Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney on democracy, bipartisanship and his reluctant retirement
Peter Courtney has been a fixture in Salem for decades. He's getting ready to preside over the last legislative session of his long political career.
Peter Courtney was first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1980. He moved to the Senate in 1999 and became senate president four years later. In total, Courtney has served 38 years in the Oregon legislature. He is both the longest-serving lawmaker and the longest-serving presiding officer in state history. But the short legislative session that starts Feb. 1 will be his last because, for the first time in many decades, Courtney is not seeking re-election.
Courtney was recently a guest on OPB’s “Think Out Loud®.” Here are highlights from his conversation with host Dave Miller. To listen to the entire conversation, use the audio player at the top of this story.
Why did he decide to retire now?
“I would like to run again. I would like to continue to be in the Legislature and I’ll miss it terribly. I don’t know. I don’t have anybody in my family that’ll support me. They won’t talk to me again if I do it. In fact, they thought I wasn’t gonna run last time, four years ago, but I snuck by them in the dark of the night, and my sons and my wife made it clear to me — I got no place to live, no place to stay, and they’d all change their name if I don’t get out of this stuff. And so you know, what are you gonna do?”
On why he considers being a lawmaker to be “a glorious calling”
“Maybe it came from team sports in my life. I just love to get something big done with people who disagree, but they don’t leave the room until they get the job done. I just think that’s great. And the highest level of that is making public policies that affect everybody’s life and the dynamics is — can you do it? Can you negotiate with people you don’t like and vice versa? And can you keep this thing called the legislative branch going, which is the only thing that keeps you from being a dictatorship?”
On why he considers the legislative branch to be the most important branch of government
“The fact is you would not be talking to me now if it weren’t for the legislative branch. Instead, you’d be talking to a dictator. So, the only thing that keeps us different in terms of one person rule or an administrator ruining people’s lives because there’s no way to check them, there’s nobody they’re accountable to, is the legislative branch ... You can’t take the legislative branch for granted. It could go under very readily, very easily, especially in a state that uses initiative, referendum and recall way too much.”
What has it been like to preside over the Oregon Senate these past few, tumultuous years?
“Yeah, it’s been hell. But you know what? I asked for the job. And life is hell and then you die. I mean, I think I said last year, I don’t believe in happiness and all that. So, you just gotta keep going and some days it really rains. Some days you can’t, you don’t know what you’re doing and we’ve had a lot of them ... And it’s been very bad, very hard and very lonely. But hey, Peter, quit complaining. You wanted the job. You were fortunate enough to get it. So, just suck it up and keep going.”
On why he puts such a high value on bipartisanship
“Nowadays you live in a time, David, that if I even say something good about a Republican, I’ll be clobbered by my side and vice versa. In the old days, that wasn’t the case. You could still say, ‘Great play. You did a great play, a great move.’ Today, I can’t do that because the issue of partisanship means, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong no matter what.’ And it’s true of our society across the board. There’s no loyalty anymore, and there’s rigidity ... It’s in athletics, it’s in religion, it’s in everything we do. So truly, I am going to be criticized because, as the Speaker of the House once said about me, ‘Well, the Senate prioritizes getting along or trying to work with each other more than the House does.’ She said that. And when I read it, I just smiled and said, ‘I suppose that’s right.’ Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally ... I have an obligation to be as concerned about Eastern Oregon as I do my own valley area. So, I don’t know how you can do that by being blindly partisan, blindly against anything that’s not your way.”
How will he feel when he strikes his gavel down for the last time at the end of the 2022 legislative session?
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