U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who was first elected to Oregon’s second congressional district in 1998, announced his retirement last month. His departure could have ramifications in Washington, D.C., and Salem for Oregon public schools.
Walden, a Republican, plans to finish his term, which runs until January 2021. In a prepared statement delivered to Politico, Walden said that he was confident he could have won re-election but “the time had come” for his retirement.
Walden’s policy focus has long been on commerce, broadcast media and natural resources. He was a long-standing member of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, and he chaired the Communications and Technology Subcommittee. In 2017-18, with Republicans in control of the House, he was chair of the full committee. He sponsored legislation related to broadcasting, land use and jobs. He steered several GOP priorities, including politically charged health care changes to the federal Affordable Care Act.
Although he did not generally focus on education-related bills, Walden was a strong advocate for Oregon school districts in Washington, D.C. He fought for rural school funding, working across party lines with Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley to ensure the passage of the Secure Rural Schools program. This program provides vital funding to rural Oregon counties and school districts devastated by federal cuts to timber receipts.
The unexpected opening could have ripple effects for the Oregon Legislature. Sen. Cliff Bentz, R- Ontario, has filed to run for the seat. Bentz, an attorney and a former private religious school board member, was appointed to the Oregon House in 2008 before winning the seat and later earning a Senate seat. He has been central to the main legislative packages of the past few sessions, including the $5.3 billion transportation package in 2017 and the Senate Republican walkout over carbon policy in 2019.
Bentz will not return to Salem in 2021. His four-year state Senate term requires him to run in 2020, and Bentz has chosen to run for the congressional seat rather than seek re-election in his Senate district.
Bentz offered a pragmatic approach to statewide policy. His ability to work across party lines to accomplish the transportation package was an example that legislative leadership drew on in 2018 in establishing the Joint Committee on Student Success. That committee ultimately delivered the landmark 2019 Student Success Act.
There is also the question of whether a Democrat could win Walden’s seat. In the 2018 election, Jefferson County Education Service District board member Jamie McLeod-Skinner ran against Walden. She had a stronger-than-expected showing but still lost by 17 percentage points. She is running for Oregon secretary of state in 2020 and has said she will not run for Walden's seat.
Although Walden had a 50,000+ vote advantage in the last election, the district includes some of the most rapidly changing cities in Oregon, including Bend and Ashland.