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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Proposal Would Make It Harder For Incumbents To 'Handpick' Their Successor

Joe Wolf
Flickr -

Oregon lawmakers who are trying to decide whether to seek re-election would have to make up their minds sooner under a measure introduced Thursday.

If you're a politician thinking about calling it quits, and you want to pick the person who succeeds you, there's a way to game the system. You file for re-election, then secretly tell your buddy that you'll drop out after the filing deadline. The replacement candidate then files at the last minute, and voila! has the ballot to his or herself after the incumbent drops out.

That's happened multiple times in Oregon, and a proposal in Salem seeks to end the practice. House Republican leader Mike McLane said the bill would give interested candidates at least three days to decide if the incumbent drops out of the race.

"It says to an incumbent that, look you need to tell people if you're running again or not,” McLane said. “Because everyone recognizes that incumbency has an advantage."

Here's how it would work. Incumbent state officeholders would have to file for re-election at least a week before the deadline for challengers to file. If an incumbent files and then drops out after the filing deadline, other candidates would be given three additional days to enter the race.

The proposal comes as several last-minute withdrawals in the run-up to the May 2016 primary left political observers scratching their heads. In southern Oregon, the Klamath Falls husband-and-wife couple of Sen. Doug Whitsett and Rep. Gail Whitsett had filed paperwork the previous October to run for re-election, and had not publicly stated any intention other than to seek their respective offices again.

State records show that three minutes before the deadline to file candidacy papers for the May primary, both Whitsetts gained an opponent. Dennis Linthicum filed to run for the Senate seat held by Doug Whitsett, and Werner Reschke filed to run for the House seat held by Gail Whitsett.

But the prospect of having a competitive primary was short-lived. By noon the next day, both Whitsetts filed paperwork to withdraw their candidacy at the Oregon Secretary of State's office.

Since the deadline to become a candidate had passed, it left both Linthicum and Reschke without any competition on the May Republican primary ballot in a district that heavily favored GOP candidates.

McLane said that effectively meant the Whitsetts handpicked their successors.

Linthicum and Reschke told OPB at the time that they hadn't made a deal with the Whitsetts and didn't know in advance that they were going to drop out of the election. The two easily won the general election vote in November.

They also weren't the only candidates to win seats in this year's legislature in this manner.

In Curry County, incumbent Republican Rep. Wayne Kreiger had filed for re-election the previous November. Like the Whitsetts, Krieger withdrew his candidacy the morning after the filing deadline. Waiting in the wings was a fellow Republican, David Brock Smith, who filed for the office, just 16 minutes before the deadline. Brock Smith went on to win the general election, gaining more than twice as many votes as his Democratic opponent.

Late-in-the-game withdrawals weren't limited to Republicans in 2016. On the final day to file for the May primary, Hillsboro Democratic Rep. Joe Gallegos announced he was quitting the race less than a half-hour before the filing deadline. Minutes later, the House Democratic campaign arm announced the candidacy of Janeen Sollman.

Any Democrats who would have run had they known the seat would be vacant were left with mere minutes to make up their mind. Sollman went on to win the November general election.

In a similar case, Clackamas County Democratic Rep. Shemia Fagan filed to run for re-election in September 2015 on the first day that candidates could do so. But on the morning of the last day to file for the May primary, Fagan announced via a press release that she was dropping out of the race. The press release also contained an endorsement for a candidate who would file for office minutes later, Janelle Bynum.

The move gave other potential Democratic candidates less than eight hours to decide whether to challenge Bynum for the now-open state House seat. No other Democrats filed, and Bynum went on to win the general election in November. But in that case, Fagan didn't have a lock on picking her successor. In a closely divided suburban district, Bynum won her seat in the legislature by just 564 votes out of a total of more than 28,000 cast.

The measure has the support of both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, including all four caucus leaders.