves to be honored for the decades of public service commitment. Likewise, his service of nearly two decades as Senate president shows his ability to persevere and bring people together. He is tough as nails with a compassionate heart.
"I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve with him. Although we have disagreed on key policy at times, his moderating voice in difficult times will be missed."
After the 2021 regular session last summer, Courtney told reporters he would wait until lawmakers completed redrawing legislative and congressional district lines in the fall before deciding whether he would run again. Lawmakers did act by the deadline of Sept. 27, though not before partisan infighting, the opposite of what happened after the 2010 Census, when lawmakers reached agreements on redistricting plans without either party challenging them in court.
Courtney's decision will mean that three top elected positions in state government will change in 2023. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown cannot seek re-election because of term limits, and House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in a crowded field in the May 17 primary. She announced Jan. 6 she would leave the House on Jan. 21.
Courtney had contemplated a run for governor himself in 2010 but never pursued it.
Under Oregon's process, the Senate president and the House speaker wield enormous influence in their chambers. They appoint the members and leaders of committees, where the Oregon Legislature does most of its work, and assign bills to committees. Bills are not amended on the House and Senate floors.
Though technically elected by the entire chamber, the Senate president usually comes from the majority party. The most recent president dependent on a coalition of the parties was in 1971.
A record tenure
Courtney will have served a total of 38 years when his term ends Jan. 9, 2023. Fourteen years were in the House, and 24 in the Senate. He will not be the longest serving senator, however. Democrat W.H. Strayer of Baker County served from 1915 until his death in the fall of 1946, just short of 32 years. Lenn Hannon of Ashland, a Democrat turned Republican, served from 1975 until he resigned to accept a state appointment in 2004; he died in 2010. Democrat Cliff Trow of Corvallis served from 1975 to 2003, and Democrat Ginny Burdick of Portland was in the Senate from 1997 until she resigned Nov. 1 to accept a state appointment.
Courtney was first elected to the Oregon House in 1980 after six years on the Salem City Council. He left after a losing bid in the 1984 primary for Oregon's 5th District seat in the U.S. House, and lost a bid for the Oregon Senate two years later.
He won for the Oregon House again in 1988, and two years later, he became leader of House Democrats after the party lost its majority in that chamber. Though he generally played the role of loyal opposition, Courtney kept his caucus together during sessions when the majority Republicans were fractured in 1995 and 1997.
He was elected in 1998 to the first of his six terms in the Oregon Senate. In the five special sessions during the 2002 recession, Courtney was one of the key budget negotiators. Even though Democrats were in the minority, they had 14 of the 30 seats, and Republicans often needed them when they could not pass legislation on their own.
Four years later, he was re-elected to the Senate. But he was in the hospital on election night, and an infection nearly took his life.
The new Senate resulted in a 30-30 tie — for only the second time in Oregon history — and Courtney was one of the negotiators of a power-sharing agreement between Republicans, who had just lost their majority, and Democrats.
Into the presidency
Courtney had been scheduled to become Democratic leader. But some Republicans balked at the prospect of then-Democratic Leader Kate Brown leading the chamber — and Courtney was thrust into the presidency on the second day of the 2003 session. He would hold that job for two decades, far eclipsing the old record of eight years.
The 2003 and 2005 sessions would test his leadership — they were the longest legislative sessions in state history with Democrat Ted Kulongoski as governor and Republicans maintaining a majority in the Oregon House.
Courtney set out to change that by introducing test drives of annual sessions in 2008 (19 days) and 2010 (25 days), during which lawmakers invoked their constitutional authority to meet without the governor calling them into session. Voters in 2010 then approved a ballot measure for limited annual sessions of 165 days in odd-numbered years and 35 days in even-numbered years. Before then, Oregon was one of just five states with sessions every other year with no time limits.
A blue-ribbon commission that lawmakers set up in 2005 also recommended other changes in legislative operations and even physical improvements to the 1938 Capitol, the third in state history. The 1977 office wings were renovated in 2007 and 2008; work continues on the main building, including seismic reinforcement.
Courtney was born in Philadelphia and raised in West Virginia, where he graduated from Charleston High School in 1961. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Rhode Island. His law degree is from Boston University.
He came to Salem in 1970, when he became a law clerk at the Oregon Court of Appeals. He met his future wife, Margie; they were married in 1976. They have three grown sons — Peter, Sean and Adam, all married — and five grandchildren.
Courtney is a lawyer, although on inactive status with the Oregon State Bar. He also worked at Western Oregon University, where he was special assistant to the president and also did some teaching.
NOTE: Adds comment by Republican Leader Tim Knopp; clarifies Courtney's status with Oregon State Bar.
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