Oregon Senate Has Said Its Goodbyes To Peter Courtney, The State’s Longest-serving Governor

Peter Courtney: On Monday, September 20, 2021, Senate President Peter Courtney addressed lawmakers at a special session.

On his last day as Senate president, Peter Courtney addressed his colleagues with a parting message. Take care of one another.

Oregon Senate Has Said Its Goodbyes To Peter Courtney

The Senate met on Friday to ratify two nominations to state boards, but in reality, it was to bid farewell to quirky Salemite Courtney, who served as Senate president for 20 years, making him Oregon’s longest-serving legislative leader.

“I’ve been injured in my 45 years in politics,” Courtney remarked. I have been fuming. I’ve been through a lot and seen some really awful stuff. I guess I got lucky somewhere along the road.

For Courtney, whose adopted home state of Oregon he has served for almost four decades, his retirement at the end of the year will be the end of an era. He got off the Greyhound bus in Salem, Oregon in 1969 and was offered a position as a clerk for an Oregon judge. He lived in a YMCA room for the next two years before being elected to the Salem City Council in 1974.

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From 1981 to 1999, he represented Oregonians in the state legislature, with the exception of the years 1985 to 1989, when he ran unsuccessfully for both the United States House of Representatives and the Oregon Senate. He has been the president of the Oregon Senate since 2003 after being elected to the legislature in 1998.

Courtney told senators on Friday that he was worried he wouldn’t be able to adequately express his gratitude to legislative staff, his family, and others for their support.

I can’t thank people or organizations enough for what they’ve done for me, he added.

Courtney encouraged senators to recall a phrase attributed to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said that a shattered femur that has since healed is the first trace of civilization in the fossil record. In the animal kingdom, a broken leg meant instant death, whereas a repaired femur indicates that the injured party received medical attention.

“When we assist others, we shine,” Courtney remarked.

The Senate adjourns.
While Senators Courtney and others were speaking, loud thumps, clangs, and the droning of power tools could be heard from the blocked halls outside the Senate chamber. In anticipation of a long-overdue earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the Capitol is now undergoing a multi-year, $506 million renovation project to strengthen the original 1938 structure and the 1977 extension.

Oregon Senate Has Said Its Goodbyes To Peter Courtney
Oregon Senate Has Said Its Goodbyes To Peter Courtney

Courtney has long advocated for seismic retrofitting of schools and emergency institutions, and he has also been a vocal proponent of Capitol improvements. The Oregon Senate will remember Courtney and his efforts whenever they hear construction noises in the coming years, according to Sen. Rob Wagner (D-Lake Oswego), who was chosen to succeed Courtney as president by his fellow Democrats.

Wagner, who worked as a legislative aide and lobbyist before being appointed to the Senate in 2018, recalled how the announcement that “Peter is going to speak” would cause everyone in the office to rush forward to hear Courtney speak.

Your leadership and dedication have made all of us in the Oregon legislature and the state better lawmakers and people.

Republican Senator Rob Wagner of Beaverton

Wagner remarked that “people would be piled three thick in the gallery just to hear the argument he was presenting and the way he handled his craft.” Because of your leadership and dedication, “we are all better lawmakers, we are all better people, and Oregon is stronger.”

Lori Brocker, secretary of the Senate, noted that “Takk for alt” is a word from her Norwegian ancestors that captures the day’s bittersweet sentiments of sadness and appreciation. Thanks for everything is a literal translation, but the meaning is far more profound. It’s a way to honor those who have accomplished a lot in their lives, she explained.

In 1999, while Courtney worked as a lobbyist for the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, Brocker testified before a Senate committee that included Courtney. When Courtney started asking questions, Brocker realized her presentation was going badly. The legislature planned to widen exemptions to public information legislation, while the media fought to prevent this.

Brocker claims that his initial line of inquiry made her sound as though she had traveled in from Los Angeles just to have photographers around and to erode privacy rights. Ultimately, though, it was Courtney who argued Brocker’s case: the bill’s opponents were mostly Oregon’s tiny newspapers, which were only doing their thing to safeguard democracy.

She said that the senator had done a better job of pleading her case before the committee than she had.

Despite Courtney’s joking that he would die if he ever heard Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, say “thank you,” Knopp said he couldn’t thank him. Knopp suggested that, instead, he may express gratitude for having worked with Courtney and encouragement that the rest of his coworkers to follow in Courtney’s exemplary service footsteps.

In the Senate, where he served as president beginning in 2003, Courtney placed a premium on working across the aisle. Knopp claimed that Republicans respect him because he looks out for their interests and makes sure their opinions are heard.

His family made the journey out on the Oregon Trail in 1845, making Knopp one of the state’s few native lawmakers. Knopp called Courtney, who was born in Philadelphia but reared in West Virginia, Virginia, and Rhode Island before graduating from college and earning his law degree in Boston, one of Oregon’s best “adopted sons.”

“This is your adopted home and we are your adopted family,” Knopp told them.

Courtney’s genuine concern for others in his sphere of influence is what sets him apart, according to Senator Elizabeth Steiner (D-Beaverton). He has memorized the college mascots of his staff and is familiar with the names of their spouses and children.

Even if you were born in Oregon or moved here from another state, you will still feel like a foreigner sometimes, she added. To paraphrase what I think is Peter’s most profound insight: “We must constantly remember that truth about ourselves and recognize it in others, and we must always be hospitable and make their life a bit less odd.”

Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Stayton recalled that Courtney was among the first to call him after the 2020 wildfire that destroyed his home. James Manning, D-Eugene, who is currently serving as Senate President Pro Tempore, has spoken highly of Courtney’s support following the death of his wife Lawanda.

State Senator Lee Beyer (D-Springfield) is leaving the Senate to join the Oregon Transportation Commission. As seen in the Oregon Capital Chronicle. (Cooper, Ron / OC Chronicle)

Others leaving the Senate
In addition to these six senators, five more will leave in the new year. Two Democratic senators from their respective states, Rachel Armitage of Warren and Akasha Lawrence Spence of Portland, were appointed to fill the remaining terms of their respective party colleagues who retired in 2021 and did not seek reappointment.

Oregon City Republican Bill Kennemer barely lost his re-election bid to Democratic incumbent Mark Meek of Gladstone. Rep. Daniel Bonham (R), of The Dalles, was backed by retiring Sen. Chuck Thomsen.

And this year saw the retirement of Springfield Democrat Lee Beyer after 31 years in the House of Representatives. Former governor Kate Brown selected him to serve on the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“Lee Beyer is one of the most wonderful people I’ve encountered,” remarked Courtney. You won’t find a greater public servant than him, and he’s really something special.

Beyer considered it the highest compliment to have been chosen by his neighbors to represent them in the State Legislature.

Getting a call from a constituent and being able to improve their lives was “very satisfying,” he added.

Beyer asked his fellow lawmakers to keep in mind that they are not just representing their own 140,000 constituents, but the almost 4.3 million people who live in the state as a whole. He acknowledged that there is a communication gap between urban and rural Oregonians, but he expressed optimism that things may improve.

Kennemer and Thomsen were both absent from the meeting on Friday.

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As she thanked her family and constituents, Armitage’s eyes welled up with tears. She said that when she was a young aide in the House, she had heard a speech about how U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield had stated he would always return to Oregon, and she claimed that she felt the same way.

Armitage announced, “My term in the senate is done.” I will remember this period with nothing but appreciation, and I will gladly take my place with others who will always call Oregon home.

Former Oregon state representative Lawrence Spence, who was assigned to serve out the remainder of a term, said that early in her time, a constituent she interacted with was shocked to learn that the young Black lady they had been having a conversation with was a member of the legislature. She said she wanted to be a voice for her Portland residents and for those who hadn’t seen themselves represented in the Legislature or the laws it passed in the past.

“You all are burdened with a huge duty to represent not just the people who look like you and the people you know, but the individuals you’ll never meet,” she remarked.

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