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Bill would give Oregon governor the power to appoint U-S Senator in event of vacancy

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.
Bradley Parks | OPB
The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Oregon’s governor would have the power to appoint a U-S Senator if the position becomes vacant in the middle of a term, under legislation being considered in Salem.

Right now, if a U-S Senate seat becomes vacant due to a death or resignation, the state must hold a special election. Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, who chairs the House Rules Committee, said it would make the process the same as when other statewide offices become vacant.

“The governor appoints a replacement of the same party," she said. "And then there is an election at the next general election. The idea is, it saves you from having to have a special election.”

That process took place as recently as 2019, when then-Secretary of State Dennis Richardson died of cancer. Gov. Kate Brown appointed another Republican, Bev Clarno, as Secretary of State. Clarno took office and served the remainder of Richardson's term, but did not seek election to a full term.

Republicans on the Rules committee signaled their opposition to the proposal.

"Why are we doing this now?" asked Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville.

Smith Warner didn't elaborate on the timing, saying the idea was "proposed to me" without saying who made the suggestion. The legislation was submitted as a "committee bill," meaning no lawmaker's name appears on it.

Neither of Oregon's two U-S Senators—Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats—have publicly given any indication of resigning their seats mid-term. Wyden has already filed paperwork to seek re-election this year.

The last time a U-S Senator from Oregon left office before the end of a term was in 1995, when Republican Bob Packwood resigned amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. The seat was vacant four months when Wyden won a special election on Jan. 30, 1996 to fill the remainder of Packwood's term. Wyden has since won election to four full terms, becoming one of Oregon's longest-serving senators.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oregon is one of just five states that does not allow a governor to appoint a Senator in the event of a vacancy. The legislation to allow the governor to appoint a senator is not currently scheduled for additional action.

Tuesday was the first day of the 2022 legislative session, which is scheduled to conclude no later than March 7.

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December, 2018 and became News Director in March, 2023. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
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