Blumenauer retiring but district will remain solidly blue

November 1, 2023 5:30 am

Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon meets with doctors and students of the American Optometric Association on Capitol Hill on June 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for American Optometric Association)

In the broad picture, the departure after next year of longtime U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer will mean a change of personnel rather than a change of politics for Oregon. 

The biggest immediate impact may be on how much more junior, in seniority terms, the Oregon delegation rapidly has become. After Blumenauer’s departure, the senior House member will be Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, who has held the office just over a decade, and after that Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz, now in his second term. The other three members of the delegation all were elected for the first time just last year. Oregon has built significant seniority in its senators, but will have less in the House for years to come. 

Seniority aside, Oregonians shouldn’t expect dramatic change in the representation of the 3rd after next year. 

That’s not a commentary on Blumenauer but rather on his district. The Oregon 3rd has been for generations centered on Portland, and for the last couple of generations it has solidified as solidly liberal, much the most partisan district in Oregon in recent years. Even after the recent census-driven reapportionment, the 3rd is more Democratic than the eastern-Oregon 2nd district is Republican. In the Northwest overall, it is second only to the central Seattle district in Democratic lean, and is more Democratic than any Northwest district is Republican, including those in Idaho. 

Blumenauer, who won the seat in 1996, following Ron Wyden’s move to the U.S. Senate, has had no tough elections since the day he was sworn in. He has not fallen below 67% of the vote in any general election in that district, and primaries have been no problem for him either. Considering the party registration in the district, Blumenauer was, if anything, slightly underperforming, but on the evidence of numbers, the district seems satisfied. 

So let no one suggest that he has decided to retire at age 75 because of political difficulties; he was there for life if he’d so chosen. 

But, given a fresh choice, what kind of representative might the district want at this point?

The question doesn’t relate to the usual broader issues, the way it does, for example, in the competitive Oregon 5th, which next election might choose a nominee of either party. But within the context of left-of-center Democratic prospects, variations exist. 

As Bluemenauer was quoted as saying, “There are literally a dozen people salivating at the prospect of getting in this race.” And why not? Once past the primary, without any major errors, the Democratic nominee is likely to hold the seat without difficulty for a long time, as Blumenauer and Wyden did.

But different candidates – and none formally has announced plans to run yet – could bring different approaches.

You could illustrate that through two of the first names to be circulated broadly as prospects for the race.

One possibility is Deborah Kafoury, formerly chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. Much like Blumenauer, she has been deeply involved in Portland-area government – and in the state Legislature – for many years. It’s easy to imagine that her service in the district might look a lot like Blumenauer’s: Unmistakably liberal, supportive of much that’s on the metro area’s agenda, but not particularly cantankerous or high profile. A candidate like her might be seen as an establishment choice in the same sense Blumenauer has been. 

Another name being bounced around is that of current Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, whose sister, Pramila Jayapal, represents that super-Democratic central Seattle district. Pramila Jayapal is more a national political figure, more an ideological leader in Congress, than Blumenauer has been; she chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

That’s not to say that Susheela Jayapal would follow exactly the same path; many of the headlines around Susheela Jayapal have concerned homelessness, budget issues and other local concerns. 

But Portland voters may take note that the Seattle representative has been a strong supporter for the Multnomah candidate. She remarked, for example after her sister’s election to the Multnomah commission, “I am really proud of her. She did a lot of work listening to organizations dealing with housing and homelessness and she has very clear values. We have very similar values around treating people with respect and giving people a hand up.”

So, expect the next representative from Oregon’s 3rd to be a liberal Democrat. As to what kind of liberal Democrat the district will prefer, we have yet to see. 



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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.