The Oregon Way: Where Did It Go?

 Once upon a time in Oregon politics, there was a philosophy known as the “Oregon Way,” a seemingly fabled approach to political compromise that is no longer evident in our state’s legislative processes. So, what was the Oregon Way, how did it work, and where has it gone?

By Cody Mann

January 1, 2021
Oregon is a blue state politically, though there are a pockets of red, mostly found in rural areas. The partisan legislative divide has led the increasingly frustrated minority-party Republicans to the headline-grabbing walkout tactics employed in recent years – a move it’s worth noting was first employed by Democrats.

The Oregon Way

An opinion published by the Beaverton Valley Times harkens back to a golden era. Names such as Tom McCall, Mark Hatfield, Norma Paulus and Vera Katz are tied to this philosophy of getting things practically and with respect for each other’s principles. The opinion’s author, Kevin Frazier, pointed to four broken legs that once held up the Oregon Way’s platform.

First is the decline in number and influence of social institutions. Those that remain likely have political loyalties to those splitting the state, often along urban-rural lines. Second, political battles are no longer kept in check by cultural norms, playing to the extremes and undermining the authority of elected officials.

“Elected officials themselves have abandoned the norms that previously brought legislators together at the local bar as well as on tricky policy matters,” Frazier wrote. “Instead, officials seem more keen to take drastic, uncompromising and performative actions that inflame passions while quashing any chance of achieving compromise.”

Democratic processes are the third broken leg. Frazier calls them “blatantly flawed but somehow immune to change,” eroding norms and encouraging partisan side-picking. The fourth leg is the values that Democrats and Republicans purportedly stand for, which seem to be more conflicting by the day.

Citing unique and disparate cultures, economies and histories among the state's communities, Frazier suggests a return to community-based politics resembling early Oregon Territory history, a decentralized approach with fewer decisions coming from the Capitol building in Salem.

“By grounding more decisions and placing more resources at the local level, we can begin to restore a sense of community among individuals,” Frazier wrote. “The prosperity that results at the local level will raise the overall economic well-being of the state.”

Frazier’s opinion calls for new democratic processes that put people above parties and special interests, adopting an independent redistricting commission, open primaries, ranked-choice voting, and campaign finance reforms to widen the electoral pool.

Frohnmayer: Leading by Example

One person who embodied the Oregon Way was David Frohnmayer, a Republican state representative in the Eugene area who went on to serve as attorney general. He ran for governor before entering academia as dean at the University of Oregon Law School, rising to become one of the longest-serving presidents of the university. Frohnmayer died in 2015 from prostate cancer at 74 years old.

In 1974, Frohnmayer was elected to the Oregon House. He was elected attorney general in 1980 and was re-elected twice, running the second and third times as the nominee of both the Democratic and Republican parties. His bid for governor in 1990 fell short.

In 1980, former Republican Gov. Tom McCall said, “A legislature full of Dave Frohnmayers would give us the best government any state has ever had. It would be a brainy bunch, long on courage, insight, imagination and pragmatic idealism, and short on sniveling partisanship and other manipulative temptations.”

In a speech that was prepared to commemorate his passing, Democratic State Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose called up an image of Frohnmayer as a giant from a nostalgic, sepia-toned vision of a time long ago. Johnson said in reality, her friend Frohnmayer was a great man who left his stamp on Oregon through his lifetime of public service in the spirit of the Oregon Way – bipartisanship and compromise, not division and demonization.

“That Oregon Way was a commitment to the moderate center – that demilitarized ground where Democrats and Republicans worked out their differences to best serve all of Oregon,” Johnson wrote in her prepared remarks. “It was a state of mind more than ideology. It was a principle of governing and public conduct that recognized that we traveled to Salem to solve problems for the common good. No political party or interest group had a monopoly on the truth or brilliant ideas, much less on morality.”

Johnson cited humility and respect for others as the shaping instruments of civility and moderation that characterized Frohnmayer’s public life, writing that his example has sadly nearly disappeared from current Oregon politics. She added that these principles and conduct weren’t just natural gifts that he possessed, but rather the result of will and discipline in the search for common ground from which to work.

Losing Our Way

“This approach to public life has almost disappeared in today’s Salem,” Johnson wrote. “In fact, it’s been on its way out for some time. Dave Frohnmayer was one of the first casualties of Oregon’s loud and polarized, devil-take-the-hindmost politics when he ran for governor in 1990.”

Johnson spread the blame equally for failing to uphold the Oregon Way, noting Republicans and Democrats both have taken uncompromising stances when controlling branches of government. She speculated that Frohnmayer would argue for “a new politics that reclaims the old politics of the Oregon way … a politics of the vital center that doesn’t demonize business or public workers.  A more civil politics that recognizes we’re all in this together and that no political party – or no wing of a political party – no interest group – has all the answers or the only answer.”

From Middle Ground to No Man’s Land

You would be hard-pressed to find examples of the Oregon Way in today’s political climate. Negotiations are few and far between, and the majority rules.

Speaking in a telephone interview in November of 2020, Johnson said Oregon politics have descended into a level of tribalism that she never believed was possible. Anyone who steps away from the party line is reviled as a traitor to the cause. Contentious issues aren’t talked over; legislation is rammed through.

The media plays a role in this division, too. Johnson has made headlines for standing among Republicans in the past, often with a critical slant towards her decision to do so. She said reports always focus on the partisanship of decisions as opposed to the details that prompted her to choose one way or another. Social media, too, is a factor in empowering nasty treatment of others as well as spreading false information that drives partisan division.

The daughter of a moderate Oregon Republican state representative, Johnson said her father Sam told how after principled but sometimes snarling debates that were held on the legislative floor in the 60s and 70s, the lawmakers would gather in the bar of a funky old hotel – the Marion Motor Hotel, and pound back drinks before bedtime. She said that’s where Oregon’s iconic bottle bill was born among other legislation.

“That’s where a lot of the camaraderie and the collegial, collaborative relationship in the legislature came from,” Johnson said. “And they did good work in that dark little bar.”    

Discouraging as it is, Johnson doesn’t see any path back to the Oregon Way, especially in the wake of the bruising 2020 election cycle, during which she herself took partisan criticism after making a small campaign donation to friend who is a Republican. 

Johnson said Oregon’s Coastal Caucus is closest it comes to working things out the old-fashioned way. She said the state senators and representatives put partisanship aside to think about what’s best for the Oregon Coast. But even that breaks down if everyone isn’t getting behind a consensus. 

Looking to the Future

Also speaking by telephone in November 2020, Weber called up the aspects she most associates with the Oregon Way: fierce independence, natural resources stewardship, and willingness to buck the mainstream when necessary.

Weber questioned if national politics has perhaps played a role in Oregon’s partisan division, saying it's unbelievable how the parties have gone to their respective silos instead of working on issues across the aisles. Weber spotlighted Johnson as one lawmaker who is trying to lead by example with a solutions-focused approach that she intends to follow.

The incoming state representative agreed with Johnson that the media is a significant player in partisan warfare, always looking for conflict to make stories more interesting – inventing conflict if it’s not already present just to keep the audience hooked.

“Right now, there’s more outlets vying for attention than ever before,” Weber said. “There’s a thirst for constant attention, instant gratification, and news has to keep up with that.”

Being in the minority (or in this the super minority) makes it hard to ask for anything at the negotiating table. Drawing on her experience in local politics, Weber said she thinks getting back to the Oregon Way will depend a lot on relationship building and networking, a skill she’s polished as mayor in bringing her council together on divisive topics and also in learning and acting on public feedback.

But what can you do if the other side won’t budge, won’t give even a little? That’s how legislative walkouts happen. Weber said extreme conditions call for extreme measures, that the walkouts are a viable tool given the circumstances.

Weber is guarded about the upcoming legislative session, which could be even more difficult than the previous one given the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic as well as the November’s elections. She already sees adversarial tensions flaring up as she prepares to take higher office.

Finding the Way Back

Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has been a polarizing figure in Oregon politics, sparking failed recall attempts and inspiring a crusade of right wing punditry. Weber thinks the governor could communicate better with Republicans and acknowledge their input. Right now, she feels as though Republicans aren’t even part of the conversation, and Democrats are issuing edicts from their silo with no accountability.

“If people are backed into a corner, which is something that has happened to the Republicans, they have two choices: to fight or to flee,” Weber said.

As the balance stands, the fights are unwinnable. But maybe that’s the point – under the Oregon Way, it’s not about winning a fight, but getting the job done. The question is whether we can find the Oregon Way again.