In an odd turn of events, Democrats will decide on Wednesday which Republican will be next to join the Oregon House of Representatives.
County commissioners from Multnomah, Clackamas and Hood River counties are set to appoint a new state representative Wednesday to replace Mark Johnson, who quit to run Oregon’s largest business lobbying group.
Johnson is a Republican. So, by law, his replacement must be a Republican. But an overwhelming majority of county commissioners who will select his successor are Democrats, voter registration records show. Their votes will determine which of three nominees chosen by Republican Party leaders from Johnson’s old district will take his seat.
When an Oregon House or Senate member has to be replaced mid-term, county commissioners from all counties overlapping the lawmaker’s district choose from among the three party-endorsed nominees. Commissioners’ votes are weighted based on how many of the legislative district’s registered voters reside in each county. Under that formula, Democrats have 73 percent of the vote to replace Johnson.
The appointment is also something of an opportunity for Democrats. Johnson’s former House District 52 is a swing seat. If Democrats can flip it in 2018 and hold on to all the seats they already hold, they would gain a supermajority in the Oregon House, giving them power to increase taxes without Republican support.
Republican officials from within District 52 picked as potential appointees insurance consultant Stan Pulliam, corporate attorney Erick Haynie and retired Portland Police Bureau officer Jeff Helfrich.
With so much on the line — a supermajority for Democrats, and a superminority for Republicans — politics is inevitably in play.
Johnson and Preston Mann, executive director of the House Republican Caucus campaign arm, complained Tuesday about second-hand reports they’d received that House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and public employee union officials attempted to influence commissioners’ vote.
However, there is no evidence of that. Melissa Unger, a lobbyist for the powerful Service Employees International Union, said she is unaware of lobbying by union officials on who to appoint. Kotek did not return a request for comment.
Katie Joplin, a Hood River County commissioner allegedly targeted for lobbying by Kotek, denied being contacted by the speaker or union officials.
Joplin, a registered Democrat, said that even if there has been backroom jockeying, it’s just part of the game.
“It’s politics,” Joplin said. “Democrats certainly want an appointment for a weak Republican. And Republicans certainly want their strongest candidate.”
Joplin, however, said she thinks Johnson’s three potential replacements are “all strong candidates.”
Joplin’s colleague, Hood River County Commissioner Bob Benton, said he’s also heard rumors of Democrats angling for a preferable Republican appointment to the Legislature.
“If it is in fact going on it just leaves a really bad taste in my mouth,” said Benton, a Republican.