House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson

Dancing Backwards and in Heels

Oregon’s women-led Legislature passed a hugely progressive agenda in 2017. Can they keep up the momentum?

In the heat of early July 2017, not even progressives at the Oregon Capitol could appreciate the immensity of their accomplishments as bill after bill rolled through the Statehouse toward Gov. Kate Brown’s willing pen.

Over three days — July 5, 6 and 7 — lawmakers enshrined Roe v. Wade protections for abortion in Oregon law, provided for free abortions for immigrant women ineligible for Medicaid based on citizenship, and attacked unequal treatment of black people in the state’s criminal justice system by fortifying the state’s anti-profiling laws and “defelonizing” hard drug possession in limited cases.

Then, to ice the cake, lawmakers looked after even the least of these by extending Oregon Health Plan coverage to one of the last remaining uninsured populations in the state, immigrant children.

“I’ve realized in hindsight the magnitude,” says Grayson Dempsey, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon. “The Reproductive Health Equity Act was an incredible, historic victory. The magnitude really can’t be overstated.”

The changes were big for Oregon progressives inside the state — but set against the national political scene they’re nothing short of monumental. It’s as if Oregon, like Ginger Rogers, was countering President Donald Trump, backwards and in heels.

“In heels” because, in Oregon, women were leading every step.

While the Trump administration demonized undocumented immigrants as well as legal immigrants from “shithole” countries — and threatened deportation for 800,000 youth who were brought here as children — Oregon fortified its position as the first sanctuary state in the nation by adopting rules about what information state and local governments can provide to federal immigration authorities.

While Congress and the Trump administration hustled to kill Obamacare, the Oregon Legislature preserved coverage for 350,000 Oregonians by adopting a $300 million tax on hospitals and insurers — thereby keeping $1 billion in federal match in the state.

While the federal government toyed with health coverage for 9 million children nationally — under Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP — Oregon lawmakers coughed up $36 million to bring steady, preventive health care to 17,600 additional children through its Cover All Kids law.

These shiny new progressive laws had been in the works for years, Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson says, but lawmakers definitely acted while looking over their shoulders at Trump’s executive orders, legislative priorities and needling tweets.

“The devastating federal policy that this administration is carrying out absolutely made the work we were doing more urgent,” Williamson says. “We absolutely needed to move on these things, and we needed to move on them in the 2017 session to make sure we could protect the rights of Oregonians.”

As the summer progressed, Oregon’s bills were trumpeted in national headlines: “Oregon Just Passed the Most Progressive Reproductive Health Policy in America,” “Oregon lawmakers pass historic Reproductive Health Equity Act,” and added its own twist: “Bisexual Governor Kate Brown Passes Nation’s Most Progressive Reproductive Health Policy.”

Cranky-pants columnist George Will, meanwhile, harrumphed at Oregon’s “more-progressive-than-thou” legislation.

The attention felt good to the trifecta of Democratic leaders in the Oregon House, in the Oregon Senate and in the governor’s office. Throughout the fall, they were feted at progressive summits in places such as Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Boston.

“It’s been a really exciting time to be from Oregon, to travel nationally and to talk about our successes and to give hope to folks who are working in the trenches in other states,” says Williamson, who spoke at a “states resisting” Trump conference in August. “They look at Oregon as a leader, a ‘blue beacon’ some would say, in these hard times.”

This may be the shining hour for Oregon progressives, but their joy may last only a little longer. In the Legislative session that dawns on Monday, Feb. 5 — and the election that follows in November — lawmakers face serious budgetary and political trials that could lead to the undoing of their 2017 wins.

The most diverse Legislature in Oregon history

The progressive legislation may be notable for who passed the laws as much as the laws’ lefty slant. Today’s Oregon Legislature is the most female-dominant and racially and ethnically diverse body ever to assemble at the Capitol in Salem.

The 90-member Legislature now includes four Hispanic lawmakers, Rep. Teresa Alonso León, D-Woodburn; Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-East Portland; Rep. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone; and Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego; four black lawmakers, Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene; Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland; Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem; and Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley; and one Native American, Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland.

Asian-American lawmakers are notably absent.

Oregon would need to roughly triple the number of Hispanic lawmakers to represent the 12.4 percent of the state’s population of 494,806 who tick Hispanic on census forms — but there’s reason to believe that’ll change sooner rather than later.

Freshman Rep. Alonso León, for example, was the first immigrant Latina to be elected to the Oregon Legislature and among just a few ever seated in statehouses nationally. She brought with her the experience of a migrant child: picking strawberries with her family in Willamette Valley fields and living in a house that was unheated and without plumbing.

She graduated from Woodburn High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Western Oregon University, and got her master’s degree at Portland State University. She became a citizen five years ago.

Alonso León was the first Hispanic lawmaker elected in House District 22, which encompasses Woodburn, North Salem and a strip between them on either side of Interstate 5 — areas where Hispanic residents have outnumbered all other racial and ethnic groups for at least a decade.


Rep. Alonso León

Photo by Craig MItchelldyer /

Rep. Teresa Alonso León sponsored a successful bill to require cultural competency training at public universities, and Rep. Diego Hernandez sponsored another to require ethnic studies as part of social studies in kindergarten through 12th grade.

She won her seat despite going toe-to-toe with well-known long time Republican pol Patti Milne, who had held the seat for three terms during the 1990s. Alonso León won despite Nike founder Phil Knight’s dropping $50,000 in her opponent’s war chest late in the race.

“She won by a significant margin, 11 points,” says Jaime Arredondo, board member of the Woodburn-based organizing group Acción Política PCUNista (APP), which backed her candidacy.

In the election immediately following Alonso León’s win, APP succeeded in electing the state’s first Hispanic majority school board in the Woodburn School District, which enrolls 81 percent Latino school children.

With the passing of generations, Oregon’s Latino communities are evolving toward a culture of civic engagement, Arredondo said.

“We come from the fields to the ballot box and now we’re in the Legislature,” he said.

Young Latino people provided the legwork behind Alonso León’s win and legislative victories such as Cover All Kids, which was backed by the Portland-based Oregon Latino Health Coalition. Both campaigns proved training grounds for political action.

A similar political quickening among Latino youth is under way in Eugene-Springfield in a community linked by a Facebook page associated with Alex Reyna’s internet radio station called La E-Kiss. There, people post their problems, need for work, need for employees, problems with authorities — and members of the community respond.

“The network has matured beyond belief,” says Philip Carrasco, labor and political organizer and member of the Lane Community College Board of Education. “It’s at our disposal in a matter of seconds.”

Through Carrasco’s Grupo Latino de Acción Directa of Lane County, Latino youth are attending political education forums, discussing policing and immigration status with law enforcement leaders and developing political skills.

“A lot of these youth know how to canvas, how to phone bank, know the technology today, how to establish political messaging. They know the value of getting out the vote,” Carrasco says.

Demographics predict soaring political clout at the state and local levels.

While Hispanic residents make up 12 percent of Oregon’s population, they’re 23 percent of the state’s school kids — including 22 percent of the Springfield School District, 20 percent of the Bethel district and 15 percent of the Eugene district.

The potential potency of the Latino vote is concentrated in cities and in neighborhoods. Statewide, school districts with majority-minority student populations are Umatilla, Ontario, Nyssa, Mount Angel, Morrow, Milton-Freewater, Hermiston, Gervais and Forest Grove.

In Eugene-Springfield, five schools enroll greater than one third Hispanic students: River Road/El Camino del Río, Danebo, Buena Vista, César E. Chávez and Guy Lee elementary schools.

As local Latino students reach senior high and turn 18 years old, Johanis Tadeo’s youth-led City Wide MEChA group is there to get them registered to vote.

Hispanic people in Oregon are winning elections at the local level, moving onto city councils, school boards and other local offices — the places where candidates traditionally earn their chops before moving on to statewide office.

Two years ago, on Eugene-Springfield elected boards, it was only Carrasco at LCC, he remembers. Now, there are four Hispanic local elected officials: Emilio Hernandez on the Springfield School Board, Evangelina Sundgrenz on the Eugene School Board, Alan Contreras on the Lane ESD Board as well as Carrasco at LCC.

“We are building a bench of political operatives, political staffers,” Carrasco says.

“On top of that we’re starting to train candidates.”

At the Statehouse, the new level of diversity is making a difference, Sen. James Manning Jr. says.


Sen. James Manning

Photo by Todd Cooper

Alonso León, for example, spoke with authority during the Cover All Kids bill debate when she described the pain of an immigrant mother who couldn’t afford to take a sick child to a doctor.

“People with a lot of means would never experience that, so they wouldn’t know,” Manning says.

“It’s heartbreaking. I grew up very poor. I didn’t have access to medical insurance or anything like that. Our thing was, stay healthy. Don’t get sick. If something happens you go to the emergency room. You get patched up and you went back out and healed the best that you could.”

Alonso León sponsored a successful bill to require cultural competency training at public universities, and Rep. Hernandez sponsored another to require ethnic studies as part of social studies in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Alonso León and other Latino lawmakers debated on the House floor with a perspective that was hard to argue with, said the APP’s Arredondo, who also serves as a trustee on the Western Oregon University Board.

“She’s gone through our higher education system,” he says. “She genuinely understands what cultural competency is, and she knows who’s doing a good job and who’s not.”

A ‘sweeping’ bill for equal pay

While Latino lawmakers enjoyed gains, it was female power that dominated the decision making in the 2017 session of the Oregon Legislature. This was the year of the historic Women’s March and the international #MeToo movement.

Women were in charge — as governor, as House speaker, as House majority leader and as Senate majority leader. And soon after the session ended, Senate Republicans named Sen. Winters, a black woman, their minority leader.

Compare Oregon’s approach with Congress’ much-maligned 13-man work group in charge of health care bills.

“For the first time in Oregon history, the Democratic caucus is majority female. We had a group of strong women saying (health) was a priority — and men too,” says freshman Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, who carried the Reproductive Health Equity Act on the House floor. “It’s very clear the Legislature is better at representing the people it serves when it actually looks like the people it serves.”


Rep. Julie Fahey

Photo by Todd Cooper

The 2017 Legislature also passed what legal writers dubbed the most “sweeping” and “all-encompassing” equal pay bill in the nation. It will allow women to set their own pay expectations when seeking a new job and grant immediate access to the courts when women suspect they’re underpaid compared with their male counterparts. The law incentivizes employers to conduct regular pay studies and correct any inequities in order to earn safe harbor in any subsequent lawsuit.

The Reproductive Health Equity Act is loaded with leading-edge protections for women.

The new law is the first in the nation to enumerate in statute the entire list of preventive health services (including postpartum care) for women without cost sharing, Dempsey of NARAL says. The bill was first to establish state-funded abortion for women excluded from Medicaid based on citizenship status.

And, while Oregon is the eighth state to codify abortions in state law, the state was the first ever to require the procedure to be covered by insurance companies free of charge. The law also guarantees equitable care for transgender patients.

The new law means about 66,000 Oregon women who had no access to free contraception and/or abortion because of various legal exclusions will now get no-cost services, according to the Pro-Choice Coalition of Oregon, which championed the bill.

“It’s huge. It’s enormous,” says former Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, a longtime advocate for women’s health. “It stands there as a light where everything is getting dimmer. It’s amazing what they’ve been able to get done.”

Measure 101

Oregon lawmakers are sailing into next week’s 35-day short session with a new progressive measure in their sights: a carbon emissions cap-and-trade bill meant to animate Gov. Kate Brown’s promise to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement — even as the Trump Administration withdraws from the Paris agreement and rejects the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

Such an Oregon measure would solidify the so-called “blue wall” of Democratic solidarity among Washington, Oregon and California and against regressive Trump Administration policies.

“If the states don’t step up and honor the Paris Accords, then we’re doing nothing. We can’t wait around for the federal government to get this done for us,” said Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, who is spearheading the legislation in the Oregon House. “We can do this.”

Some lawmakers see sweeping progressive possibilities in this left-coast stronghold. Besides forming a multi-state carbon market, Manning dreams of the three West Coast states (plus Hawaii and Alaska) forming their own single-payer health system, he said. The combined economic clout would be unstoppable.

Instead, rain may fall on Oregon progressive’s parade in the form of a broken state budget and maybe an electoral backlash come November.

Republican lawmakers relished their ability to get Measure 101 on the ballot to try to put a stop to the Medicaid expansion, but they didn’t get far.

In the Jan. 23 election,  progressive voters turned down the Republicans’ meddling and reaffirmed the state’s version of Obamacare by a 62-to-38 percent margin statewide. Lane County was even more enthusiastic with a 67-to-33 percent “yes” vote.

The Multnomah County vote was the definition of lopsided at 80-to-20, but the surprises were narrow wins in counties that often align with the rural conservative parts of the state, such as Deschutes, Jackson and Wasco.
Even though Oregon voters are generous with health coverage — one in four Oregonians is on the Oregon Health Plan — most of the money that covers that largesse comes from the federal government.

In 2017-2019, Oregon will pay $1 billion, compared to the federal government’s $10 billion, for Oregon Health Plan programs, according to the state budget.

What the federal government gives, the federal government can take away.

Congress, for example, was slow to reauthorize funds for the 20-year-old Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Coverage for 9 million children hung in the balance for 114 days before it was resolved as part of an agreement to end a government shutdown on Jan. 22.

While the 2017 Oregon Legislature used its own tax money to extend CHIP-like coverage to 17,600 undocumented children under Cover All Kids, the federal government is footing the bill for 97 percent of Oregon’s program — meaning 80,000 Oregon children would have lost coverage without the late-in-the-day reauthorization.


Rep. Nancy Nathanson

Photo by Athena Delene

“Some of these federal funding streams may be reduced or even eliminated. We don’t know about the status of any number of things,” says Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, who as co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee will have to pick up the pieces after any loss.

“If [the feds] were to pull out all the money, the amount Oregon would have to shoulder on its own would be breathtaking,” she said.

Even if the federal government spending on health coverage for the nation’s poor and the young people were to remain undiminished in the coming years, Oregon would face money troubles of its own because of legacy debt owed to the Public Employees Retirement System.

The state and other public employers owe the system $25 billion. The cost of covering that debt is increasing at the fastest rate in history, according to the most recent estimates. Over the next six years, required payments are expected to increase by a total of $6 billion. The state is on the hook for a large share of the increase to cover state worker, public school teachers and college and university employees.

This budget-breaking problem is temporary. Reforms in 2003 moderated the state costs for succeeding employees. But the legacy costs for earlier employees are projected to continue rising until 2031.

The 2017 Legislature wrestled with the PERS problem. Under the leadership of Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, the majority Democrats made a run at passing a business tax that would have eased the state’s oncoming revenue problems.

But progressives didn’t quite have the muscle. The Oregon Constitution requires revenue measures such as a new tax to pass with a three-fifths majority in each chamber of the Legislature. Progressives were short one vote in each chamber and couldn’t find Republicans to help.

Trump may have sparked a blue wave

To avoid reversals of their 2017 gains, Oregon progressives will need to pick up two or maybe three legislative seats in the 2018 general election, says Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

That will be more likely if the national discontent with the Trump Administration translates into a “blue wave” of energized voters bringing electoral wins to statehouses across the country, Moore says.

The failure of Congress and the Trump Administration to rescue the 800,000 Latino youth who were brought to the United States as young people — and protected from deportation by the Obama Administration through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — has angered Hispanic voters nationally and locally.

“The Latino community has not been this united in this county for so long,” Carrasco said. “You have an administration that is pushing an agenda that people like us are not welcome. You galvanize these youth.”

Similarly, an anti-gay-rights ballot measure incubated in Eugene-Springfield in the late 1980s awakened the gay community in Oregon, Moore says. Former Gov. Barbara Roberts, Oregon’s first female chief executive, rode their activism into office, he says. Current Gov. Brown honed her political skills in that era by championing gay and women’s rights.

Ire over DACA could “easily” work that way in 2018, Moore says.

Oregon, on the other hand, could still dash the progressive agenda — as it has, now and again, in state history. Even if the rest of the country tilts blue in the November election, Oregon could choose red. The state is famous for its contrarian tendencies that cause it to zig when the rest of the country zags, Moore says.

In 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide and strengthened the Democrats’ hold on Congress, Oregon leaned the opposite direction, giving Republicans control of the House.

“Every other Republican got creamed everywhere else,” Moore says. “Here in Oregon, led by Bob Packwood, voters all said ‘Yeah, Republicans would be great.’”

In the 2010 and 2014 midterms, when Obama took his “shellacking” from voters and great red electoral waves handed statehouses across the land to Republicans, Oregon Democrats gained.

“We were exactly the opposite,” Moore says. “That reverse kind of thing seems to be part of our electoral DNA. …

“The big thing for 2018 election in Oregon: Are we going the contrary way? When the rest of the country votes against Trump, do (Oregon) Republicans gain? Or do we go more towards the blue wall, which is much more likely?”

Diane Dietz has covered the Oregon Legislature for The Register-Guard and The Statesman Journal.