Monday, July 11, 2005

A Profile in Political Courage

Note: The following is my July column in BrainstormNW Magazine

It's a truth in politics that the hardest vote to cast isn't the one that upsets your opponents- it's the one that angers your friends.

That's why we are so often disappointed in our elected officials: they so often succumb to pressure from their leadership and cast a vote contrary to the principles they espouse.
In fact we've come to expect it. Legislators cast "courtesy votes" all the time, and usually pay little price.

So it's not very often that a freshman legislator stands up to pressure from leadership and refuses to cast a key vote in support of one of their major bills.

The unwritten story of the dog days of the 2005 legislative session involves one of the more remarkable instances of one such principled stand. In bucking her party brass, the freshman lawmaker not only proved herself more committed to Republican principles than many of her more experienced fellow caucus members, but in the process quite possibly saved the House Republican majority from itself.

The legislator is Rep. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, who dislodged three term incumbent Vic Backlund in the 2004 Republican Primary. When Thatcher, a successful small businessperson, was attempting to take out the retired educator/lifetime union member, the House leadership supported Backlund.

I was involved in Thatcher's campaign. After two sessions of frustration with Backlund running the House Education Committee, during which time he blocked my efforts to repeal CIM CAM and willingly sponsored bills for the teachers union that would have severely hindered charter schools, I was eager to help a REAL Republican unseat him.

Thatcher ran a great campaign. Despite being outspent 2-1, being opposed by the House leadership and nearly all the lobby, and getting zero editorial board endorsements, Thatcher wiped the floor with Backlund, winning the primary 59% to 41%. Her decisive victory shocked onlookers, who believed Backlund was a beloved figure, untouchable in his district.

Her reason for running was simple: she thought the voters in her district wanted an authentic Republican to represent them. She was right. But unlike so many of her Republican brethren, she votes like a Republican even when the going gets tough.

Thatcher’s principled stand was over House Speaker Karen Minnis' school funding reform, which she introduced with great fanfare early in the session. The Minnis plan would have provided a stable revenue stream for schools by guaranteeing 51 percent of personal tax income receipts would go to schools.

Although Minnis got the reluctant support for her plan from the OSBA and COSA (two mainstay education special interest groups,) the teachers union never got on board, saying that the funding level guaranteed by the bill was not adequate.

With the unions opposed, no Democrats in the house would support Minnis' bill. With no D's in the house on board, the bill would have a rough time in the Democrat controlled senate.

To win over some D’s, Minnis struck a deal with the Portland School Board, which has huge looming fiscal problems. Among them is that the district’s local option tax hike is expiring, which comprises about 4 percent of the district's general fund budget. The district’s internal polling showed that there was little chance that voters would renew the tax.

So Minnis agreed to amend her school funding bill by adding a provision that would allow the Portland School District to renew its local option property tax without a vote of the people. Portland was the only district included.

That got the Portland School Board to pass a resolution supporting the Minnis bill, but if she thought that would win over some House Democrats, she was wrong. Not one of them joined the bill, which meant Minnis had to get the support of 31 of the 33 House Republicans for it to pass the House.

Understand what she was asking: she wanted House Republicans to support a tax increase as part of her school funding reform. She actually got commitments from 30 members. Kim Thatcher was one of the three holdouts.

Now, if the Speaker couldn’t get her landmark school funding bill through her own caucus, it would be a tremendous blow to her political credibility. She only needed a single vote, and she figured that the sole freshman holdout was the place to get it.

To say that Minnis and Majority Leader Wayne Scott leaned on Thatcher to change her mind would be putting it mildly. What started as a pleasant request quickly turned to a stern demand, then a threat, and finally shouts.

Thatcher stood her ground. A tax increase is a tax increase. The Speaker couldn’t get to 31 votes. She had to pull the bill off the floor, and send it back to committee, where the offending provision was removed.

The irony here is that Thatcher prevented perhaps the most damaging thing the House Republicans could have done – pass a tax increase. That’s the last thing Republicans need as they head into the 2006 governor race.

Kim Thatcher ran for the House because she truly cares about Republican principles. She stood tough – in a pretty lonely position -- and took the heat. Let’s hope that 30 of her peers recognize what REAL leadership looks like.


Anonymous said...

That is a great article Rob.

Sounds like Thatcher is the kind of Republican we need to be running for governor in the future.

Keep up the good work in the house and hope that CIM/CAM bill makes it through the senate.


Jim Leuenberger said...

Kim Thatcher also refused to vote the Human Health Services budget with included money for abortions. Kim Thatcher says what she means and means what she says.

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