Along with thousands of new bills and resolutions, the beginning of a new legislative session marks the return of two oddball trinkets coveted by members of the House.
One is awarded for two years. The other might be held for two minutes.
The Westlund Baseball and the Liberty Flag are creations of lawmakers that differ in marking cooperation among Republicans and Democrats, or the swift nature of partisanship and solo stands against the 59 other members.
Ben Westlund was a legendary Central Oregon politician who wasn’t afraid to change his mind. Then change it again. And again.
“There are very few perpetually straight lines in American politics, but even by that standard, Westlund took the scenic route on his political journey,” The (Bend) Bulletin wrote in his 2010 obituary.
Westlund won a Bend-area seat in the House as a Republican in 1996 and was reelected three more times. He could infuriate across the political spectrum. Republicans were apoplectic when he endorsed a sales tax when the state hit a revenue rough patch. Supporting abortion rights, he backed a 24-hour waiting period and parental notification of minors seeking abortion. He backed a ballot measure banning same sex marriages, then was indignant when he found the studies he had based his stance on were bogus. He became a major supporter of civil unions.
Appointed to the Senate in 2003, he won a four-year-term in 2004. But the peak of his iconoclastic approach came in 2007 when he announced he was leaving the Republican Party and running for governor as an independent.
The bid for the top job fizzled, but Westlund completed his political metamorphosis, signed up with the Democratic Party and won the 2008 race for state treasurer.
Cancer returned while he was in office. He died in Bend in March 2010 at age 60.
Within a few years, the Westlund Baseball appeared to celebrate his love of the national pastime and his political variability.
The ball was given to a House member who had shown the willingness to cross the aisle and consider the ideas of the other side, and sometimes vote against her or his own party. When passing the ball to the next recipient after two years, the only rule was it had to be a member of the other party.
Rep. Brent Barton, D-Oregon City, had the ball for 2015. He gave it to Rep. Knute Buehler, the moderate Republican from Bend. Buehler chose Democrat Brian Clem of Salem, who often would co-sponsor bills needing a Democratic name on a bill to help it get through the partisan passages through committees and floor votes.
Buehler said he chose Clem for his “leadership and dedication to working across party lines on policy and developing real friendships. Most importantly, putting Oregonians’ needs before party loyalty.”
Buehler would run for governor as a Republican, but eventually leave the party and become an Independent. Clem surprised many colleagues when he announced in 2022 that he would leave the Legislature in part because of his distaste for the partisan backbiting during the 2021 redistricting of congressional and legislative seats.
Clem gave the ball to Ron Noble, a moderate Republican from McMinnville, who decided to run for the new 6th Congressional District seat, only to lose to GOP businessman Mike Erickson, who in turn lost to Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego.
Noble chose Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, who will have two years to watch how his GOP colleagues handle the political trench warfare over the state budget during a likely recession.
Capture the flag
The Liberty Flag is a blue, white and red flag with the Statue of Liberty in the middle and a small base. It is the award for the most contrarian of political moments.
It goes to a House member who is the only one of the 60 representatives to vote “no” on a bill or a parliamentary order.
The rapid voting on hundreds of measures in the final days of the session led to sometimes hurried swaps of the flag multiple times in one day. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans can turn over the prize within minutes
“I think it was pretty even between Ds and Rs on holding it, sometimes for days, sometimes for minutes,” former Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer recalls.
The flag was held at one point by Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, one of the most liberal members from the most northern part of the state. Soon it was in the hands of Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, one of the most conservative representatives from the farthest southwestern edge of Oregon.
Post was the unofficial umpire and historian of the Liberty Flag. As the fame of the Liberty Flag spread in recent years, Post suspected that not all solo votes were made out of ideological fervor.
“Yes, MANY voted ‘no’ just to get the flag,” Post posted on Twitter at one point in 2019. “I am needing to institute new rules on this. The point was to ‘fly solo’ on a bill that NO ONE would vote no on.”
Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, cast the lone vote Monday against HB 2430, a relatively obscure bill dealing with the Public Records Advisory Council.
One of the most conservative members of the House, Reschke was handed the prize by its then holder, liberal Democrat Mitch Greenlick.
Post said the flag creates a camaraderie that transcends the often contentious politics in the House. “It’s the little things that give us joy,” he said.
There is a fun flurry of tension at the end of the session, just before the final gavel is dropped.
The holder of the Liberty Flag gets possession for several months until the next session.
In 2022, Rep. Jami Cate, R-Lebanon, had the Liberty Flag proudly displayed on her desk on the House floor after adjournment.
Sometime over the months of construction in the Capitol, where hammers and drills are still background sounds to roll calls and speeches, the flag disappeared. It turned out the House Sergeant of Arms had moved it.
On the first day of the new session, Cate took no chances. When an entirely proforma vote on rules was called, she was the lone “no.”
“I wanted it back on my desk where it was supposed to be,” she said Monday.