A year into the pandemic, Sara Gelser sounds like she could be speaking for all of us.
"I miss being with people,” she said.
But for Gelser, a veteran Democratic senator from Corvallis, being with people is critical to doing her job. And that’s challenging when the meat and potatoes of legislative policy are hashed out in committees, which are all meeting virtually this year due to COVID-19.
Gelser said that throws a major wrinkle into the policymaking process.
"In a regular session, we'll have a hearing, somebody will raise objections or concerns to a bill, and then people go off and work on it. And usually, someone will say in the hallway, 'Hey, we got that worked out, I'm okay with that now,'" she said. "But that doesn't happen. So everybody needs to do triple steps to make sure that it's documented, that that concern has been addressed with an amendment or an explanation."
Still, Gelser said there’s a silver lining to holding committee hearings online. People who want to testify can do so from home.
"They don't have to come all the way to Salem, which is a barrier for a lot of people. Transportation, work, child care, gas money. So I think we're hearing more and different voices than we've heard before," she said.
That's a sentiment echoed by other lawmakers, including Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene. "I think we're making progress on the things that people care about," he said.
Wilde cited bills moving in Salem on education, health care and housing as examples of that progress. But Wilde said he’s discouraged by the partisan squabbling that has led to delays at the capitol.
"It's frustrating to me, because I would say day-to-day, my interactions with members of the other caucus are routinely positive," he said.
For one new Oregon lawmaker, the entire idea of having caucuses has been an adjustment. Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City served more than a decade in local government before getting elected to the Senate last fall. He said the political dynamics at the state capitol are not the same as in a city council.
"I've found it to be quite different in the Senate, because you really don't get the opportunity to talk with individuals," he said. "You're talking to, apparently, a caucus...a group of people."
Anderson got a taste of Salem politics earlier this session when he voted against a bill that would make it easier for local governments to ban firearms from their property. As a Republican, his “no” vote was not surprising. But the fact that he stayed on the floor, along with five GOP colleagues, drew the ire of a group that lobbies against gun restrictions. The group wanted Republicans to walk out, denying the Democrats a quorum. But Anderson said it just wouldn’t have worked in the long run.
"If you're going to walk out and withhold quorum, you'd better be prepared to walk out for the entire session," he said. "I'm not saying that withholding quorum won't be a tactic at some point, but it certainly didn't seem to fit at this juncture."
Anderson said he and his family received threats against their safety following his decision to stay on the Senate floor for the gun bill. He calls that disappointing, but he said he’ll keep on doing the work that the people in his coastal district elected him to do.