SALEM — In a move that surprised Oregon’s political world, state Sen. Doug Whitsett, whose district sprawls from Southern Oregon to eastern Deschutes County and all of Crook County, and his wife, state Rep. Gail Whitsett, announced this week they would retire.
The announcement itself wasn’t as shocking as how the two Klamath Falls Republicans went about making it.
Both filed for re-election months before Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline. But Wednesday morning, the two said they would finish their current terms before quitting Oregon politics early next year.
That effectively handed their seats to two Republicans who filed at the last minute to run for the seats: former Klamath County Commissioner Dennis Linthicum for Senate and businessman Eric “Werner” Reschke for House. Both filed three minutes before the deadline.
When the Whitsetts pulled their names off the list the following day, it appeared they’d picked their successors, onlookers say, which has left a bad taste in the mouths of some Republicans who didn’t see it coming, and one who says he would have considered running for the Senate seat.
“I would have certainly considered it, as I’m sure others in Senate District 28 would have,” House Republican Leader Mike McLane, of Powell Butte, said in a statement to The Bulletin. “The reality is what Senator Whitsett did effectively deprived his own constituents of having a choice in the next election. That’s very disappointing on many levels.”
The move came as a surprise even to close confidants and friends of the conservative political duo and Republican insiders, all of whom were blindsided by the shakeup in the rural, Republican-dominated districts.
“Myself, I don’t support that as being an ethical way of doing things,” said Bob Moore, chairman of the Klamath County Republican Party. Moore said Linthicum, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, kept his cards close to his chest as well.
“He was covering a lot of areas and making a lot of speeches. I knew he was working on something, but he would not share that,” Moore said.
Linthicum challenged U.S. Rep. Greg Walden in the 2014 primary, losing handily. His website describes him as a “constitutional conservative.”
Doug Whitsett, 72, has represented Senate District 28 since 2005. Gail Whitsett, who once served as her husband’s chief of staff, was first elected to House District 56 in 2012. Both were members of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
In an interview Thursday night, Doug Whitsett said he and his wife were thinking about not running after the 2015 session and started talking with several people, including Linthicum and Reschke, about taking their seats if they decided not to run.
They changed their minds, Doug Whitsett said, after he was appointed to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee ahead of the Legislature’s short 2016 session, which wrapped up last week. But he said after the last session the two decided they were done with Oregon politics, and they reached out to Linthicum and Reschke again.
“We said, ‘If you want it, go ahead and file,’” Doug Whitsett said. “We didn’t know if they would file until they did, which was the end of the day.”
Sen. Alan Olsen, a Republican from Canby, said he found out Wednesday after Doug Whitsett called him to say he wouldn’t run.
“It surprised just about everybody,” Olsen said of the Whitsetts’ retirement announcement. “It’s a tough way to go out, when you sit there and get your a-- kicked day in and day out.”
After a brief period last fall when it appeared the Whitsetts may retire, both filed for re-election in October. Gail Whitsett never faced a general election opponent. Doug Whitsett didn’t face one in 2008 or 2012. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the districts by about two-to-one, and no Democrat lined up to run for the seat by Tuesday’s deadline.
The move locks out anyone who may have been quietly waiting for Doug Whitsett to retire before running for his Senate seat — rather than try to unseat him in a divisive Republican primary.
“I think there’s also a respect of you don’t really let (anyone) know you’re eyeing that seat while someone is there,” said Tammy Baney, a Deschutes County commissioner.
It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to make last-minute retirement announcements that stymie competition to replace them. Rep. Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, announced Tuesday she wouldn’t seek re-election to her seat in a swing district. Rep. Joe Gallegos, D-Hillsboro, also opened up his close district near the deadline.
Rep. Wayne Krieger, a Gold Beach Republican, pulled his name out of the running in a similar fashion.
Barb Dudley, a policy adviser with the Working Families Party, called the practice a “dirty trick.”
“For the party to that tightly control who the successor is going to be and not leave it open to competition I think just fuels cynicism,” Dudley said.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,