Choosing a successor for Frank Morse is complicated by politics
When longtime District 8 state Sen. Frank Morse unexpectedly resigned Sept. 17 with two years remaining on his term, a statutory clock started ticking on a political process that could have significant ramifications both in the next legislative session and the 2014 elections.
Under Oregon law, Morse’s successor must be selected by Oct. 17, 30 days after his resignation took effect.
The law also specifies that the new senator be a Republican, like Morse, who resides in the district, chosen from a list of three to five nominees selected according to party rule.
Nine candidates threw their hats in the ring at a boisterous nominating convention in Corvallis last week, and GOP precinct committee persons picked three of them to carry the party’s standard: former state Rep. Betsy Close, Samaritan Health Services CEO Larry Mullins and relative unknown Clinton Johnson, an insurance salesman.
On Wednesday, the Linn and Benton County boards of commissioners will hold a joint session to appoint one of those three people to fill Morse’s seat.
And that’s where things could get really interesting.
The three Linn County commissioners are all Republicans, but their counterparts in Benton County are all Democrats — and the three Democrats get more votes.
That’s because there are more voters in the Benton County portion of District 8 than the Linn County part. State law dictates that, in cases of divided districts, each county gets one vote for each 1,000 registered voters living in its patch of electoral turf.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, Benton County had 40,171 registered voters in District 8 on the day of Morse’s resignation while Linn had 27,390.
Therefore, Benton County gets 40 votes, or 13.33 each for Commissioners Jay Dixon, Linda Modrell and Annabelle Jaramillo.
Linn County gets 27 votes, 9 apiece for Commissioners Roger Nyquist, John Lindsey and Will Tucker.
Both political parties have a stake in the outcome.
After the 2010 election, the Oregon House of Representatives was split right down the middle, with 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans. In the Senate, meanwhile, the Dems held a slim 16-14 edge.
Both parties, of course, are constantly working to shift the balance in their favor, and District 8, which includes left-leaning Corvallis, is an attractive target for the Democrats. But Morse, a moderate Republican, is popular with members of both parties and has had a virtual lock on the district since first winning office in 2002.
Depending on how strong his replacement is, Morse’s once-safe seat could be up for grabs in 2014.
So how will the commissioners vote? Well, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting political analyst Bill Lunch, that all depends.
“I think there’s two criteria that the county commissioners, whether Democrat or Republican, have to think about,” Lunch said.
“One is who can represent the district well in the upcoming session ... the other is politically who’s likely to be stronger or weaker in 2014, when this seat is going to come up again.”
For the three Republican commissioners, Lunch said, it’s a politically simple choice: Whoever seems best qualified to serve in the Senate is also likely to be the strongest candidate to hold the seat in the next election.
But the three Democrats could be tempted to pick the weakest nominee in hopes of taking back District 8 for their party in 2014 — and they have a voting edge in the decision.
“I don’t mean to cast aspersions on any of the people involved. I’m sure they’ll do the best job they can,” Lunch said.
“But it’s not a straightforward decision matrix because you have these two criteria that may be at odds with each other.”
If for some reason the commissioners are unable to reach a decision, the matter becomes even more partisan, leaving the choice to Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat.
And there’s another wrinkle as well: One of the people with a say in the decision is running against one of the nominees in the current election.
Close is campaigning to unseat Jaramillo, a three-term incumbent, from her Position 3 spot on the Benton County Board of Commissioners.
Jaramillo has not said publicly whether she intends to cast a vote on Wednesday or abstain to avoid the perception of conflict of interest, and she could not be reached for comment before this story went to press.
The procedures laid out by the Secretary of State’s Office for the voting make no mention of how to resolve such a potential conflict, saying only that the “members of the county governing body eligible to vote on the selection are those physically or electronically present at the meeting, who are currently holding office by election or appoinment.”
But Close said if the positions were reversed and she were the one with a vote, she would not hesitate to use it for the benefit of her party.
“They’re Democrats,” she said of the Benton commissioners. “They play to win, as we all should.”
And what if Close wins the Senate appointment? Will she drop out of the commissioner’s race?
Not a chance.
“The date to withdraw was Aug. 28, so you can no longer withdraw,” she said. “So I will be on the ballot. I’m still campaigning hard for that seat.”
If Close should win the Senate appointment and win a spot on the County Commission, that creates yet another complication: State law says she can’t hold both offices at once, so she’d have to choose between one or the other.
On the surface that might seem a no-brainer: The Senate seat is a prestigious position that offers the chance to impact state policy and could be a springboard to higher office down the road.
On the other hand, the pay stinks. Oregon legislators earn $1,801 a month, or a little less than $22,000 a year.
The county commissioner job, by contrast, comes with an annual salary of $78,000.
“Yeah,” Close said. “My husband mentioned that.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-758-9529.