Can you answer a question for me? In my ignorance, I just can’t get an apparently-simple concept through my head. Maybe someone can explain it to me.
Lately, several local elected officials have been holding forth about the sanctity of the will of the voters. For the record, I agree with them. Well, I mostly agree, anyway. The will of the voters is sacrosanct except for very rare occasions when extraordinary circumstances render the voters’ choice unfit to serve.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know we’re talking about Oregon House District 23, the one former Rep. Mike Nearman fled when his colleagues unceremoniously expelled him on June 10.
It all began when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown temporarily closed the capitol building to visitors as a COVID constraint. Most of us agree the place where the people’s business is conducted should be freely accessible. But in this case, all legislative business was livestreamed to anyone who wished to see it and the usual methods constituents use to reach out to their House and Senate members — telephone, email and social media — were readily available. No problem, right? I mean, it’s just for a few weeks. But in the current civil wasteland of menace and suspicion, hundreds of people suddenly decided the best time to visit the capitol in person was during the temporary closure. With attitudes, angry signs and plenty of firearms, they descended on the capitol to voice their discontent on the morning of Dec. 21, 2020.
Meanwhile, Nearman decided the need for the capitol to be open superseded any need for medical caution. While I understand his point, I do not understand the way he decided to prove it. As the disgruntled throng milled around outside the capitol, Nearman met a group of them at a side door and happily let them in. Once inside, Nearman’s minions broke windows and maced half a dozen Oregon State Police troopers before initiating an armed standoff, according to most reports.
While Nearman’s act was caught clearly on video, many people were willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt, believing his lie that he was just leaving the building — even though “leaving” involved him walking briskly to the rear side of the building where he let himself right back in. Not buying Nearman’s story, Speaker of the House Tina Kotek stripped Nearman of his committee assignments and commission appointments. No one was surprised.
Then another Nearman video surfaced. This one starred Nearman coaching a group of people on how they could text him in the capitol building when they were assembled outside a door and ready to invade — er, enter. “Operation Hall Pass,” Nearman dramatically called it. Immersing himself in what he undoubtedly believed to be something like plausible deniability, Nearman repeated a “random” telephone number several times on the video — a number that just happened to be that of his cell phone. Worse, this video was recorded several days before Nearman opened the infamous door.
When confronted with the Nearman-as-doorman and Nearman-as-insurrection-coach videos, Nearman admitted he’d lied and that, yes, he’d intentionally let the angry horde into the closed capitol. Because his own caucus had no trouble recognizing a monumental blunder when they saw one, a unanimous vote expelled Nearman from the House — the first time an expulsion ever happened. Well, the vote was almost unanimous. The single vote to retain him was rendered by Nearman, himself.
The rusty mechanism to replace an expelled House member involves local-level precinct committeepeople presenting nominees to the county commissioners of each county overlapping a House district. A commissioner’s vote is then weighted according to the portion of the district encompassing his or her county. As luck would have it, there’s no rule preventing a previously-expelled member from being appointed to his own vacant seat and — you guessed it! — the nominating precinct committeepeople think Mike Nearman is a fine gentleman, thank you very much.
Fortunately, level heads prevailed and the twelve commissioners (ten of them anyway) wisely selected the fifth choice of the precinct committeepeople, roundly rejecting their first choice, Mike Nearman, himself.
Which brings me to my question.
Can someone please explain to me why the will of the voters of Oregon House District 23 supersedes the will of all other voters? I don’t need you to explain the sanctity of the will of the voters in general — I already understand that. But I must know why House District 23 gets special treatment. I am having a difficult time understanding this.
When an elected official commits an act that threatens harm to his elected colleagues, he effectively removes his ability to work within the body because some of his colleagues are now afraid of him. Don’t get me wrong — I hear Nearman is actually a nice guy but when a nice guy intentionally causes his colleagues to feel threatened — to fear for their safety — no one should be surprised when some of those colleagues can no longer work with him. When other House members cannot come to work because they’re afraid Nearman might pull another juvenile and dangerous stunt, it effectively usurps the will of the voters in their own districts.
In the private sector, such thoughtless defiance would never be tolerated — no one would question the resulting termination. But I know, I know: this is the legislature so the rules are different than those of a mere business. Still, our duly elected governor enacted some temporary restrictions in the face of a health crisis clearly outlined by countless researchers, scientists and physicians. Yes, I get it — you have doubts about the agendas of all those credentialed experts but, really, isn’t any such disagreement a matter for the courts? Or even a matter for debate within your own elected body? When medical experts say there’s a crisis, I would be stupid using my non-medical education to question or second-guess them, even if I do have reservations.
And as for due process, you can pine for legal adjudication until the cows come home but for the vast majority of Oregonians, the moral jury has already very clearly ruled. It did so in the face of laughably overwhelming evidence. Frankly, at this point, I think the moral judgment trumps the puny legal one anyway.
Now, I’ve called Nearman’s rude guests “thugs” but you can call them whatever you like. Protesters, demonstrators, rioters, tourists, Baptists — I don’t care, they were armed, they assaulted half a dozen Oregon State Police troopers and they caused thousands of dollars of damage to our capitol building. Whatever term you prefer is unimportant. Their abhorrent actions caused widespread fear throughout the capitol building.
The crux of my problem is this: when a guy like Nearman commits an act that allows angry armed thugs to enter a building and imperil all of his elected colleagues and their staffs along with capitol personnel, he damages the ability of his colleagues to effectively govern. Why is the will of the voters of House Districts 1 through 22 and 24 through 60 subordinate to the will of District 23’s voters? The actions of District 23’s member should not be permitted to diminish or damage the abilities of up to 59 other districts’ members. Several dozen other legislators shouldn’t have their ability to serve constituents hobbled because they’re afraid of the potential actions of one member with questionable self control.
From another perspective, if the member representing District 44 had disobeyed the governor’s orders and admitted an angry group of armed Antifa rioters into the capitol — rioters who assaulted the police and vandalized the building — I’m pretty sure the member representing District 23 would’ve felt a teensy-weensy bit threatened and I’m even more confident that those all-knowing District 23 voters would’ve been downright outraged that someone from another district threatened their beloved member. Further, if other members were fearful District 44’s representative might repeat her bad judgment, you can be certain there’d be all sorts of clamoring for her removal from the other caucus.
Which brings us back to my original question once again. Why, please tell me, does the will of District 23 voters remain unquestioned when that will imperils the choices of the voters of 59 other districts?
Photo composite © background image detail by Gregg M. Erickson / Farwestern Photo