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Redistrict Me This [Oregon Edition: Part II]: An Interview with Senator Lee Beyer

White man, gray hair, green-gray collared shirt with a striped blazer.
Image Credit: The Office of Senator Lee Beyer

Redistrict Me This is a series of interviews with state legislators from across the United States. Conducted beginning in spring 2021, they will continue through the decennial redistricting process following the 2020 census. While we hope the unusual amount of national media attention to state-level politics generated by redistricting will spark interest in this series, we intend to go beyond the process story. We ask interviewees to examine how their foundational beliefs inform their approach to redistricting and their preferred outcomes. Though these interviews use redistricting as an anchor point, they are wide-ranging, exploring numerous topics both political and personal. We hope that, as a collection, they will shed light on how the men and women who draw the lines of our franchise both shape and are shaped by American democracy.

In this installment, we meet Oregon Senator Lee Beyer. Senator Beyer lives in Springfield, Oregon with his wife, Terry. Senator Beyer first got involved in local politics in 1978 when he joined the Springfield City Planning Commission. He was elected to the legislature in 1991 as a state representative. He joined the state Senate in 1998. Beyer has extensive experience working on energy legislation and has championed the fight to transition to renewable energy sources. In his time as a senator, he has chaired the Oregon Senate Business and Transportation Committee. 

Alexandra Vitkin: You have a background in management analysis, vocational training, and small business advocacy. So, how did you end up in the legislature?  

Lee Beyer: Since my days in highschool and college, I’ve always had an interest in government. I got my start in local government by accident. I went to a planning commission meeting in the city where I live; they were proposing to build condominiums in the vacant pasture behind my house. It was a very nice pasture with horses and cows. I went to the meeting to ask them questions, and someone said, “You should be on a planning committee.” The next thing I knew, I was. Then, I went on to the city council and so forth. 

AV: How did you become involved in renewable energy legislation? 

LB: Well, I chaired the Oregon Public Utility Commission for almost ten years. 

I was involved [with electricity regulation] nationally through the National Association of Regulatory Officials. I also served on the Industries Advisory Committee through the Stanford Research Institution. The committee is called EPRI—Electric Power Research Institute. I also served as an overseer of the western power grid, and I was on the board of directors there a couple times. 

Through these experiences, I became very concerned about climate issues. When I was on the commission, I helped the legislature write the first renewable energy portfolio standard for Oregon. Since then, I have written and been involved in most of the energy legislation that we’ve done. I think that we have to address the success of this legislation. Seeing the objections along the way about how the world was going to fall apart if we implemented all these changes, and none of it has proven to be true, it’s all worked out pretty well so far [laughs]. 

AV: Switching gears to our discussion of redistricting and the census, how do you feel about former President Trump’s attempt to get undocumented immigrants excluded from the 2020 census count? 

LB: Well, if you go back and you look at the United States Constitution the enumeration says “of all the people.” They didn’t distinguish. Furthermore, if you look back to the time of the founding of our nation and when the Constitution was written, almost everybody was an immigrant and we didn’t distinguish very much. So, I don’t think the founders intended to exclude anybody.You know, the immigration discussion now is primarily focused on Latin American immigrants, but that population represents only a small piece of all the immigrants coming into this country. Frankly, if I look at Oregon’s high-tech industry, much of it is driven by immigrants from India and China. A lot of their engineers come from those two countries. [The same can be said for] a lot of the companies that Oregon has. For example, the CEO of Microsoft is an immigrant. You can go through the list of high-tech companies and get a pretty good representation of the world. I think that the former president was misguided and pandering to a certain perspective of people who are predominantly worried about their jobs. To me, there’s no question here. It’s pretty clear that’s not what the US Constitution says.

AV: So let’s talk about how the census data is going to be used for redistricting in Oregon. To start, how is the redistricting committee selected? 

LB: It’s a legislative committee, and like all committees in the legislature, our system grants the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate the authority to appoint committees. So, it’s really their choice who they chose to put on it. At this point, we have separate House and Senate committees which really doesn’t make any sense to me. We’re meeting together, and I expect that at some time in the near future they’ll be merged as a joint committee. 

AV: So, why did you want to serve on the Senate Committee? 

LB: I didn’t try to get on the committee this time around. I wasn’t [an official part of] the 1991 redistricting process but I was very closely affiliated with it. I was then involved in the 2001 and the 2011 redistricting processes.  So, I think I drew the short straw. I think the President of the Oregon Senate said, “You have experience, so you need to do this.” 

AV: It sounds like you have a lot of experience with redistricting, so what is your vision for an ideal outcome of the redistricting process in Oregon? 

LB: In our process, each Senate district is composed, or as we call it “nested,” of two House districts. We have a sixty member House and a thirty member Senate, so when you draw those lines in the redistricting process, you primarily focus on the sixty House seats. And more or less under the US Supreme Court decisions, we have to get those fairly close to equal populations. We try to keep it within one percent. We probably will start by looking at where the districts are now and seeing how much they are changing. In our case, the size of the district will increase by 10,000, some of them now are probably much more than that and some of them are not quite that. In fact, some areas have not grown at all. In Oregon, most of our population is in what we call the Willamette Valley. Interstate 5 runs north to south through the city. Within an 120 mile area along I-5 from the Washington border down to about halfway through the state, close to 75% of the population lives within 40 miles of I-5, so the population is pretty concentrated. This population spread causes a real urban-rural conflict, like most states have, so we try to work around that. 

AV: Aside from trying to maintain equal populations, are there any other standards you take into account when redistricting? 

LB: We start with equal populations, but we have another standard that says you have to maintain commonality of interest or try to at least; that’s in the eye of the beholder a little bit. 

In minority-majority areas, we try to make sure that minority populations are well represented. 

Oregon doesn’t have a large minority population. Right now, there’s a decently sized Latinx population, a small Black population, and a fairly substantial Asian population in certain areas of the state. So we try to balance those interests, but there aren’t many areas of the state with large pockets of minority populations. 

We also try to keep cities together, if the whole city, like where I live, Springfield, is in and of itself a legislative representative district. Springfield is one of my two districts. The other one wraps around. I have a slice of the city of Eugene that includes the University of Oregon, three precincts in Eugene, and then this incredible rural area that runs south through two mountain valleys and then goes all the way north about sixty miles. I represent twelve school districts, eight cities, and tons of small unincorporated towns, so it’s fairly mixed. I joke when I speak to groups; I say I have a “harmogeneous” constituency with my grass seed farmers and my university professors, who all see things exactly the same way [laughs]. 

So, anyway, you start with those two standards, and it’s an amoeba process from there. A lot of people argue that gerrymandering is a big issue. To me, gerrymandering isn’t a big issue because it’s really hard to do. My rural conservative friends are very frustrated that there are so many urban districts, but that’s sort of like the old Willie Horton joke about why you rob banks. Because that’s where the money is. Why do we have so many urban districts? Because that’s where the people are. 

AV: Do you believe that there is a way to gerrymander for the common good, such as increased representation for groups that have been historically oppressed? 

LB: Mainly what we’ve heard from people, primarily from BIPOC populations, is that they want more representation in the legislature. It’ll be interesting to see how that request develops. We have a few districts that are majority-minority districts mostly in the Portland urban area. There’s probably one area that’s largely agricultural in the northeastern corner of the state where you might hear similar things. But the rest of the state, not so much, there just aren’t any real geographic pockets of minorities in the rest of the state. Not that there aren’t minorities in the state, they just don’t tend to be located in pockets within the same neighborhoods. 

AV: Have you given any thought to how the other committee members might approach the redistricting process? Do you anticipate disagreements? 

LB: Both chambers in Oregon are Democratically controlled, but the working relationships with the party chairs so far have proven that they can work very cooperatively together. The Republican mantra in Oregon now is that they want to move to a redistricting committee. An independent redistricting committee. They probably wouldn’t want to do that if they were in control [laughs]. 

AV: So you expect the redistricting process to go smoothly? 

LB: The last time we redistricted was the first time the legislature actually fulfilled their responsibility in probably fifty years of completing the redistricting process. Under the Oregon Constitution, the legislature has a certain timeline to complete the process, and if they don’t complete it by that timeline, then it goes to the Secretary of State. Most often, if you look back through the last four or five decades, it has been the Secretary of State who has done it. But in the last redistricting cycle, the legislature completed the redistricting process. Everybody on both sides was happy, and it was a very bipartisan effort. I think that the goal this time is to do the same thing. The criticism from those in the public who are concerned about the process is, understandably, as follows, they say, “Oh you guys, you’re just protecting your jobs—your seats.” 

AV: I see. So in general, would you say that there is a lot of distrust in the redistricting system? Do you think your constituents view it as a way for politicians to protect their seats? 

LB: Let me say it in a different way. I think the public doesn’t really care a lot about redistricting. But for those groups who are very interested in the legislative process, there is a distrust. 

AV: Do you think that Electoral College votes should be allocated based on congressional districts (i.e. Nebraska and Maine) rather than the winner-take-all approach? 

LB: No, I don’t. For a long time, I was a traditionalist and thought the system has worked well. Overtime, I’ve become convinced by the Popular Vote Coalition’s mission, and I voted to join the Coalition in the last session. Now, Oregon is one of the states that is part of the Coalition, and if it gets the number that it takes, then we will move towards the popular vote through the [National Popular Vote Interstate Compact]. Based on how Oregon is positioned geographically, if the votes were allocated based on congressional districts, I don’t think our outcome would change very much. We’d be like Nebraska, but the reverse. We have one district east of the mountains that is solidly red and the rest of them are blue. 

At this point, I think it would be better if the Constitution was amended and we just went to a national popular vote. I think there’s a good chance that the numbers will be reached in the Compact and we will effectively go there. However, it will be really problematic if we do. I raised that issue when we discussed it, effectively saying, “What do you do if the population votes for one candidate, but the national vote goes the other way, and we have to tell our electors to vote against how they would’ve otherwise?” I suspect if that happens, it might create a movement towards a constitutional amendment. Right now, if an amendment were proposed, I’m not sure it would pass. If you were a southern red state, knowing what an amendment like that would do, why would you vote to ratify it? 

AV: To conclude, most of our readers are college students, so do you have any advice that you wish you had known as a student? 

LB: Most of the young people I am around today work in my office and they are in college, or were in college, or are near college at least. And I think for those who are interested in politics, if that’s the focus, they should go out and work in the system. Work on a campaign. Work in your local government. If you get a chance, go work in D.C.—I call it “Political Mecca.” A lot of the CEOs who I’ve worked with in the high-tech industry all did a stint as a congressional staffer. Go to Political Mecca for two years, and it’ll promote your career down the road. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.