By Taylor W. Anderson • The Bulletin

SALEM — If any of the Independent Party’s candidates win election this year, the new third party legislators are positioning themselves to have an outsize impact on the state House, supporters and former legislators say.

The Independent Party of Oregon, which has candidates running in several close legislative races in the first general election since becoming a major party last year, has been exploring the idea of creating a caucus to help gain a foothold in the Oregon Legislature.

Given that the young party’s candidates are attracting unprecedented money and attention this election, the prospect is becoming real enough for lawmakers to think about the idea of a new voting bloc in the Legislature, capable of acting as a middle ground between Democrats and Republicans on controversial bills that at times are decided by a single vote.

Bob Jenson, an 85-year-old former legislator from Pendleton, said the year he left the Democratic Party in the late 1990s and became an independent (there was no Independent Party at the time) was his favorite time of his nine sessions in the House.

For that brief period as an independent, he said, he wasn’t beholden to any outside interest. The caucuses held no influence over him. He could focus on representing his massive, Eastern Oregon district, rather than pleasing party leaders.

“Fundamentally, I was a caucus of one,” said Jenson, who at the time met one-on-one each week with Lynn Snodgrass, who was House speaker, to discuss his positions on bills.

But, he said, without the backing power of a voting bloc or caucus, “You don’t have a lot of bargaining room.” He soon registered as a Republican.

Independents could hold bargaining power next year if voters in the Willamette Valley, Portland metro area and Klamath Falls pick the party’s candidates over Republicans and Democrats. A sitting legislator could also change parties, as Jenson did.

“If there’s only two of them, they’ll have a little bit more (power),” Jenson said. “They’ll be able to organize a caucus, so they’ll get the benefits of having, you know, being part of the weekly meetings with leadership. Or they should. If they don’t and I were in their shoes, I’d be screaming bloody murder.”

Jim Thompson, a former moderate Republican legislator running as an Independent, has challenged Mike Nearman, the Republican who unseated him in a 2014 primary for a House seat in Polk County. Supporters of both say their candidate has a good chance to win. Unlike 2014, there is no Democrat in the race.

Thompson has raised money from traditionally Democratic groups like public employee unions, and he and Nearman have each raised close to the same amount of money this cycle, over $100,000. Nearman on Thursday released an attack ad he said responded to a negative mailer sent by Thompson supporters.

“If there were an Independent caucus, I think I would look very favorably at” joining, Thompson said. “I’m still going to work as hard as I can with as many people as will work with me. We don’t need to divide the Legislature anymore; we need to unite the Legislature.”

One lawmaker already positioning for the Independents’ potential rise within the Oregon Legislature is Rep. Julie Parrish, a three-term West Linn Republican running for re-election.

If she wins, Parrish is already armed with legal opinions that outline the process of creating a new caucus office for a third party in the Legislature, which is governed by the rules of the House and Senate.

Historically under those rules, Democrats and Republicans split a pool of money evenly to run their caucuses in both chambers, Parrish said. She wants to make sure that, if the Independent Party gets a foothold this year or in future elections, the new party gets money to set up its own policy office.

“Whether there’s one member or 10 members, they deserve their own Independent Party caucus,” Parrish said.

Parrish herself raises the prospect of either an informal or formal Independent Party caucus in the Legislature next year if another party member is elected. A group of legislators who were supported by the Independent Party in elections met last session; however, none was an outright Independent, and the group’s work was limited.

If Democrats and Republicans don’t split the budget and allow Independents to set up their new caucus, Parrish said she’d file a bill proposing to require the money be split among the three parties.

Besides, Parrish is interested in a new voting bloc.

“If the Independent Party would like me to caucus with them, I probably would go check out their meetings,” she said.

Thompson said Parrish told him in a conversation she would switch parties and join him as an Independent.

“That’s a direct quote,” Thompson said. “She has not been happy with the way the Republican caucus has done things. Beyond that, I best not put words in her mouth.”

Parrish hasn’t met with the House Republican caucus in over a year, she said. While she says she may have told Thompson “in a moment of frustration” she would change parties, her family’s roots in the Republican Party run deep, and she plans to stay put.

“Right now I’m in the Republican Party. I’m going to fix the things I’m not happy about from the inside, and I’m going to bring more voices to the table,” Parrish said. “I’m not changing my party.”

If Thompson and Parrish or another Independent who won election did form a caucus, says Jenson of Pendleton, the two could hold more power than a single Independent legislator.

“There are quite a few bills that come up where a couple of votes are maybe more than the majority party can afford to give away,” Jenson said.

If Measure 97, the $6 billion tax increase on big businesses that’s on the ballot this election, fails, lawmakers will face the prospect of plugging a budget deficit. House Democrats hold 35 out of 60 seats. If after the election they retain 35 seats, they remain one vote short of a supermajority needed to raise taxes.

Parrish has her eye on the longer run, saying voters likely aren’t ready to choose an Independent in a three-way race alongside a Republican and Democrat. But, she said, if the party grows between now and 2018, there’s a possibility the Independents begin to win races.

“If you start to peel off the Democratic majority and there’s Independent candidates who are smart on fiscal issues, maybe more moderate or libertarian leaning in their social stance … which is where I think the bulk of suburban Oregon is, then you really start to shake things up in the Legislature,” Parrish said.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,

tanderson@bendbulletin.com

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