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Runaway Senators, Militias and Koch Money: What the Hell Just Happened in Oregon?

The Republican war on democracy has ground the state’s government to a halt

Demonstrators wearing III% militia sweatshirts gather on the steps of the Oregon capitol, at a protest of a cap-and-trade climate bill.

Tim Dickinson for Rolling Stone

SALEM, ORE. — Massive logging trucks circled the streets around the capitol, flying American flags in their truck beds and blasting horns, as hundreds of right-wing protesters rallied in support of Oregon’s fugitive GOP senators, whose week-long walkout appears to have killed the state’s ambitious cap-and-trade climate legislation.

The rally was a show of force for rural Oregonians. Hundreds of demonstrators, mostly white men, some in hard hats, some wearing camo and hunting orange, many sporting unruly beards, spilled out over the steps in front of the statehouse. The plastic tanks of an irrigation truck parked out front were spray-painted with the words “NO ON HB 2020” — referring to the climate bill. A cluster of III% militiamen gathered in black sweatshirts reading “When Tyranny Becomes Law * Rebellion Becomes Duty.” 

John Hanlin, sheriff for rural Douglas County in southern Oregon, took to the mic in uniform with a broadside of cultural lament: “This state was built by the timber industry and by farms, ranchers, construction and other blue collar industries,” he said. “Not on coffee businesses and marijuana dispensaries.” Inside, the cavernous senate chamber was hauntingly empty, echoing with the honking of rigs, it’s business ground to a halt for an eighth day.

The Republican War on Democracy has taken many forms — from extreme gerrymandering, to undermining voting rights through voter-ID laws and disenfranchising people with criminal records, to the Trump administration’s foiled attempt to rig the census in favor of white people. In Oregon, Republicans have chosen a different tactic: ratfucking the legislative process, while making open threats of violence.

The drama in Salem — Oregon’s sprawling capital city, where a 22-foot gilded statue of a burly frontier axman stands astride the Art Deco statehouse — began last Wednesday when polluter-backed Republican senators, who are opposed to putting a price on carbon emissions, announced their intention to stage a walk out. 

Oregon Democrats won a supermajority in the 2018 midterms, so the GOP no longer has the votes to block legislation. But the state’s constitution requires a quorum to conduct business. In the 30-seat state senate that means that if more than 10 of the state’s 30 senators don’t show up for work, nothing moves. Eleven GOP senators have fled the state. “We cannot conduct business unless we have a quorum,” Oregon’s Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick tells Rolling Stone. The GOP walkouts, she says, “are exploiting that, in violation of their oath of office.”

Republicans have used this trick before. Earlier in this same legislative session, they staged a walkout over raising business taxes to fund an education tax bill — eventually returning after winning concessions, including shelving unrelated proposals for gun and vaccination regulations. 

But, from the beginning, this walkout has been charged with an undercurrent of danger. Gov. Kate Brown — who campaigned on climate regulation to win reelection last November — vowed to deploy state troopers to track down rogue Republicans and bring them back to Salem. “It is absolutely unacceptable that the Senate Republicans would turn their back on their constituents who they are honor-bound to represent here in this building.”

Before leaving Salem, one GOP state senator, Brian Boquist, responded with incendiary rhetoric. On the floor of the chamber, he first threatened the state senate president, Peter Courtney, saying: “If you send the State Police to get me, Hell’s coming to visit you personally.” He later menaced state troopers themselves: “Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” he said on camera. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon.”

Boquist’s Democratic colleagues were alarmed. “That’s a direct threat against the lives of state police,” says Burdick, who serves a district in Portland. “All of this rhetoric — all of this right-wing, terrorist rhetoric is figuring into this conversation. It’s very, very scary.” Boquist did not respond to requests for comment. And Kate Gillem, spokesperson for the senate Republicans, declined to say whether the GOP conference approved of his outbursts.

As Republicans scurried from the state, right-wing militia groups threw fuel on the fire, drawing national media coverage. One anti-government III% militia leader vowed on Facebook to provide security and transportation for the Republicans on the run. Militias in Idaho, where several were heading, also offered aid and comfort. 

Republicans publicly rejected the help: “The Senators are not with any militias,” Gillem said, “and are not accepting their help.” But that didn’t change an emerging national media narrative that seemed to anticipate a redux of the explosive politics of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. 

Over the weekend, loose talk about violence had spilled over into what state police called a credible threat, which, according to Burdick, prompted law enforcement to advise Democrats to cancel a planned Saturday session.

The reality on the ground in Salem, however, remained calm. When I arrived at the statehouse Monday morning, there was a normal security detail — a pair of state troopers monitoring the largely empty front steps. There were no metal detectors required to enter the capitol. And inside, boredom reigned, as lobbyists with little better to do watched the USA v Spain match in the Women’s World Cup on a MacBook.

Activists I spoke to that day were confident the only thing impeding passage of the climate bill was the return of the GOP senators. “The votes are there,” said Brad Reed, communications director for Renew Oregon, the green coalition group pushing the bill. “I think that’s why they walked out. This is the last stand.”

The Oregon bill — HB 2020 — would link the state into the existing cap-and-trade network run by California and Quebec. The bill would charge the largest polluters in the state — those with more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually — for the right to pollute. As the cap on pollution is ratcheted down, companies would choose to curb emissions or buy credits on the market. The funds collected by the state would be earmarked for infrastructure and clean energy jobs programs; the bill also contains a rebate provision to cushion lower-income Oregonians from a potential rise in fuel prices. 

The proposal, Reed says, has parallels to the Green New Deal. “Let’s make the big polluters pay for the transition” to a green economy, he says. “They are doing the damage to our climate. The people who are going to suffer the most have contributed the least to the problem. Let’s reverse that.”

Oregon’s climate bill offered an interesting test case. As state legislators put it, Oregon is the first “normal state” to contemplate joining a cap-and-trade network (in contrast to California, the world’s fifth largest economy). If a state like Oregon could make this work,  lots of other states from Colorado to New Mexico to Pennsylvania follow. “Certainly the large polluters are afraid this may proliferate,” Reed tells me. “And they don’t want to change the way that they do business.” (For a deeper dive on the bill, read David Roberts in Vox here.)

To hear Republicans talk about it, though, the bill is not an attack on polluters but on Oregon’s vast, redder, rural areas. Gillem, spokesperson for Senate Republicans, told Rolling Stone that “the important thing is to focus on Oregonians who will be devastated by HB 2020, which is why Senate R’s have walked. They are standing for Oregonians.”

The GOP legislators who staged the walkout are well funded by carbon polluters, including Koch Industries, which owns a Georgia Pacific timber mill that would be regulated under the bill. According to an analysis by the Oregonian, the walkout senators are primarily funded by corporate interests:

And in particular they’ve taken cash from carbon polluters who’ve given nearly $120,000 in donations in recent years:

Boquist is a favorite of both Koch Industries and a local cement company that would also be hit under cap-and-trade:

On Tuesday, the GOP walkout suddenly paid huge dividends for these polluters. Democrats have a three-vote cushion in the senate. Two senators were already declared against the bill. The fragile Democratic coalition fell apart when state Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson moved against the bill, according to a senate source with knowledge of the matter. 

Monnes Anderson represents the Portland suburb of Gresham, where Boeing is a major employer. Boeing would not be regulated directly by the bill but is a large electricity customer and worried about its costs. “I’m fighting for Boeing because they’re in my district,” Monnes Anderson had told the Oregonian in mid June. (The senator did not respond to an interview request.)

On Tuesday morning, Senate President Peter Courtney announced in the Senate chamber that the bill did not have the votes, and that wouldn’t change. “We have 15 votes and we need 16,” Burdick tells me. Asked to account for why activists were confident that the vote count was solid, Burdick said, “Sometimes people don’t level with them [the activists]. And sometimes people go back and forth. There was a little of both.”

Tina Kotek, Oregon’s House leader, responded to the news by calling the collapse of the bill a “dark week for the integrity of the Legislature.” She blasted senate Republicans for “threatening our democratic institution and subverting the will of Oregon.”

Gov. Brown railed against the GOP’s “unacceptable” and “dangerous” tactics — “This is not the Oregon Way and cannot be rewarded” — and suggested the Republicans were opposed not just to the climate bill but to democracy itself.

Gillem, the Republican spokesperson, reacted to the news of the death of the climate bill with enthusiasm: “It’s exciting to see, and I am sure will ramp up negotiations between the Senate Republican Leader and majority party.” But Burdick insisted there will be no more negotiations until GOP members return to Salem: “They can demand until the sky turns purple,” she said. “They are not getting anything. We are not negotiating anything else to get them back in the building. You can’t negotiate with someone who is not here.”

Beyond the climate bill, the state has much unfinished business before the end of the session on June 30th, when any pending bills will be wiped out. Caught up in the stalemate are budget bills that fund many priorities for rural Oregon, including increased funding for fire suppression and state police.

Climate activists, meanwhile, are gutted. On Wednesday morning, in the gallery overlooking the senate chamber, I met KB Mercer, an activist with Renew Oregon. “I’d burst into tears but I’m too angry to do that,” she says of the cap-and-trade measure’s apparent death. 

The Senate had just gaveled to recess seconds after attempting to open a session, lacking a quorum. Pointing down to the Democrats on the chamber floor below, Mercer tells me: “We got these people elected so we could pass this bill. And what the Republicans are doing is swiping all of the pieces off the game-board. 

“Democracy is on the line here,” she said. “And that’s why the country is watching.”

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