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July 9th, 2003 John Schrag | News Stories
 

The Good, the Bad and the Awful

WW's biennial ranking of the metro-area legislators.

     
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Reader, beware: What follows is largely gossip and opinion.

Every two years, the most powerful people in Oregon sit down in Salem and settle into a massive game of political poker. Thanks to those damn liberals, there are no longer any smoke-filled rooms, but there's still plenty of bluffing, double-dealing and the occasional stacked deck.

A lot of people have a stake in the game, but the only ones allowed at the table are 30 state senators and 60 state representatives. They arrive in January of every odd-numbered year with the cards they were dealt. Some bring impressive IQs. Others have potent connections. For the next several months, they try to put together as many winning hands as they can.

There are endless ways of judging how they fared. You can count the bills they introduced. Or, better yet, the number of their bills that actually passed. You can compare their voting records. You can even rank them based on the number of floor speeches they give.

For 28 years, Willamette Week has taken a different tack, asking Salem insiders to grade metro-area lawmakers on their performance--and we've let them do it in secret. That means you won't see anyone's name attached to either the bouquets or the barbs tossed at the 13 senators and 24 representatives from the Portland area. In most cases, even we don't know which of the 50 people we recruited to serve as judges returned the surveys we distributed in Salem last month.

Given the The New York Times' recent troubles with fiction masquerading as fact, allowing sources that much latitude may seem a risky proposition. But, over the years, we've found it provides the most honest appraisal you're going to read anywhere of local legislators.

Our participants--nearly three dozen lobbyists, staffers, reporters and downstate legislators--rated lawmakers on a scale of 1 to 10 in four categories: brains (intelligence and savvy), integrity (philosophical consistency and refusal to compromise principles under pressure from special interests or peers), diligence (a propensity to work hard) and clout (the ability to get things done).

We don't claim the survey is scientific or objective. It's also important to note that a high score doesn't mean WW agrees with a legislator's politics (as Sen. Bruce Starr will tell you), nor does a low score suggest the opposite. Rather, the ratings provide a measure of ability as judged by the people who watch and work with lawmakers every day.

Several people said this was a particularly difficult session to make such judgments. Lawmakers spent the first three months trying to balance the current budget, which was initially approved two years ago. Since then, they've been standing around doing very little, as a handful of legislative leaders try to figure out whether to raise new revenues or make additional cuts in order to come up with a spending plan for 2003-2005. No one is banking on a quick resolution. In fact, although this is the latest we've published our survey in recent memory, it will still come out before the final gavel bangs down.

The 2003 session has been unusual in other respects. After four sessions of Republican rule in the Senate, the GOP ended up in a 15-15 split with the Democrats, and got the worse end of the deal in a power-sharing agreement. Across the rotunda, however, Republicans extended their advantage to a 35-25 majority, giving Speaker Karen Minnis complete control of legislation in the lower chamber. Democrats not only lost numbers in the House, they also lost three of their best members--Kurt Schrader, Richard Devlin and Charlie Ringo--to the Senate. So, while many of the 10 Senate Democrats in the metro-area delegation got their first taste of power, the 16 local House Democrats found it even harder to exert any influence.

The partisan split, combined with the huge budget shortfall, has resulted in a session marked by little high-stakes legislation and a lot of waiting for everyone to ante up.

"Thank you for the opportunity to participate," wrote one respondent, who claimed to have completed the survey form while downing a beer at an undisclosed watering hole. "I found it extremely therapeutic since my summer is guaranteed to be ruined by lawmakers who are paralyzed by fear of losing their next election. Bitter party of one? I suspect I would have company at that table."

ĘHouse rankingsSENATEEXCELLENT

Kurt Schrader
D-Canby
First Senate session
(Three House sessions)

Overall: 8.50
Brains: 8.62
Integrity: 7.79
Diligence: 8.72
Clout: 8.86

Kurt Schrader proved you don't have to be loved to succeed in Salem. The big-animal veterinarian is a bit of a loner, in a place where being sociable counts for a lot, yet has emerged as the star of the metro-area delegation. "Why didn't he run for governor?" asks one reporter.

A few say he's a bit too impressed with his own obvious intellectual firepower. "He shares my belief that he's very smart," says one staffer. But even those who cringe at his cockiness agree that as co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, Schrader, 51, did a superb job as the Legislature's chief budget writer, earning the trust of Republicans without selling out his fellow Democrats. "He's left-brainer in a right-brain world," says one longtime lobbyist. "His colleagues sometimes defer to him a bit too much, just because he's bilingual in English and Math, and they don't speak the second language."

As in his three house terms, he was praised for his work ethic, this year winning top metro-area honors in the diligence category. "He's often the first one in the building in the morning and the last one out at night. Too bad we don't have 15 more of that guy," says one legislative aide who works for the Republicans. In fact, the denim-clad brainiac may get higher marks from the R's than the D's because of his willingness to cut government spending. Last month, for example, he complained about Gov. Ted Kulongoski's decision to raise the pay of home health care workers. "He got put on Ways and Means because Republicans insisted," says one legislative staffer.

Schrader drew a few grumbles for his tendency to surprise people. In June, he announced his own revenue plan (based on a value-added tax) without telling colleagues. "He sometimes seems to be a maverick just for the sake of being a maverick," says one observer, "but there's no doubt he's one of the smartest people here."

Kate Brown
D-Southeast Portland
Fourth Senate session
(Three House sessions)

Overall: 8.15
Brains: 8.55
Integrity: 7.59
Diligence: 8.07
Clout: 8.40

As the Oregon Legislature's first woman Senate President.... Oops. Forgot to update the script.

When it became clear that Democrats had the upper hand in the Senate's 15-15 tie, Kate Brown, last session's minority leader, was poised to ascend to the presidency. But conservative Republicans balked at that proposal and put Salem Democrat Peter Courtney into the job instead.

Rather than sulk after such a high-profile humiliation, the 43-year-old former family-practice lawyer rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Brown, who took top honors in WW's 2001 survey, again found common ground between opposing parties. She played a key role, for example, on a hastily assembled bipartisan Senate panel that worked to salvage the Oregon Health Plan from the scrap heap, where it had been left by House Republicans. Still, her numbers slipped a bit this session. Many speculated that Brown, who changes hair styles as often as some lawmakers change their votes, has been distracted by her potential congressional bid (see Murmurs, WW, June 4, 2003), which has led to second-guessing on votes. A number of fellow Democrats, for example, were disappointed that she voted against House Bill 2003, the major state pension reform, while other pro-union Democrats, such as Sen. Tony Corcoran and House Minority Leader Deborah Kafoury, supported it. "She took the easy way out and let Tony and Deb walk the plank," says one Salem staffer, who noted that a yes vote would make it hard for a Democratic congressional candidate to get union backing in a contested primary. "That showed a huge lack of courage in a session that needed more of it."

Most, however, were once again wowed. "If you understand the intersection of policy and politics, Kate's gotta be your heroine," wrote one fan.GOOD

Richard Devlin
D-Tualatin
First Senate session
(Three House sessions)

Overall: 7.18
Brains: 7.93
Integrity:7.57
Diligence: 7.50
Clout: 5.70

Although he reminds one observer of a garden gnome, nearly everyone agrees Richard Devlin is a legislative whiz. The 50-year-old former Metro councilor spent much of his freshman Senate term studying the budget for his assignment to the Joint Ways and Means Committee. "He's incredibly focused," says one lobbyist. "He knows what he wants. He knows how to explain it so others see their interest in supporting it. And then he knows how to maximize it for political advantage."

Devlin gets points for being willing to put his convictions ahead of political calculations. As someone whose suburban district is always targeted by Republicans, he took a risk by championing annual legislative sessions, a position tailor-made for distorted attack ads. But mainly, he's lauded for working harder and smarter than most.

He teamed up with Rep. Greg Macpherson on Senate Bill 819, which would increase the amount of money school districts could raise through a local-option tax, and worked with initiative-reform advocates on SB 678, which would require signature gatherers to actually witness the signing of petitions they carry.

Devlin is one of the few lawmakers who are credited with understanding the details of every bill they care about. "People may not agree with him," says one staffer, "but I've never heard anyone say Richard has his facts wrong." His lack of a high-profile leadership post probably cost him points in the clout category, but Senate aides say his colleagues lean on him for policy analysis and finding ways to stuff their proposals into other bills. "He doesn't see himself as a leader," says one Democratic staffer, "but everyone counts on him to get the work done. I know the House Democrats miss him a lot."

John Minnis
R-Fairview
Second Senate session
(Seven House sessions)

Overall: 7.48
Brains: 7.02
Integrity: 5.21
Diligence: 7.50
Clout: 7.90

If the Oregon Legislature were a soap opera (and, to be fair, it's been less of one this year than in recent sessions), John Minnis would be the leading man. The hot-headed Portland police detective with the silver 'stache and twinkling eyes is sleeping with the most powerful woman in the House (Speaker Karen Minnis) and sparring with the most powerful woman in his caucus (Sen. Bev Clarno). John Minnis was in the state House in 1995 and led a group of renegade Republicans who tried to unseat Clarno, who was then Speaker. This year, Clarno again beat him out for the top spot in the Republican caucus, and observers say Minnis started the session in a pissy mood. Still, although he was iced out of the leadership team, his clout rating soared thanks to his close ties to the Speaker's office.

Though both Minnises (or would that be Minni?) stress their independence, the prevailing view is that having Sen. Minnis on your side probably helps your chances in the House--and having him against you definitely hurts. "Look," says one scribe, "they drive home together each night. You got to figure they're not talking about traffic and weather."

More than most lawmakers, Sen. Minnis, 49, seems to polarize observers, and not necessarily along party lines. A lobbyist who normally sides with the Democrats says Minnis worked hard on the special Senate committee that revamped the Oregon Health Plan: "This was very technical stuff, and he took it seriously." But he was also described as "the ultimate game player" and got the second-lowest marks for integrity among senators. As one Republican aide says, Minnis "seems bored, except when he's working on cop stuff or trying to screw Bev."

Bruce Starr
R-Aloha
First Senate session
(Two House sessions)

Overall: 6.92
Brains: 6.88
Integrity: 6.52
Diligence: 7.42
Clout: 6.85

Some lawmakers claw their way to the top by political dealmaking, others by sheer brainpower. A few simply identify an important issue and make it their own. When it comes to kicking asphalt in Oregon, there's only one lawmaker to see in Salem: Bruce Starr.

Starr, a gangly ex-roofer who now works for the Portland Business Alliance, took the road to transportation during his sophomore House session, when he worked with Gov. John Kitzhaber to get needed cash for roads and bridges. This session, he's working with Team Kulongoski to jackhammer out another ambitious roads plan.

Starr, 34, gets some knocks this year for slacking. After missing a lot of GOP caucus meetings at the start of the session, he prompted several survey respondents to wonder whether he was too busy mulling a challenge to Democratic Congressman David Wu to be fully engaged.

Although he's not nearly the knee-jerk right-winger that his dad, Charles, is (see page 20), Starr is one of the few social conservatives in Salem with any real influence. That's because he usually crosses the aisle for less ideological issues. For example, he ushered SB 761, a measure to relieve homeschoolers from standardized-testing requirements, through the Legislature with the help of six Democratic votes in the Senate (Gov. Kulongoski vetoed the bill). This session he carried the Oregon Environmental Council's top bill in the Senate, a measure to give incentives to auto insurers who base their rates on mileage. Some view such stands as politically driven, but most give him the benefit of the doubt. "He doesn't always land on my side of the issues," says one lobbyist, "but I can always count on him to communicate clearly where he is and why." AVERAGE

Ginny Burdick
D-Southwest Portland
Fourth Senate session

Overall: 6.14
Brains: 6.17
Integrity: 6.60
Diligence: 6.63
Clout: 5.14

Ginny Burdick has convinced some that she's a savvy and selfless strategist. Early in the session, she came up with a proposal to turn Oregon's income-tax rebate (the infamous "kicker" returned to taxpayers when revenues exceed projections) into a rainy-day fund for schools. When she realized that Sen. Frank Morse (a Republican from Albany) had a similar plan, she backed off, letting him get the attention and bring along some needed GOP votes. "She cares more about the outcome than personal aggrandizement," says one lobbyist, " a rarity in this building."

Others, however, say she sometimes is clueless. For example, Burdick continues to argue, in public and within her own caucus, for $6 billion for K-12 schools even though her party leaders, including the governor, say $5.3 billion is the most they can get. "She really thinks that's a realistic number," says one baffled staffer.

That unwillingness to compromise wins the 55-year-old PR consultant laurels from those who are on her side and darts from those who aren't. "She can be closed-minded," says one lobbyist. Though she has backed away from her single-minded focus on gun control, she still pushed a bill to prevent people with concealed-weapons permits from carrying firearms into schools, characterized by one journalist as "a solution in search of a problem."

Charlie Ringo
D-Beaverton
First Senate session
(One House session)

Overall: 5.94
Brains: 6.96
Integrity: 5.78
Diligence: 6.15
Clout: 4.89

Charlie Ringo, who won Rookie of the Year honors in last session's WW survey as a House member, found a way to avoid the sophomore slump: He jumped to the Senate. The former Sierra Club official won a bruising battle with ex-Rep. Bill Witt to join the upper chamber. Some observers say the experience humbled him a bit. Others, however, see the same arrogance that put people off during his first session. "He defines himself by who's his enemy," says one observer. "He's right. You're wrong. He's smart. You're stupid." Even fellow Democrats say Ringo, a 45-year-old trial lawyer with a perpetual grimace, could do a better job in compromising. They note that he and Republican Ted Ferrioli have clashed in the Senate Water and Land Use Committee, bottling up almost all the substantive legislation. "I keep hoping that one day he'll show up at my door with a pizza, finally proving he can deliver," says one observer. "A walking psycho-drama," writes another. "Imagines himself as an environmental champion, but others see him as a self-righteous pain in the ass."

But there are still those who think Ringo, with a bit more experience, could emerge as a star. He pushed a bill to protect consumers from arbitrary hikes in their insurance rates, led the charge to close the tax break for SUV owners, and got his less-than-15 minutes of fame by debating Lars Larson on The O'Reilly Factor over a proposal to allow activists to be charged with terrorism. "This guy would get a '10' if you had a category for earnestness," says one longtime lobbyist."

Avel Gordly
D-Northeast Portland
Fourth Senate session
(Three House sessions)

Overall: 5.93
Brains: 5.50
Integrity: 7.66
Diligence: 6.33
Clout: 4.24

People don't blame Avel Gordly for being angry. After all, if your ill son were facing attempted-murder charges for something he did during a psychotic break, you, too, might be a bit testy when colleagues questioned the need to fund mental health. "Avel's always had to play defense on budget cuts," says one legislative aide. "But now it becomes personal."

Some observers say her anger has undermined her effectiveness this session, and several survey respondents complained that she still plays the race card too often. "You can always count on Avel to ask an administrator, 'Have you done anything about cultural sensitivity training?'" says one lobbyist. "It's a good question. But when it's your only question, you become marginalized."

Some hoped her appointment to the influential Ways and Means Committee would push her from her traditional role of outsider to that of an insider. But she has moved forward very few bills this session and hasn't played a big role in budget talks.

Still, others say the 56-year-old former parole officer is becoming the conscience of the Legislature. Although she is dismissed as a "painfully predictable Portland liberal," Gordly got the second-highest score for integrity in the Senate. As one respondent put it, she's "one of the few legislators who actually votes her mind, heart and conscience."

Margaret Carter
D-North/Northeast Portland
Second Senate session
(Seven House sessions)

Overall: 5.83
Brains: 5.43
Integrity: 6.63
Diligence: 5.69
Clout: 5.57

Margaret Carter once again wound up in the bottom half of the rankings, but mention her name and four times out of five, you'll get a smile.

"God, I love her," says one Democratic staffer.

"Oh, I adore Margaret!" gushes a lobbyist.

Maybe it's her tendency to break into song (and the fact that she's got a great set of pipes). Or her long history of striking up friendships with Republicans (particularly Republican women). Even those who normally detest liberal Portland Democrats cut Carter some slack. (She voted against the governor's state-pension bills, for example, but still enjoys great access to his office.)

While some say she spreads herself a bit too thin, most agree she's used her limited influence to protect low-income recipients of public services from even more draconian cuts. "In the past, Margaret has been willing to compromise on the budget," says one longtime staffer. "This year, she's holding her ground, which is subtly changing the debate about where spending will come out." BAD

Ryan Deckert
D-Beaverton
Second Senate session
(Two House sessions)

Overall: 5.69
Brains: 6.28
Integrity: 5.72
Diligence: 5.54
Clout: 5.24

For once, people are talking about Ryan Decker's abilities rather than his looks. Sure, he still gets his share of Doogie Howser jokes, but when you chair the Revenue Committee in a session where the budget shortfall is measured in billions, you attract attention.

"He's in a tough position," says one Democratic staffer. "His caucus wants more money than he can find." Indeed, while some Senate Dems were calling for up to $3 billion in new money, Deckert, a 32-year-old full-time lawmaker, realized he'd be lucky to get half that amount, given the significant number of Republicans who have vowed to balance the budget through cuts. "He's really emerged as a calm, diplomatic chair," says a lobbyist who has watched him run the Revenue Committee. "He's had his mettle challenged repeatedly and kept his cool and his good humor."

His habit of showing up late and love of the links may explain the low marks for diligence, but observers say he has studied the revenue issue thoroughly and isn't in over his head. Some say he's done a good job picking small causes he can win (such as his proposals to reduce registration fees for hybrid cars and provide summer lunches for hungry kids). But he has perplexed others with his backing of SB 362, a measure to give tax breaks to venture capitalists. "Who is this person?" asks one respondent. "Goofy legislator? Savvy insider? Damned if I can figure it out."

Rick Metsger
D-Mount Hood
Third Senate session

Overall: 5.55
Brains: 6.30
Integrity: 4.73
Diligence: 5.52
Clout: 5.67

"It's all about Rick," says one observer, summing up the chief complaint about the former KOIN-TV sportscaster. "He's a showboater and grandstander," says another. Even some fellow Democrats tire of Metsger's desire to be the center of attention. "He loves the deal, and the role of the dealmaker," says one aide.

During one of last year's special sessions, Metsger teamed up with John Minnis and announced an ill-fated plan to balance the budget by bonding tobacco-settlement funds, despite objections from then-Gov. Kitzhaber. Now, he's joined another Republican, Bruce Starr, with a plan to rescue Gov. Kulongoski's transportation package, which he derailed in the Senate transportation committee he chairs. Many suspect that Metsger, who won Rookie of the Year honors in the 1999 survey, balked at Kulongoski's plan because it relied too heavily on increased fees for his trucker friends. His proposal to privatize the State Accident Insurance Fund also drew notice from those who knew he'd received $15,000 in campaign contributions from Liberty Northwest Insurance, a SAIF rival that has long chafed at the government-run competition. "It was pretty transparent and pissed a lot of people off," says one Senate staffer. That probably explains the low scores for diligence and integrity.

His backers, however, say such moves are consistent with Metsger's pro-business leanings, which allow him to work with Republicans and actually get some bills to the governor's desk. This year, for example, he's pushed through bills to tighten rules on setting up school athletics districts, help local timber communities renovate mill sites, and stiffen penalties for drunk drivers who have kids in their cars. "He's a high-energy, highly creative thinker who's always looking for new twists to old ideas," says one lobbyist. And several people noted that Metsger's newsletter, The Weakly Democrat, adds some much-needed levity to the proceedings, though one aide pointed out, "It would be better received if he poked fun at himself once in a while."

Frank Shields
D-Outer Northeast Portland
Third Senate session
(Three House sessions)

Overall: 5.48
Brains: 5.68
Integrity: 6.46
Diligence: 5.79
Clout: 3.96

Frank Shields' score dropped more than that of any other incumbent senator in this year's survey. Several respondents complained that this former Methodist minister still has a bit of a "holier than thou" complex, particularly when he takes to the Senate floor for his near-daily speeches. "Whether it's the starving people of Cameroon or the homeless people under the Burnside Bridge, it's always a cause with him," says one GOP staffer. "It loses its effectiveness." Shields, 58, ticked off even some fellow Democrats when, during the Iraq invasion, he took to the Senate floor on several occasions to gives updates on the condition of Michelle Darr, a war protester who had staged a hunger strike on the Capitol steps. "He's been around here for a long time, and he wasn't given a leadership position," notes one legislative aide. "There's a reason for that."

Still, his longtime advocacy for society's cast-offs won him a non-voting post on the Ways and Means Committee, where he was seated next to Frank Morse (a conservative rookie Republican from Corvallis) and could often be seen playing the role of tutor. "I don't know if that was planned," says one lobbyist who monitored the meetings, "but I think it was extremely helpful to Sen. Morse."

Observers say his appointment to the Senate natural-resources committee has forced him to learn about new subject matter. "He's taken the job very seriously," says one lobbyist who has watched him in action. "He's proven to be very approachable and a good study."

But many say he seemed less passionate this session, and most suspect Shields will not run for re-election. He stepped down from the pulpit two years ago after his ex-wife accused him of adultery. "His personal life took him down a few notches," says one lobbyist. "He's been quieter this session."AWFUL

Charles Starr
R-Hillsboro
Third Senate session
(Three House sessions)

Overall: 4.88
Brains: 3.21
Integrity: 7.59
Diligence: 5.50
Clout: 3.21

Three words will forever be associated with Sen. Charles Starr's 2003 term: "Run, don't walk." That was the advice the home-schooling advocate gave to parents thinking about taking their kids out of public schools.

The comment, made in a snippy reply to a constituent, sums up the advice many would give the 70-year-old senator about his hapless 10-year crusade to drag public schools back to the phonics-filled glory days of the God-fearing '50s. (Last session his pet bill would have allowed the Ten Commandments to be posted inside public schools.) At the same time, he's such a nice guy (unless you work for a public-employee union) that few people can bring themselves to trash him. "He's a true gentleman who believes in what he's doing with all his heart," says a lobbyist who watches Starr repeatedly vote against him. "He should be admired for that." A Republican aide, who notes that Starr often brings his homemade bread in for the staff, says, "He's just living on a totally different planet than the rest of us. He'd be great as a next-door neighbor."

 
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