Competitive elections these days are hard-fought affairs -- nasty, brutish and staggeringly expensive. The focus is on winning and winning alone. That was certainly the goal of both Oregon’s Democratic and Republican parties entering the 2010 election cycle. When the votes were tallied on Election Day, however, both parties were in for a surprise. For the first time in Oregon’s history, each party won the same number of seats. The House of Representatives was evenly divided -- 30 Democrats, 30 Republicans.
When something like this happens, party leaders usually solve the problem by going after a defector or convincing someone to switch caucuses in order to secure power. But in Oregon, Democratic leader Arnie Roblan and Republican leader Bruce Hanna took a different approach and chose to serve as co-speakers.
Ask political scientists and they’ll say co-governance rarely works. In the case of Roblan and Hanna, they were hardly close allies to start. Rather, they virtually epitomized the divisions between the two parties. Roblan, age 64, had spent his entire career in the public sector, working first as a teacher and then as a principal before retiring in 2004 and running successfully for a seat in the Legislature. Hanna, age 52, is an entrepreneur and currently the owner of a Coca-Cola bottling company and a vending service company. Nevertheless, the two leaders negotiated a clear set of rules that would govern House operations. They also made a commitment to sit down together to solve problems -- and to stay seated until both sides had a solution they could agree on.
The beginning, says Hanna, was “tough.” But the two legislative sessions presided over by co-speakers Roblan and Hanna rank as among the most productive in Oregon’s history, with balanced budgets, a sweeping health reform overhaul, state and congressional redistricting, and a successful school reform package. As the two leaders prepare once again for Election Day (with Roblan as a candidate for the state Senate this time), both promise to carry the experience of the past two years into the future.
“[W]hen you don’t give a credible voice to the minority, it creates real animosity,” says Roblan. “There are always opportunities, even in the majority, to seek out and try to listen carefully to what they are really wanting.”
“People now expect us to move forward,” says Hanna. Before the 2010 election, working together was a surprise. “Now, it’s an expectation.”