SALEM — After a nail-biting primary, an exciting general election, driving down snow-covered roads to be sworn in at the Capitol, the hundreds of votes and hundreds of hours in committee, the courtesy and rancor, the wins and losses leading up to a marathon finish, freshman Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, needed a break.
When House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, a sometime opponent and sometime ally, dropped the gavel June 30 to adjourn the House for the 2019 session, Zika scooped up his wife and two children and headed out for a long drive to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
Time with the family. To slow down. Get recharged. Relax.
Back in Redmond, Zika can look back at the past 14 months and say, yes, he would do it all over again if he had to.
“It’s been fun most of the time, and it’s an honor,” Zika said.
Zika, 41, represents House District 53, which encircles Bend, taking in a small slice of the city and spreading out to Redmond and Sunriver. When 10-year veteran Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2018, he set off a wild Republican primary battle between Zika, a Redmond real estate agent, and Republican activist Ben Schimmoller, of Sunriver. Zika won — by two votes, one of the closest elections in state history. The GOP voter registration edge in the district gave Zika a nearly 5,000-vote win over Democrat Eileen Kiely, of Sunriver, in November.
On a freezing day in January, Zika made the 129-mile drive down state Highway 22 from Redmond to Salem to be sworn into office for the 80th Oregon Legislative Assembly.
The learning curve would be steep. Early in the session, Zika posted video of himself alone late at night in the Legislature’s garage — the last one out after a long day.
Zika said the worst time was in February when a record-obliterating several feet of snow fell on Bend.
“The snowmaggedon was tough,” Zika said. “It would take four or five hours to get home instead of the usual 2½ hours.”
In Salem, Zika found himself in a historically small Republican caucus of just 22 lawmakers out of 60 House members. It wasn’t encouraging when new House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said Zika and his GOP colleagues were not “even speedbumps” against the Democratic agenda in the House.
“In the beginning, everything was fine; everybody was fine and cordial,” Zika said. “Towards the end of the session, it got dicey. Floor debates were sharper. People lined up … on the floor to say they had been disparaged.”
While most bills had bipartisan support, Zika would get used to being a losing no vote on Medicaid taxes, statewide rent control, a $2 billion tax for education, mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren and a host of other issues.
“A lot of times, on a lot of important issues, the Democrats didn’t need our votes and didn’t want our input,” Zika said. “I knew it was going to be partisan, but I didn’t know it would be that partisan.”
Zika stuck with the Republican caucus on most votes — straying to the Democratic side for state subsidies on solar panels for residential properties.
“We have a lot of sun in Central Oregon,” Zika said. “It was a good bill for my district.”
One vote that gave him pause was the Youth Justice Reform Act championed by Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, who was dying of cancer. The bill was sped to a vote so Winters could see it passed, even though some of her Republican colleagues would vote no. The bill received the required two-thirds bipartisan majority to pass both chambers. Winters died May 29. The bill is awaiting the signature of Gov. Kate Brown, who has said she supports the bill.
The bill reversed parts of Measure 11, Oregon’s strict mandatory minimum sentencing law. Critics, including some in law enforcement, said the law gave little leeway for prosecutors and judges, especially in juvenile cases. A key reform was a guaranteed “second look” at convictions of minors in adult court. The review can only be initiated halfway through a sentence.
“I could have voted for it. I knew where they were coming from with the idea — there needs to be a change,” Zika said. “But voters passed Measure 11. I needed to see the district attorneys were on board with the final bill. Some were, but not all. So, I voted no.”
Zika sat next to Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, on the floor and the two new Republicans often worked together. Though both voted with their caucus most of the time, Helt was more likely to cross the aisle and side with Democrats. Zika said he understood, as Helt represented an urban district where Democrats outnumbered Republicans, while his district skewed Republican and was a mix of cities and rural areas.
“She voted her conscience, and I voted mine,” Zika said.
Zika found common ground with Democrats on bills he championed with a Central Oregon focus. Zika often paired with veteran Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. A bill to retroactively include Redmond in an affordable housing pilot project passed overwhelmingly, as did another that cleared red tape when rural landowners want to replace homes on their property. A Zika bill requiring better reporting by the Oregon Department of Forestry to prevent urban wildfires sailed through the Legislature.
“We don’t want to have a situation like they had in Paradise, California,” Zika said, referencing the 2018 wildfire that killed 85 people. “There are places like Sisters, Sunriver and the west side of Bend where you have forest right up to the city. We have to know exactly what they are doing to clear the fuel for fires out there.”
The final budget bills were a mixed bag for Zika. Central Oregon Community College received $8 million for expansion of its Redmond campus, and the budget included $10 million for irrigation piping in the Deschutes Basin. But Zika was among those blindsided by the budget-writing committee’s decision to cut an expected new circuit court judge for Deschutes County.
Overall, Zika said the outcomes on local issues were good.
“With the affordable housing pilot project and the COCC funding, there will be new housing and new educational facilities on the east side of Redmond,” Zika said. “That was a real victory.”
Near the end of the session, Zika found Kotek, the House’s most powerful Democrat, open to his suggestions to modify her bill allowing “middle housing” such as duplexes in areas zoned for single-family residences. Zika joined a bipartisan coalition to pass the bill over bipartisan opposition.
“They needed Republican votes on this, so they listened to what we had to say,” Zika said. “This isn’t going to be a game changer for Deschutes County. Builders aren’t mandated to build duplexes instead of single-family homes.”
Zika said being away from his wife, Zanthel, his son, Lukas, 8, and his daughter, Maddox, 4, was difficult. During the 160-day session, Zika was often gone up to five days a week in Salem.
“We developed into a rhythm, plus my wife is Superwoman,” Zika said.
Though Zika will attend informational hearings and task force meetings in Salem in coming months, the Legislature won’t meet again until February for the 35-day short session held during even-numbered years.
Each House member is allowed two bills. Zika says he’ll likely introduce legislation to streamline the process for businesses to add day care facilities, and resurrect his 2019 bill requiring more information on marijuana grow sites. It died in committee because of a logjam of legislation at the end of session.
As for the big question for 2020 — Zika has an answer. Whatever the bumps and bruises of 2019, he will run for reelection.
“Yes, definitely,” Zika said. “Things were contentious a lot of times this year, but it was worth it — it really was.”
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, email@example.com