I knew something was wrong an hour after I was sworn in.
All 60 representatives had just taken an oath to work for the people of the State of Oregon, yet when it came time to elect the Speaker of the House, 33 Republicans voted for one person and 27 Democrats voted for another. Not one representative, including me, was willing to breach party loyalty.
Equally sobering, the two contenders for Speaker had just spent a year raising money for their party's candidates running for the Legislature. Their strength was their political prowess, not their policy expertise.
That's when I began to think this process needs to change.
In fact, in those first few days of my term I noticed other problems that most Oregonians never hear or read about.
Maybe I was naive, but I could have never imagined what happened to Dr. Alan Bates in his first term. Bates is a respected family physician from Ashland who helped write the Oregon Health Plan. He is a Democrat. And because of that, the Republican leaders refused to assign him to the health care committee. Apparently his formidable expertise in health care might have interfered with the Republican agenda. Or it might have made Dr. Bates look good.
What kind of system is this?
It is not just Republicans. Democrats are just as guilty when it comes to legislative strategies that often have as much to do with winning elections as doing the right thing for Oregon.
The 2001 Legislature met in five special sessions, each
more gut wrenching than the last. Our state faced monumental budget woes. So how did we sort through our options? The Republican representatives went into one caucus room; the Democrats went into another. Such separation breeds suspicion, mistrust, and conflict.
Both parties spent hours strategizing how to blame the other for any painful, unpopular prescriptions. Caught in the crossfire were schools, vulnerable citizens and taxpayers.
In my tenure in Salem, I've seen countless examples of party leaders protecting the special interests that supported their party during the previous election cycle. As the parties compete for the money that brings them power, the interests of our citizens are too often left by the side of the road.
There is a better way.
We should make our Legislature nonpartisan. Primary elections would consist of a single contest open to all; the top two vote-getters would advance to the general election. Party labels would not appear on the ballot.
Crazy? Hardly. Look at Nebraska, not exactly a land of wild-eyed radicals. The Cornhusker State has had a nonpartisan legislature for 70 years.
Oregon faces daunting challenges: aching unemployment, crowded classrooms and a dysfunctional tax system. It's hard to find solutions in partisan warfare. But those challenges will be easier to meet if we can tap the talent of Oregon's best leaders - regardless of their political stripes.
State Senator Charlie Ringo is the co-sponsor of a ballot initiative that would make seats in the state House and Senate nonpartisan. The campaign began gathering signatures last week. Readers can find more information at: www.nonpartisanoregon.com