The Oregon Legislature: The Modern History from the 1950’s to Present

by James Gomez

Oregon acquired statehood on February 14th, 1859, and the state’s first legislative session was held just three months later. Although there is a rich history of Oregon’s legislature throughout the entirety of its existence, many exciting events occurred between 1950 and 2015. For example, during this time the Oregon Legislature focused on my landmark issues and solved many problems via bills and measure. Furthermore, the 1950’s and 1960’s were a time of legislative reform that greatly impacted the efficiency and effectiveness of the legislators. 

In order to fully appreciate the modern history of the Oregon Legislature, it is imperative that one has a grasp of the history regarding the political parties in the Oregon Legislature, how the legislative reform movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s had a lasting effect on the legislature that reverberates through to today, and the major issues and policy changes that the legislature faced throughout the decades

Oregon’s Political Parties

The 1950’s started out as a Republican-dominated Oregon Legislature. For example, during the 46th Legislative Assembly in 1951, roughly 83% of the legislatures in the House of Representatives were Republican. Oregon hasn’t experienced such a large disparity between these two parties in the House of Representatives since then. During this same session, the Senate was also a Republican power-house, with this party occupying roughly 71% of the seats. The Republicans were clearly a very strong supermajority during this time. Surprisingly, the political climate in Oregon contrasted greatly with the majority of the United States, which had a Democratic president at the time (President Harry S. Truman).

Although the dominance experienced by the Republicans in the Oregon legislature remained relatively static for the 47th Legislative Assembly in 1953, the political tides were beginning to change and Oregon was gradually become a less conservative state. This is especially true in the House of Representatives during the 1950’s. For example, the Republicans held roughly 80% of the seats in the House up until 1957; at which point they only occupied 58% of the seats. This downward trend continued for the Republicans during the following Legislative Session, at which point the Democrats were finally able to become the majority with 60% of the seats for the 49th Legislative Session. The Democrats were able to hold onto the majority with roughly 55-60% of the seats for the remainder of the 1950’s.

Whereas the Democrats were able to acquire the majority in the House by 1957, it took this political party until 1959 to accomplish the same feat in the Senate. Just like with the House of Representatives, the Republicans remained a supermajority in the Senate throughout the first half of the 1950’s. However, by 1957 during the 49th Legislative Assembly, the Republicans were forced to share half of the seats with the Democrats; and by the 50th Legislative Assembly, the Democrats were a majority in both the Senate and the House. Oregon started the 1950’s off as a very conservative, Republican state, but the political climate changed and the legislature became increasingly democratic.[i]

It is important to note that Oregon is by no means a strong “democratic state”. It is true that the Republicans dominated Oregon elections from the early 1900’s until the 1950’s, but this is the point when Democrats were able to gain some major victories during elections. Dr. E.D. Dover explained that “…it was not until the 1970’s that the Democrats were able to gain continuous control over the legislature for more than one or two sessions at a time”.[ii] Dr. Dover contributed this shift towards Democratic power in Oregon due to demographic trends from “an influx of workers to the state during World War II… Many of the migrants were drawn to Portland to work in shipyards, making the city and surrounding communities particularly vital to the reemergence of the Democratic Party”.[iii] The combination of Oregon’s historical ties to the Republican Party, along with the more recent reemergence of the Democratic Party over the past 60 years has resulted in a competitive political climate throughout the state.

Legislative Reform Movement

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there was an effective legislative reform effort that strived to professionalize the Oregon legislature. This effort was an attempt to not only strengthen the legislature as a whole, but also to increase effectiveness and efficiency within each legislator’s office. During this time, the legislature also created new committees and offices to provide legal and policy aid at the capitol.

In regards to staffing, the Oregon legislature implemented reform efforts in order to strengthen their relative power against the Federal Government:

“In the 1950’s and 1960’s, and again in the 1970’s, there was a concerted effort to strengthen the power of state executives. In the 1970’s and 1980’s many states moved to strengthen, or professionalize, their legislatures”.[iv]

Much of this was achieved by expanding the legislature’s support staff. Today, each of the legislature’s office may comprise of a Chief of Staff and a Legislative Aide (also known as a Legislative Assistant). These staff members help strengthen the legislator’s role within the legislature by assisting in nearly all aspects of the legislator’s daily tasks. Because of these support roles, the efficiency and effectiveness in each office has strengthened greatly.

For example, when legislators were able to expand their staff due to the reform efforts of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, legislative aides were able to strengthen the legislator’s relationship with their constituents, and legislative aides were able to help legislators with the cumbersome task of researching countless areas of policy. For example, Jacob Rivas, Legislative Aide at the Oregon Capitol during the 2015 session, explained:

“As legislative aide, I typically help strengthen the legislator’s role by focusing on legislative support, constituent services, office management, and district outreach. The legislative support aspect can occupy a decent portion of each day. This can consist of tracking the progress of important bills and watching relevant committee meetings. In order to provide legislative support, I also make sure that the Representative is prepared for their upcoming committee meetings.

 The other essential way I support the legislator is by managing constituent services. Constituent services typically involve responding to various emails, calls, and mail from individuals from the Representative’s district. Many times they are contacting us to express their opposition or support for a specific bill, but many times we help them with various issues that they are facing by putting them in direct contact with departments that can solve their issue. Basically, it’s doing anything we possibly can to help constituents with their various requests”.[v]

Jacob Rivas explained how his job as a legislative aide is a demanding full-time responsibility, and that it’s no surprise that the the legislative reform in the 1950’s and 1960’s included the expansion of staff to assist the legislator. During this reform movement, the Oregon legislature also created the Legislative Counsel Committee to assist the legislators with legal and policy expertise.[vi]

Chuck Taylor, attorney within the Oregon Legislative Counsel in 2015, explained that the Legislative Counsel was created in 1952 during the legislative reform movement and serves as an elemental part to the legislative process in Oregon. Mr. Taylor explained, “The counsel is able to support legislators by reviewing bills to ensure that there isn’t conflicting language”.[vii] To be more specific, Mr. Taylor explained how proposed bills may conflict with current legislation or even the Oregon or Federal constitutions. In order to prevent this, the Legislative Counsel scours proposal and suggests revisions as necessary.

According to Chuck Taylor, the role of the Legislative Counsel within the legislature hasn’t changed much since the 1950’s. They have always reviewed bills, and assisted in providing policy expertise while remaining neutral to all policy areas. The only major change that has occurred within the Legislative Counsel is that the committee used to be staffed by temporary “session employees” from the 1950’s to the early 1990’s. However, the committee realized that they could be more efficient and retain better talent if the attorneys were guaranteed full-time positions, so they wouldn’t have to worry about finding new jobs when the legislative session was over.[viii] In other words, by maintaining a permanent staff, the Legislative Counsel didn’t have to invest as much time training attorneys each session, and they were willing to commit to working with the Legislative Counsel as a career instead of it being a temporary job.

In essence, much of the legislative reform movement was driven by the fact that the legislative process became increasing complicated and cumbersome throughout the years. This is largely attributed factors such increased federal involvement, and a growing number of social issues that result from a growing population with increasing demands and expectations.

Historically, the Oregon Legislature met every other year. However, due to the increase in demands faced by the legislator, they now meet every year. The legislature began meeting every year since the 2011 session, at which point the sessions rotated between a long and short session. By pursing a more efficient and effective legislature via the expansion of staff and resources, the Oregon Legislature became more equipped to handle the growing workload.

Bills and Measures: 1950’s

The bills that legislators pursue throughout each legislative session span a broad range of issues. However, there are noticeable trends that indicate that different decades primarily focused on one or two very specific areas of concern. For example, in the 1960’s the Oregon Legislature focused greatly on civil rights and other equality initiatives, but by the 1970’s there was a shift in initiative efforts dedicated towards the environment.

Racism is an issue that has plagued the United States throughout its history. Unfortunately, Oregon is no exception to this. However, the 1950’s proved to be a very successful year for the Oregon Legislature, due to their ability to focus on and implement anti-discrimination laws. The 1950’s proved to a very challenging decade, as members of the population were increasingly confronting civil rights issues. These efforts are most notable with the Oregon Legislature in terms of bills pertaining to marriage, public accommodation, and housing.

In order to fully understand the modern history of Oregon’s Legislature attempting to remedy discrimination, it is important to understand the history of the laws pertaining to this specific subject. In 1866, the Oregon Legislature approved a law that banned miscegenation, which is a marriage between individuals of different races. The 1866 law read:

“Section 1: That hereafter it shall not be lawful within this State for a white person or female, to intermarry with any negro, or any person having one-fourth or more Chinese or Kanaka blood, or any person more than one-Half Indian blood; and marriages or attempted marriages, shall be null and void.”[ix]

The law made it a criminal offense not only for the interracial couple, but for anyone involved in fulfilling the administrative work associated with the wedding.

Although this law was a blatant constitutional violation in regards to equality, Oregon courts (as well as many other courts throughout the nation) upheld the law as not violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In essence, Oregon judges would rely on the logic that the 1866 law applied to white persons equally as much as people of other races. Although at face value the law technically applied to white persons, it’s questionable as to whether it applied equally in practice.

By 1951, Oregon Legislators put forth an effort to repeal the 1866 anti-miscegenation law. Of course, this effort wasn’t accepted with open arms. Some Senators and other Legislators within the capital continued to argue that the Oregon law was not in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. However, these efforts proved fruitless and the majority of the Oregon Legislature was able to get the law repealed. This was considered a major success for anti-discrimination advocates, especially considering that Oregon repealed this law 16 years prior to the Supreme Court’s decision to ban anti-miscegenation laws nationwide.[x]

Just two year after the miscegenation law was repealed in Oregon, the Oregon Legislators worked to pass the Oregon Civil Rights Bill. This Bill states:

“Except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation, without any distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age if the individual is 18 years of age or older.”[xi]

Also known as the Public Accommodation Law, the purpose of this bill was prohibited racial discrimination by businesses. The bill was able to pass relatively easily, obtaining a vote of 21 to 9 in the Senate, and a vote of 46 to 11 in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the bill wasn’t accepted as easily by some of the public. A group known as the Civil Freedom Committee attempted a statewide referendum to challenge the bill, however they were unable to convince enough people or the media that the Oregon Civil Rights bill was an infringement on their freedom of association so the Oregon Legislature was able to claim another major landmark victory.[xii]

After the Oregon Civil Rights bill was passed, the legislators began focusing their efforts on fair housing. By 1957, they were able to pass the Oregon Fair Housing Act. According to The Oregon Historical Society:

“The law made it illegal for property owners or their agents receiving any public funding to discriminate “solely because of race, color, religion, or national origin,” in the sale, lease, or rental of any “dwelling place for a person or family…in a building containing five or more such apartments or units.”[xiii]

By 1959, the legislators were able to amend the bill to include not only just agents receiving public funding, but any agent. Although this was a step in the right direction towards equality, it proved to be difficult to enforce:

“…the housing law suffered from a lack of enforcement provisions.  The responsibility to prove any violations of the law were laid upon the discriminated person(s). They were directed to file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and argue their case before a commissioner, a process that could take months to resolve.”[xiv]

Bills and Measures: 1960’s and 70’s

The Oregon Legislature provided the necessary bills to promote equality in the 1950’s. Undoubtedly, the repealing of the anti-miscegenation law, the passing of the Oregon Civil Rights Bill, and the passing of the Oregon Fair Housing Act contributed towards putting an end towards both racial and gender discrimination. However, there was much more that still needed to be accomplished, and the 1960’s and 70’s proved to be a productive time for the legislators in regards to not only civil rights but environmental protection as well.

In 1960, Oregon elected Maurine Neuberger to be Oregon’s first woman United States Senator. This was an amazing accomplishment, especially when considering that there were only three women U.S. Senators prior to her. Her political career began in the Oregon House of Representatives, where she served from 1950-1955. After her husband’s death (whom was a US Senator for Oregon at the time), ran for election to fill his spot and was able to acquire 54% of the vote. While holding that position, she did a lot of work advocating for consumers, including helping to pass one of the first bills that restricted tobacco advertising and required warning labels on cigarette packs.[xv]

The 1970’s was a decade when the Oregon Legislature not only focused on bills related to civil rights, but the environment as well. Throughout this decade, the majority of the most notable bills that had the largest impact were environmentally related. For example, in 1971, the Bottle Bill was approved. The bill implemented a system in which retail stores pay beverage distributors $0.05 per beverage, and when a customer purchases a beverage from the retailer, the customer pays the retailer $0.05. Lastly, if the beverage is later recycled by the customer, they will receive their $0.05 back. Ultimately, this bill had a very positive impact on the environment because it reduced the percentage of roadside debris consisting of beverage containers from 40% to 6%.[xvi]

However, the bottle bill wasn’t an easy win for  the Oregon Legislators .The bill was endorsed by Governor Tom McCall, and contained a provision that would ban beverages in the state of Oregon that were non-refundable. Consequently, a couple dozen major corporations fought the bill by sending lobbyists from all over the country to the Oregon capital. Ultimately the provision banning non-refundable bottles was removed and the deposit-portion of the bill went into effect. Along with the 1977 ban on aerosol products containing fluorocarbons as propellants, the 70’s represented a time in Oregon’s history when the legislature focused greatly on environmental protection.

Bills and Measures: 1980’s-Present

The 1980’s to present-time represent an era of Oregon’s politics that faced major issues regarding the rights of homosexuals. For example, in 1987 the Governor issues an executive order that banned “discrimination based on sexual orientation in the executive department of state government”.[xvii] Although this seemed like a step in the right direction towards equality for all, it was immediately challenged by a conservative group called the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance (OCA). This group successfully overturned the Governor’s executive order in with Measure 8. The measure was voted on by the public and was approved in 1988.

Continuing off of their success, the OCA attempted to pass legislation that would make schools “assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided”.[xviii] This was known as Measure 9, and was defeated by Oregon voters by nearly 13%.

Although the OCA wasn’t successful with a statewide anti-gay initiative, they were successful at getting similar measures passed at the local level throughout the state. By 1995, the Oregon State Legislature successfully passed House Bill 3500 which negated any measure that attempted to “single out citizens or groups of citizens on account of sexual orientation”.[xix] After being challenged by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1995, HB 3550 remained valid and was thus another victory for equality in the state of Oregon.

The path towards equality for homosexuals didn’t remain constant. By the early 2000’s, the gay and lesbian community were being attacked once again, this time in regards to marriage. In 2004, Measure 36 was a hotly debated initiative that aimed to amend the Oregon Constitution to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman. The statewide measure passed by over 10%, effectively stripping rights away from many Oregonians. However, in 2013 two cases challenged this measure, and it was determined that Measure 36 was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[xx] Since then, no other major initiatives and been attempted to reduce the rights of any Oregonians based off of sexual orientation.


Oregon has experienced many changes since the 1950’s. The state became increasingly more competitive between the Republicans and the Democrats due to influxes in workers moving to major cities after World War II, the legislature was heavily involved in crafting important legislation in regards to equality and environmental issues, and the legislators steadily reformed the legislature to keep up with the growing demands of society. Although since the 1950’s elections have become increasingly competitive between the Democratic and Republican parties, the Oregon Legislature has proven time and time again that it is willing to stand up to the challenges it faces. Whether the legislature is facing civil rights issues, or trying to preserve the environment and natural resources, the Oregon Legislature has proven to be an effective tool to overcome the ever-increasing obstacles facing the state.


[i] Oregon Legislative Record Guide, Oregon Secretary of State

[ii] Dr. E. D. Dover, Oregon Politics and Government (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) Kindle section 672.

[iii] Dr. E. D. Dover, Oregon Politics and Government (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) Kindle section 689.

[iv] Richard A. Clucas and Melody Rose, Oregon Politics and Government (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) Kindle section 442.

[v] Jacob Rivas, Legislative Aide Job Description, Personal Interview. May 8 2015.

[vi] Richard A. Clucas and Melody Rose, Oregon Politics and Government (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) Kindle section 468.

[vii] Chuck Taylor, The Role of the Legislative Counsel Committee, Personal Interview. May 4 2015.

[viii] Chuck Taylor, The Role of the Legislative Counsel Committee, Personal Interview. May 4 2015.

[ix] Honorable Conrad Patrick Olson, All the Laws of a General Nature in Force in the State of Oregon, Volume 1 (San Francisco: The Bancroft-Whitney Company, 1920), pg. 1256.

[x] Sarah Paulson, Oregon Historical Society(2006),

 [xi] Oregon Statutory Codes,

[xii] Joshua Binus, Oregon Historical Society (2003),

 [xiii] Joshua Binus, Oregon Historical Society (2003),

[xiv] Joshua Binus, Oregon Historical Society (2003),

[xv] Kimberly Jensen, Maurine Neuberger (1907-2000),

[xvi] The Oregon Bottle Bill, Oregon Liquor Control Commision.

[xvii] George T. Nicola, Oregon Anti-Gay Measures (Portland: GLAPN 2014), pg. 2.

[xviii] George T. Nicola, Oregon Anti-Gay Measures (Portland: GLAPN 2014), pg. 3.

[xix] George T. Nicola, Oregon Anti-Gay Measures (Portland: GLAPN 2014), pg. 5.

[xx] George T. Nicola, Oregon Anti-Gay Measures (Portland: GLAPN 2014), pg. 8.

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