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Politics & Government

Oregon House Republicans Question Capitol Hiring Practices Following Staffer’s Gaffe

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Shaundd via Wikimedia Commons
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After a new hire revealed her own politics, the House Republican Leader is requesting information on hiring and training of nonpartisan staffers.

Oregon House Republicans are questioning hiring practices at the state Capitol, following a gaffe in which a staffer for a nonpartisan office showed clear preference for the Democratic Party.

In a hearing of the House Business and Labor Committee last week, a newly hired employee for the state’s Legislative Policy and Research Office introduced herself by explaining she had formerly worked for Democratic legislators in Utah.

“I was with the House Democrats, which is a superminority, so it’s definitely nice to be in the majority,” the woman said, in a remark that visibly surprised some legislators in attendance.

Such a statement wouldn’t bear mention in the partisan offices of the Capitol, where staffers are aligned with members of one party or the other. But the woman works for the Legislative Policy and Research Office, or LPRO, an entity tasked with providing neutral “research, issue analysis and committee management services” to the legislature.

Lawmakers of both parties frequently rave about the assistance employees from LPRO give their committees. Those services are divided into two positions: analysts who are subject-matter experts helping lawmakers parse issues, and committee assistants who fill a clerical role. The woman who blurted her affinity for Democrats serves in the latter, less weighty position, but Republicans are pressing the issue.

The Senate Republican Office last week tweeted out a video of the staffer’s comments, set against the theme music to the show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Then on Thursday, House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, offered a more serious response. In a letter to Interim Legislative Administrator Brett Hanes, Drazan requested an array of documentation about not only the hiring of the staffer in question, but about LPRO hiring practices in general.

Drazan’s request includes any communications from lawmakers or leadership offices regarding LPRO hires, copies of all training materials for new hires, and the number of staff members who “come to LPRO with partisan or issue-specific advocacy work experience.”

“As elected leaders of our respective districts, Republican and Democrat members alike deserve equal access to impartial, professional service and expertise from committee staff,” Drazan wrote.

The flap is emblematic of the tensions in the Legislature as a five-month legislative session rumbles to life. With superminorities in both chambers, Republicans in recent years have pressed the issue of Democratic dominance, frequently complaining the party abuses its power to steamroll opposing viewpoints.

Republicans that OPB spoke with said they have not noticed a trend of LPRO staffers acting with bias. Though Drazan worries the office can be subject to sway from House Speaker Tina Kotek, one of two presiding officers in the Legislature, she did not suggest an ongoing trend of partisanship.

“The letter really is a fact finding approach,” she said. “It’s certainly not intended to jump to any conclusions. This might be a one-off thing.”

Members of both parties have a say over how LPRO operates. The agency is overseen by a joint legislative committee split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Should her inquiry suggest a bias in hiring or training, Drazan said “we should know that and we should choose as a body to correct it.”

Another Republican House member who has highlighted the staffer’s comment is Rep. Bill Post from Keizer, who wrote a blog post about the incident last week. Post told OPB he has not picked up on partisanship from LPRO staffers in the past.

“I don’t have any specific times I can point to,” he said in a message on Twitter. “In all honesty, for the most part, they have been very good about not showing a partisan appearance. … Though I think overall they have done a great job, it’s really hard to not have some political bias if one is a member of either party.”

For its part, LPRO is taking the matter seriously, and will comply with Drazan’s request. Director Misty Mason Freeman sent lawmakers an email last week saying that she would be meeting with new hires to “re-emphasize the importance of nonpartisanship in LPRO and to reiterate expectations of our staff.”

“I want to share that LPRO incorporates nonpartisanship throughout our hiring process, including screening for partisan experience in resume and building in probing interview questions,” Mason Freeman wrote, noting that LPRO analysts get a more stringent screening than assistants because they hold more authority.

“Each one of us, of course, holds our own beliefs and values,” Mason Freeman wrote, “but when it comes to our work for the legislature, it is essential that we always present ourselves and do our work in a nonpartisan way so that all 90 members are well served.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting.