Brian Clem wraps up 15 years in the Oregon House
During his 15 years in the Oregon House, Brian Clem cleared the way for continued development of Washington County — the state's second most populous county — and protected the headwaters of the Metolius River in Central Oregon.
In his first term in 2007, Clem sponsored the program that brings Oregon farm products into schools, promotes school gardens and teaches students about how their food is grown.
In his final term in 2021, Clem led the House committee that came up with ways to help residents recover from the 2020 Labor Day wildfires that swept the state — and all of the bills passed his committee and the full House without dissent. (Some drew a handful of opponents in the Senate.)
Clem left the Legislature in December, when he resigned 13 months before the end of his eighth term. He was not going to seek re-election this year. But he sped up his departure to attend to his mother, who lives with his family and shows early signs of dementia.
Clem, 49, is a Democrat from Salem who sat on or led the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in all but a pair of two-year legislative cycles. He came back to lead the committee briefly a final time after the 2021 regular session.
Clem mounted an early campaign for governor in 2010, but bowed out and backed John Kitzhaber, who went on to win a record third term.
His district, until the recent legislative redrawing of boundaries, was largely in central and east Salem. He was succeeded by Chris Hoy, a Salem city councilor and former Clackamas County undersheriff.
Personal and political roots
Clem grew up in Coos Bay, where his grandfather, father, brother — and briefly himself — worked at the Weyerhaeuser mill, which shut down in 1998. Clem left for Oregon State University, where he became student body president and earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1994.
"My formative years were in a timber town," he said in a recent interview. "At heart I was always going to be thinking more about the rural side of the urban-rural issues."
His involvement in agriculture came later, after he met Carol Suzuki while both worked for the Senate Democratic Office in the mid-1990s. (She is its operations director today, more than 25 years later. She also is a former chair of the Oregon Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs.)
After he was deputy campaign director and then Salem field representative for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Clem quit, got married, and started work on her parents' 80-acre orchard in Parkdale, near Hood River. The couple continued to live in Salem.
Unlike timber giant Weyerhaeuser, the orchard eventually put Clem in the role of farm owner facing its challenges of running a business, managing the farm and providing housing for workers.
"That gave me a different perspective on agriculture, because I saw it through a different lens," he said.
It was after voter approval of a 2004 ballot initiative, which required the state either to allow development or pay compensation for thousands of rural acres outside urban growth boundaries of cities, that Clem edged his way back into politics.
Their orchard was surrounded by landowners who, unlike them, filed compensation claims — and not just for an extra house or two to accommodate family members. Clem said Measure 37 threatened to undo Oregon's land use program, which confines most development within cities to protect farms and forests.
"It was pretty daunting to think about the face of Oregon fundamentally shifting," Clem said.
"I joined a group of pro-land use farmers who were meeting separately from the Farm Bureau, although many were members. We were meeting to talk about what to do about Measure 37. I wasn't even planning on running for office. A year and a half into it, I decided I was going to run."
Clem, also a four-time chair of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, unseated a Republican in 2006. His was one of four victories that gave Democrats their first majority in the House in 16 years.
He was appointed to the joint House-Senate committee that worked on legislation to overhaul the 2004 ballot measure. It went to Oregon voters as Measure 49, which passed with a 62% majority in 2007 — and Clem took part in more than 40 debates to support it.
"After that experience, explaining why the land use system was important for agriculture, members of my caucus and others decided I was going to be the new point person on land use," he said.
In the 2014 short session, Clem led the House Committee on Rural Communities, which had a bill before it to ratify the new urban growth boundary that emerged from a 2007 law requiring Metro and the three Portland area counties to designate urban and rural reserves. The Metro Council approved the designated reserves in 2011, and the state Land Conservation and Development Commission followed in 2012. But a legal challenge was pending.
On Feb. 20, barely more than two weeks before the session was to end, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the designation process in Washington County had to start anew, while the other counties had to supply more evidence to justify a few specific designations, notably the Stafford area in Clackamas County.
Clem and then-Rep. John Davis, a Republican from Wilsonville, had already sponsored a bill to ratify the new urban growth boundary — farmers and environmental advocates raised objections to the already-negotiated plan — but the court decision upended everything.
Clem recalled meeting a lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Realtors outside a Capitol hearing room. Development interests and local officials faced up to five more years of planning work. But the Legislature could change that in a hurry by writing the maps into law.
"He said to me: You got any ideas?" Clem said.
"I said yes, but it's gonna cost you. I want a bunch of that farmland back — but I said this was his only chance."
After a week of shuttle diplomacy and frenzied negotiations — and a grudging agreement by Metro, the state land use planning agency and others that legislation was preferable to starting over — Clem's committee approved a revised bill that put some rural land off-limits to development, but made other land immediately available in Washington County. It also resolved a dispute between Hillsboro and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue over fire protection.
The bill was approved unanimously by both chambers days before the end of the session.
"All these homes and schools were built that probably still would be in litigation," Clem said.
It did not resolve the dispute over Stafford; Clackamas County and Metro finally settled that in 2017.
Clem had nothing to gain or lose politically, because his district was not affected.
"No one was going to vote for or against me based on how I behaved during those negotiations," he said. "I just wanted to try to get a consensus."
"After the Metolius and that tied 2011 session (when the House was split 30-30), I came to prefer bipartisan solutions. Even if I couldn't get every single thing I wanted, I would rather make a deal and get a consensus rather than win something by 31 or 32 votes. The Metolius took a huge toll on me."
Saving the Metolius
Five years earlier in 2009, Clem steered legislative approval of bills to designate part of the Metolius River Basin in Central Oregon as an "area of critical state concern" — the first successful use of a little-known provision in Oregon's 1973 land use law — and to allow more time for developers to apply for scaled-down projects.
At the time, two proposals were pending. One was by the founders of Holiday Retirement, founded in Salem back in 1971 but now based in Florida, that called for 3,000 homes in addition to a resort — dwarfing Black Butte Ranch near Sisters. The other was smaller but still called for several hundred homes in a development called the Metolian. Both would have relied on groundwater for their domestic water supplies — and the Metolius River emerges from springs at its headwaters.
"You could inadvertently impact the river if you don't do it right," Clem said.
Clem said a retired planner who lived in Sisters, Linda Davis (who died Oct. 30 at age 77) urged him to invoke the 1973 law. He discovered that Gov. Tom McCall had attempted to use the same designation of "critical state concern" for wildlife habitat on Fly Creek (near the Metolius) before McCall left office in 1974.
The second bill allowed greatly scaled-down projects in the Metolius, but offered a transfer of development rights to larger projects elsewhere. It stalled initially when then-Speaker Dave Hunt blocked it from coming to a vote. The Senate then passed it in an already-approved House bill, but it also fell short initially by one vote. Clem got the House to table it until one member was willing to switch, Democrat Larry Galizio of Tigard, who left the House after the 2009 session.
"It was definitely the most high-profile and controversial bill I ever led on," Clem said, far more than Measure 49. "I ended up openly fighting with a speaker of the House from my own party — and not for the last time."
Neither project has been built — the economic downturn known as the Great Recession probably had more to do with it than the land use dispute — but lawmakers have extended the options to do so.
But Clem said the headwaters of the Metolius remain off-limits to development.
"I want to be able at some point to convince my daughter (Kohana, now 13), who was not that much into me or what I did, that her dad did something cool at one time," he said.
"Because of the way that bill was written, I know that 40 years from now — when I am 90 and they can wheel me up there — I can point to this place that looks a lot like it does now and did 100 years ago because of it. From a legacy standpoint, I had a big part in saving that treasure."
Farms and wildfires
Clem got lawmakers to approve Oregon's initial farm-to-school program in 2007, following a campaign pledge he made in 2006. But he discovered that others had the same idea.
When Clem was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee in his first session, he met with then-Director Katy Coba (now the chief operating officer for state government) to see what the Oregon Department of Agriculture was doing. It turned out that the Board of Agriculture had proposed similar bills going back to 2000, when then-Gov. John Kitzhaber issued an order for sustainability. The agency could not advocate it because it was not part of then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski's legislative program, but Coba said Clem could sponsor it on his own.
As it happened, the leader of the House Agriculture Committee that session was Rep. Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay — who was vice principal of Marshfield High School when Clem was a student there in the 1980s — and the bill passed. He also secured $5 million to get it started.
Clem said he got the idea while sitting on a tractor in his family orchard, which overlooks Parkdale Elementary School in Hood River.
"I wondered if the schools even bought pears from Hood River," he said.
He said it was a way to open a dialogue between farmers, such as his father-in-law, and urban consumers.
"He was a lifelong grower and a skeptic of government," Clem said. "How do you get farmers to believe that the government can actually do something good for them for once? How do you get urban leaders and rural farmers talking when they misunderstand each other?"
In addition to using the state's purchasing power to buy Oregon products, the program also promotes gardens in schools and teaches students how their food is grown.
"It was a way to bridge the urban-rural divide as well as help farmers," Clem said.
The program got an extra $10 million in 2019, but was scaled back during the coronavirus pandemic.
Clem said Oregon leads the nation in the share of in-state food (25%) used in school lunches and breakfasts.
In his final session in 2021, Clem led the House committee that focused on helping people and businesses recover from the 2020 Labor Day wildfires. Its Senate counterpart focused on prevention of future wildfires.
"That was a great final assignment for my career," he said, and virtually every bill that emerged from the committee was passed without dissent in the House. There were a few dissenters in the Senate, but all the bills passed.
The wildfires destroyed homes and businesses in the districts of several Democratic and Republican members. Clem said he made it a point on his committees, especially after the 30-30 session of 2011, not to be partisan.
"I did not realize until then that if you treat members from both parties well, that they will give you deference as the chair," he said.
NOTE: Corrects typo in quotation; corrects age of Clem's daughter.
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