SALEM — A video diaspora of lawmakers, an alphabet soup of proposals, echoing audio, dead air and a buzzer that cut off testimony at three minutes marked the first day of legislative hearings on 2022 redistricting plans Wednesday, Sept. 8.
The House and Senate redistricting committees held back-to-back-to-back hearings to take online testimony on eight proposals for mapping out political districts to be used beginning next year.
The review was the first of 12 public hearings that could determine the electoral future of Oregon for the next decade. Or it could be a frustrating and futile exercise whose results will be in a trash bin two weeks from now.
The hearings are required as part of the state's redistricting laws under which the legislature adjusts the lines for 30 Senate and 60 House districts every 10 years based on population changes in the state.
It also draws congressional districts, which this year include a new, sixth seat, awarded to Oregon because of its overall population growth.
The committees submit a plan to the full legislature, which then passes it on to the governor for approval.
"Eight out of the last 10 times that redistricting has been done, that hasn't happened — we're trying to buck the trend," said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, a member of the Senate Redistricting Committee.
Over the past century, the process has usually run into stalemate in the legislature, opposition by the governor or court challenges that have led to new maps being drawn by the secretary of state or the courts.
The odds seem particularly long this year because the COVID-19 pandemic delayed 2020 U.S. Census data due in April by over four months.
An Oregon Supreme Court ruling gave lawmakers until Sept. 27 to get a plan drawn, voted on, approved by Gov. Kate Brown and to the court for review.
Adding to the headwinds to get a plan done: A deal giving House Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby a seat on the House Redistricting Committee.
With political parity on the House committee, it effectively gave the minority-party GOP a veto over any plan getting to the floor of the legislature. But any compromise would have to get pre-approved by Gov. Kate Brown or face a veto that would slam the door on the process.
No vote in the legislature or a Brown veto would end the legislature's role in defining its own fate.
No finalized plan at the Supreme Court by Sept. 27 meant the lawmakers were out of the mapmaking job. All the drafts, deals, debate and public testimony would be off the table and into the trash.
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan would take over the legislative map making, while a special five-judge judicial panel would draw the congressional districts.
Legislators had hoped to offset the political turbulence of a quick-march of maps through the legislative process by going across the state with a "road show" of high profile public hearings.
Like so many plans over much of the past two years, the plan fell victim to COVID-19. A spike in infections in July and August led legislative leaders to call off the political show-and-tell.
Instead of the committee coming to their constituents, the constituents would have to get on their computers or phones and come to the committee. The "road show" became 12 virtual hearings.
Moving the process online meant a rapid-fire series of online testimony with all its inherent technological glitches and logistical headaches.
The first hearing on Wednesday underlined the challenges. A man trying to testify from eastern Oregon said he was using three different phones to see the hearing, call up the maps from the state website, and talk to the committee. The resulting screeching echo was finally resolved.
Other testimony would suddenly drop away into silence. A speaker from Columbia County who could barely be heard switched to another device which caused their voice to sound as if she was talking underwater.
"I'm sorry, we're unable to hear you through that microphone," said Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, co-chair of the House panel.
The problems were particularly troublesome Wednesday because the first two hearings dealt with an area covering a majority of the state, much of it the farthest from the hearing's video hub in Salem.
The early morning session included Clatsop, Columbia, part of Multnomah, Washington, and Yamhill counties.
It was followed by an early afternoon session on Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Hood River, Jackson, Jefferson, part of Josephine, Klamath, Lake, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, Wasco and Wheeler counties.
Many of those testifying started by telling the six Democrats and five Republicans on the two committees that they realized that making big political choices wasn't easy.
"I do not envy the job before you — this is a puzzle with serious consequences," said Washington County resident Felicita Monteblanco.
But the vast majority of those testifying would then go on to find fault with the collection of maps.
Monteblanco did not like having her rural area connected with a portion of Portland that could dominate the choice of candidates.
Christopher Cobey agreed with Monteblanco, but from the reverse viewpoint. A resident of the Pearl District, he wasn't happy with the same proposal Monteblanco was critiquing.
"How did draft maps treat the Pearl?" Cobey said. "Not well."
Cobey remarked that there had been little time to investigate the maps, which had been unveiled by the committees Sept. 3, before the three day Labor Day holiday, with the first hearing on Sept. 8.
They included five maps submitted by Democrats and two by Republicans, though committee materials did not make the partisan authorship readily identifiable on the website with PDFs of the maps.
Portland should be one urban political unit, Cobey said. He objected to the "incongruous" congressional district plan which would tie his urban, high-rise neighborhood with towns as far away as Astoria on the northwest thumb of Oregon.
Cecil Blair Walter of Columbia City said his small town and others around it would be swamped by voters from suburban and urban areas in the same district.
"This is unacceptable," Walter said. " I hope you consider the importance of keeping our rural communities together."
The mid-day hearing was centered around the Central and Eastern Oregon counties that currently are in the 2nd Congressional District, the only one of the current five that is represented by a Republican, U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario.
Several current and former Republican officeholders objected to divisions in the maps, which Democrats had explained last week were often due to the simple map of population.
Most of the areas east of the Cascades and in southwestern Oregon had not grown as fast as suburban Portland or Bend. The result will be fewer but geographically larger districts in what are often traditional Republican rural strongholds.
But Republicans said that the population realities had been tweaked by Democrats — who control the Legislature and the governorship — to give themselves even more of an advantage.
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, already represents the geographically largest district in the state, the 30th Senate District, which covers most of the southeastern, central and southwestern portions of Oregon.
Some of the points in the districts are nearly 400 miles apart, requiring a lot of time and gas.
"I'm going to have to buy stock in ExxonMobile," Findley joked.
Former Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, said she understood that the Bend area's massive growth was going to scramble the political map. But she said the Democratic solution butchered community distinctions.
"It dices our community in half, lumping the affluent neighborhoods of Aubrey Butte and Northwest Crossing with rural communities of Cloverdale, and Sisters in the proposed House District 53," Helt said.
"No community is served well by cutting it in half, especially our minority communities and communities in poverty."
The most controversial aspect was a Democratic proposal for the sixth congressional district. Democrats drew a district that stretched from Portland to Hood River and down to the growing Democratic stronghold of Bend.
Deschutes County Republican Party Chair Phil Henderson, a former county commissioner, said the Democratic drawn plan would improve the party's fortunes by tying distant areas to four chunks of Portland.
"These four districts reach out like a spider web of four strands," he said.
Prineville Mayor Jason Beebe, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, objected to a House map that drew a line through the area.
"Crook County has never been split into two different House districts in the history of Oregon.
Others said the redistricting should ensure that voices of minority communities be kept together — Latinos represent a fast-growing segment in Central Oregon that should not be diluted into different areas in order to maintain largely rural, Republican districts.
Several members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs spoke, saying that the Republican state lawmakers who represented them were not taking their history and community into account. But they also objected to maps from both parties they said sliced portions of their traditional lands into different districts.
Knopp, the Republican senator from Bend, is one of the incumbents whose district is being reshaped. More people moved into Knopp's 27th Senate District than any other in the state.
But Knopp said that he still hoped the lawmakers could beat the odds and come up with a plan, despite a tentative timeline to present maps to the full legislatures during an as-yet-to-be-called special session beginning Sept. 20.
"I think we have a long way to go hearing public testimony, which informs committee members on how to proceed," Knopp said. "I am still optimistic that a legislative solution can be found."
Hearings continue Sept. 9 and run through next week. Written testimony can be submitted until Monday, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. Information can be found at www.oregonlegislature.gov/redistricting.