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Politics & Government

Longtime Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney is retiring

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, signals a vote on Saturday, June 29, 2019. Courtney says the Legislature is considering filing suit against Gov. Kate Brown to challenge recent vetoes.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, signals a vote on Saturday, June 29, 2019. Courtney says the Legislature is considering filing suit against Gov. Kate Brown to challenge recent vetoes.

Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest-serving lawmaker and longest-serving presiding officer in state history, is retiring.

After months of speculation that leadership of the Senate may come up for grabs in 2023, the 78-year-old Courtney informed colleagues shortly after 2 p.m. on Wednesday he would not seek re-election this year. His office confirmed his decision.

“I am not going to be running again for the Legislature,” Courtney, D-Salem, said in a text message to fellow senators. “I will serve out the remainder of my term. It has been an honor and a privilege to have been allowed to serve locally on the Salem City Council and for all these years in the Oregon State Legislature. I hope I’ve helped.”

Courtney’s departure creates questions about who best can follow in his footsteps after two decades wielding the Senate gavel. That matter will likely wait until soon after the November elections, when members of the majority party – likely to remain the Democrats – will meet to discuss their pick.

By turns taciturn and animated, Courtney has long been one of the more captivating and mercurial figures in Oregon politics. He runs his chamber with a mixture of browbeating insults and heartfelt concern for the institution.

Courtney’s departure is not the only leadership vacuum coming to Salem. In the House, longtime Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, is serving her final term in the role as she mounts a run for governor. Two House Democrats also said Wednesday that House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner, another Portland lawmaker, had informed them she would be stepping down from that position, raising questions about who would marshal House Democrats’ 2022 campaigns.

Currently in his 38th year as a lawmaker, Courtney served in the Oregon House for a decade before jumping to the Senate. He won election as Senate president in 2003, and maintained control ever since, often winning praise from minority Republicans who see him as an evenhanded leader.

More recently, he’s also seen rising angst from an increasingly liberal caucus that sometimes chafed at his consensus-driven style and sometimes painted him as a roadblock for progressive bills.

Courtney publicly mulled retirement in 2017, after securing money to renovate the Salem YMCA, one of his long-term passion projects. Instead, he won reelection and twice convinced his party to install him atop the Senate.

In doing so, Courtney found himself leading during a period of unheard of tumult. Beyond the chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic -- and the state’s sometimes disastrous attempts to get money to those most in need -- Courtney has struggled to get a grip on sexual harassment in Senate ranks, grappled with Republican walkouts, and frequently bemoaned the state’s increasingly fractious politics.

But the longtime statesman also notched some big wins in his final term. Perhaps most dramatic, he helped usher through a new business tax that has dramatically increased available money for K-12 schools.

Among those processing the news on Wednesday was state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, a longtime ally.

“I am incredibly grateful to him for his decades of service to the state,” Steiner Hayward said. “He’s made invaluable contributions to the legislature.”

This story will be updated.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting.