Retiring Senate President Peter Courtney, with his characteristic bluntness, says he will feel “terrible” when he pounds the gavel for the last time on the podium that he has commanded for two decades.
Appearing on OPB’s Think Out Loud before the 2022 legislative session convened, Courtney, who is 78 and represents a Senate district that includes Salem, admitted, “I’ll miss it terribly.”
He confessed he would like to run again, but “I don’t have anybody in my family that’ll support me. They won’t talk to me again if I do it…. I got no place to live, no place to stay, and they’d all change their name if I don’t get out of this stuff.”
It’s no surprise that Courtney loves being in the legislature, where he has served 38 years, the longest legislative tenure in Oregon history. He views serving in the legislature as a “glorious calling” and a testament to democracy. “The fact is you would not be talking to me now if it weren’t for the legislative branch,” Courtney said. “Instead, you’d be talking to a dictator. So, the only thing that keeps us from one-person rule or an administrator ruining people’s life because there’s no way to check them is accountability to the legislative branch.”
He added, “You can’t take the legislative branch for granted. It could go under very readily, very easily, especially in a state that uses initiative, referendum and recall way too much.”
What Courtney likes about the legislature is what many others disdain. “I just love to get something big done with people who disagree, but they don’t leave the room until they get the job done. I just think that’s great. And the highest level of that is making public policies that affect everybody’s life and the dynamics is — can you do it?”
Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally … I have an obligation to be as concerned about Eastern Oregon as I do my own Valley area. So, I don’t know how you can do that by being blindly partisan, blindly against anything that’s not your way.
Courtney is every inch a Democrat, yet he has maintained respect from Republicans. He ascended to the Senate presidency in 2003 when the Senate was split 15-15. Courtney was the only Democrat Republicans trusted.
He rues partisan division that dominates politics now. “Nowadays you live in a time that if I even say something good about a Republican, I’ll be clobbered by my side and vice versa. In the old days, that wasn’t the case. You could still say, ‘Great play. You did a great play, a great move.’ Today, I can’t do that because the issue of partisanship means, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong no matter what.’”
“And it’s true of our society across the board,” Courtney said. “There’s no loyalty anymore, and there’s rigidity … It’s in athletics, it’s in religion, it’s in everything we do. So truly, I am going to be criticized because, as the Speaker of the House once said about me, ‘Well, the Senate prioritizes getting along or trying to work with each other more than the House does.’ I just smiled and said, ‘I suppose that’s right.’”
Courtney’s political outlook reflects what used to be legislative tradition. “Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally … I have an obligation to be as concerned about Eastern Oregon as I do my own Valley area. So, I don’t know how you can do that by being blindly partisan, blindly against anything that’s not your way.”
In his career, Courtney has spearheaded 12 seismic safety measures that became law, he has championed mental health treatment, inspired when he was with a group that discovered the “Room of Forgotten Souls” at Oregon State Hospital where the cremated remains of 3,500 nameless people had been buried. Courtney also led the drive, which voters eventually approved, to annual legislative sessions.