The Moral Minority
by David Smigelski
Willamette Week, May 14, 1997

 

Oregonians wanted the 1997 Legislature to fund schools, reform the tax system, curb crime and then go home. But a handful of Republican legislators has sidetracked the session with debates over marijuana laws, abortion, doctor-assisted suicide and gay rights.

A cabal of right-wing legislators wants to take away your God-given right to get stoned, abort a fetus, and kill yourself.

 

"I believe people are inherently evil," says state Rep. John Minnis, a Portland-area Republican who is facilitating efforts in the Legislature to limit abortion, recriminalize marijuana and repeal doctor-assisted suicide. "That's why we need a system of laws -- to help us conform our behavior and be civil to each other."

Rep. Charles Starr, a Hillsboro Republican, thinks people crave discipline.

"A man without limits is not free," says Starr, author of a bill to ban gay marriage. "A man without limits is in search of limits. Because of the increasing lack of personal morality in our society, we need increasing laws to control the appetites of our citizens."

Both Minnis and Starr are working hard to put their strictures into statute. Along with a cabal of right-wing, mostly metro-area legislators, they are pushing a package of social-control legislation that appears to be completely out of line with what most Oregonians consider important. The result is a climate of animosity that has sapped an inordinate amount of the Legislature's emotional energy and detracted from a host of issues that are still to be decided.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

When the Republican-controlled Legislature convened in January, House Speaker Lynn Lundquist and Senate President Brady Adams vowed that divisive issues like abortion and gay rights would not be allowed to distract lawmakers from what they considered the most important work ahead: post-Measure 47 budgets, transportation funding, salmon restoration and education. But as the next few weeks will show, social issues are playing a dominant -- if unexpected -- role in Oregon's 69th legislative session.

Gov. John Kitzhaber is likely to veto the abortion bills and the Defense of Marriage Act if they make it to his desk. A spokesman says he supports ENDA. Kitzhaber's not so clear, however, on the pot bill. "He has no conceptual problem with recriminalization," Bob Applegate says, "but that, combined with another dozen bills, jacks up the cost of corrections without paying for it."

Regardless of the ultimate fate of these bills, the fact that a small group of hinge thinkers has been able to force action on issues most legislators -- both Democrats and Republicans -- would prefer to avoid is one indication of the confusion that characterizes this session of the Legislature. Moreover, it's an illustration of the real philosophical battle within Oregon politics, not between Democrats and Republicans, but among Republicans themselves.

"This is an intra-Republican story," says Bill Lunch, a political-science professor at Oregon State University who has written extensively about the rise of conservative elements in Oregon politics. "What you're seeing is the outgrowth of an internal struggle within the Republican Party. A struggle," Lunch says, "between the Moralists and the Enterprisers."


The term "moralists" comes from Andy Kohut, a Washington, D. C., pollster working for the Pew Research Center. Kohut believes descriptions of the differences between Republicans and Democrats in the post-Reagan years don't tell the whole story, because of the many fractures within each of the parties.

Using questions designed to uncover the attitudes and beliefs of voters, Kohut identified what he sees as the two major factions of the Republican Party -- what he calls the moralists and the enterprisers. Moralists, generally middle-age, middle-income and predominantly white, are seen as religious, militaristic and socially conservative, with a distrust of big government and big business. Enterprisers, who tend to be more affluent, better educated and non-religious, keep their focus on economic issues and away from morality.

Both Minnis, a 43-year-old Portland police officer, and Starr, a 66-year-old former teacher, fall into the moralist camp. So do Sen. Eileen Qutub, a Beaverton Republican with long-standing ties to the ultra-conservative Oregon Citizens Alliance, and Rep. Ron Sunseri, a 49-year-old Gresham realtor who believes that Oregon's school-reform efforts are a secular plot to undermine the God-given social order.

These four metro-area lawmakers, along with fellow Republicans Roger Beyer and Marylin Shannon, form an influential moral minority that is dominating much of the 1997 season.

"Yes, I'm a strong moralist," says Starr, a Bible-quoting roofer from Hillsboro. "Anyone who's been around knows that. I believe in limited government. I believe we have seriously damaged our nation by trying to help the poor by giving them welfare. What we're really engaged in is a struggle for the heart and soul of America. When de Tocqueville came here, he said, 'America is great because America is good. If America ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.'" [Tocqueville did not say this. -- CW]

Starr sees evidence galore that America is no longer good.

He laments the lack of prayer and Bible study in the schools. He wishes the 10 Commandments were hanging in school hallways. He says the free-enterprise system is "jeopardized by government regulations that protect desert rats and owls more than people."

"The people who cry the loudest over protecting porpoises and baby seals are the ones who want to abort fetuses," he says. "God created that being in the womb. Life, thus begun, cut short by man, is in defiance of God, and as such is an act of lawlessness."

As for homosexuality, Starr calls it an "unnatural behavior that is strongly condemned by the Bible. For homosexuality to prevail would mean no continuation of life as we know it."

"The notion of society flying apart at the seams" is classically moralist, Lunch says. "They see people's behavior as profoundly threatening to the common good and to themselves personally. The moralists want more than anything to recreate the climate that existed in the 1950s in terms of social-control legislation." Minnis, chairman of the House

Judiciary Committee who has introduced dozens of lock-'em-up bills this session, admits he shares the social agenda of the moralists, but he sees himself -- first and foremost -- as a cop.

"With respect to social issues, I obviously agree with them," says Minnis. "But that stuff is almost happening parallel to what I'm doing with law enforcement. It just happens that they reflect my beliefs."


It's nothing new for social conservatives to wield influence in Oregon politics. From Medford to Molalla, ultra-conservatives control the local Republican party organizations, giving them greater representation in local offices and on statewide ballots than their relatively small numbers would warrant. According to the Pew Research Center's latest attitude survey -- conducted in October -- roughly 15 percent of Americans have clear moralist views. In Oregon, however, that minority has been far more politically active than the rest of the population.

Much of Oregon's current conservative grass-roots clout stems from the efforts of the Oregon Cd a ripple of carqmel'itizens Alliance, which is now in limbo, but which has had an enormous impact on statewide politics for the past decade. Many moralists -- such as Starr, Shannon and Qutub -- have distanced themselves from the OCA. But the people who supported OCA views are still out there, and some observers believe the rancor over social issues in this year's Legislature may encourage the OCA to make a last-gasp comeback attempt.

Past Republican and Democratic legislative leaders -- such as former House speakers Bev Clarno and Larry Campbell, and former Senate presidents John Kitzhaber and Gordon Smith -- kept moralist agendas bottled up on their watch, not allowing votes on issues like abortion and gay rights. Lundquist and Adams, however -- relative novices compared with their predecessors -- have been unable to exercise the same control.

Democrats and moderate Republicans grumble about that lack of control, saying Adams and Lundquist don't know what they're doing. Adams, however, says inexperience has nothing to do with it.

"The pattern in the past has been to not bring those issues forward," says Adams, who is serving his second term. "I understand why others have avoided them, but I tried to set up a system that would lead to conclusion rather than rhetoric."

The system Adams refers to is called the 31-16 rule. With 31 votes in the 60-member House and 16 votes in the 30-member Senate needed to pass a law, lawmakers were told by Lundquist and Adams they'd need to show they had the votes to pass their bills before any social issues would be allowed to clog the House and Senate agendas.

The rule was supposed to keep irreconcilable issues in the can, but it's had the opposite effect, actually bringing more issues to the front. The Capitol is vote-count crazy, with charges and counter-charges of false counts that have heightened hostilities.

Adams says he knew he was taking a risk when he allowed the social-control genie out of the bottle, but he's not ready to admit he made a mistake.

"Issues like DOMA, ENDA, Right to Die and the abortion bills tend to play to everyone within the body, whether moralist or enterpriser, and part of the reason is that those issues go to the heart rather than the head," Adams says. "They go to the core of people's beliefs, bringing a lot of passion. When that happens, people start talking at each other rather than with each other. It's one of the reasons for the idea in the past of not letting these things out of the box. But I'm more optimistic than that. I believe we have the capability of dealing with these issues without disintegrating. That's why I took the risk.

"Could it backfire? Yes. But I won't sit idly by if this proves to be disruptive," Adams says. "There isn't any single issue we're here for that deals with social elements that should be used to keep the rest of the policies hostage."

Democrat Peter Courtney, the House Minority Leader, says the 3116 rule already has backfired. "The 31-16 rule has changed everything, Courtney says. "It's opened the floodgates."


A large part of the blame -- or praise, depending on your point of view -- for the prominence of social issues in this session has to go to Minnis, a crafty, volatile, 14-year veteran with twice the legislative experience of Adams and Lundquist combined.

Using his power as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and an intimate knowledge of parliamentary procedure, Minnis, a 43-year-old detective on a child-abuse squad, has had a hand in most of the issues we were told we would not see this session.

It's Minnis, for instance, who is leading efforts to repeal Measure 16, the assisted-suicide measure approved by voters in 1994, and who launched the bill to recriminalize any amount of marijuana. He's also the architect of a bill that creates a crime called "being under the influence" -- essentially a law that would send people to jail for being high on any illegal drug, including pot.

Minnis, who is battling a degenerative form of arthritis that threatens his police career, is being accused of reviving the anti-abortion and anti-suicide debates in retaliation for a pair of embarrassing defeats last month.

One of those slights came in mid-April when Lundquist pulled a gay anti-discrimination bill out of Minnis' hands. Minnis responded by yanking -- then restoring -- all Democrat-sponsored bills from his committee. A week later, Minnis went ballistic when a minimum-wage bill he supported was defeated on the House floor because of Republican defections.

Within hours of the minimum-wage debacle, Minnis scheduled hearings on an abortion bill that was supposed to have been dead, and on efforts to repeal doctor-assisted suicide. Minnis denies that the timing was anything more than coincidence, but the widespread perception in Salem is that Minnis is using the divisiveness of those issues to punish his caucus.

"When Minnis moved for a revote on Measure 16, it was designed to embarrass moderate Republicans because he was upset over minimum wage and ENDA, which couldn't have been defeated without Republican defections," says Lunch. "So he decided to punish them by moving the revote on Measure 16 to the floor. Why? To present a public vote on an issue that will set the moralists on edge."

Discussions of vote counts, parliamentary rules and partisan positioning help to explain the mechanics of how social issues rose to the top in Salem this year. But such a structural analysis misses a larger point in the debate.

Do Oregonians want their legislators to be dealing with social issues?

The answer to that, says pollster Adam Davis, is a resounding no. It's not that Oregonians are united in their views of abortion, suicide or homosexuality. They just believe their representatives have much more important things to be doing.

"These [legislators] are just totally off base," says Davis, of Davis and Hibbitts Inc. in Portland. "When we ask people what they see as the most important issues, they mention educational quality, educational funding, government reform, taxation and crime. me issues those people are pushing so strongly don't even show up on the radar screen."

The Legislature's move to stiffen marijuana penalties, for instance, is a case of legislators being on a different page than Oregonians, Davis says. "Not only is pot not on the radar screen, it's not even on the table the radar screen is sitting on. It's not even in the same room. It's incredible how myopic these people are.

"They are not representative of how the majority of Oregonians are feeling," Davis continues. "If any thing, Oregonians are moving even further away from how these people are feeling. It would be stretching it to say they represent the views of even a third of Oregonians."

"I think I'm definitely out of step with the majority of people in the metro area," Starr says. But he doesn't show any signs of backing away from his extreme views on morality just to appease voters. "For me it comes back to higher law," he says.

Adams, an enterpriser through-and-through, concedes that the Legislature may be out of step with Oregonians. "I think that's legitimate to some extent, but the issues we deal with shouldn't be determined by polling."

Courtney just shakes his white-haired head when asked for his assessment. "These are very emotional, divisive issues. Let's deal with budgets, roads, transportation, vote-by-mail, annual sessions and the environment. We have so much to work on."

"Budgets are jack-diddley," counters Minnis, who feels no need to apologize to anyone for the bills coming -- or not coming -- out of his committee. "Budgets are important to state agencies, but we can do them standing on our head. They will go through because they have to. As much as we like to talk about education funding and how bad off the schools are, they're going to walk out of here with smiles on. their faces."

"I don't think we're spending an inordinate amount of time on social issues," agrees Sunseri, chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Family Law. "We were sent here to deal with the whole of public concerns, and that means fiscal and social matters."

"Those issues will ultimately decide the future of our nation," Starr concludes. "They are absolutely more important than any spending bill we have to pass this session.

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