Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2014
If you ask Oregon lawyers who have become state legislators why they decided to enter the world of politics, some basic facts quickly become clear. They didn’t set their sights on Salem for fame or glory. Life inside the Capitol is hardly a cakewalk and many citizens don’t mince words when sharing negative opinions about elected officials. And it certainly wasn’t for the money — a state legislator’s salary is less than $22,000 a year. The main motivation for many of these individuals is a shared sentiment about the importance of public service.
Several lawyers-turned-legislators recently spoke with the Bulletin about why they chose to enter the political arena. Each, in his or her own way, emphasized the desire to make a difference for their individual districts and for the state as a whole. They also described what drew them to practice law in the first place, and how their legal education and professional expertise has strengthened their ability to serve as legislators.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene
For Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the decision to become an attorney and a legislator was driven in large part by a personal commitment to justice.
“I had a sister who was murdered when I was in high school, and that definitely played a part in wanting to get into law. Issues of right and wrong and a sense of justice, and maintaining the balance that I feel is in our system,” he says. “I even questioned whether I could do work as a prosecutor and find balance, but I feel I’ve been able to do that.”
Prozanski also grew up with an ethic of community service. As a young man in San Antonio, Texas, he had an older friend who got him involved in grassroots neighborhood campaigns and community outreach. In addition, his parents taught him the importance of having a voice through the right to vote.
As a student at Texas A&M University, Prozanski helped reestablish a program that allowed undergrads to work in the local district attorney’s office. He also served as a legal assistant in a Houston law firm while he earned his law degree at the South Texas College of Law.
When Prozanski moved to Oregon, he did some contract work for Harrang Long Gary Rudnick in Eugene before becoming a municipal prosecutor for the city. He joined the Lane County District Attorney’s office in 1991. He continues to work as a municipal prosecutor when the Legislature is not in session.
Prozanski was first elected to the Legislature in 1994 and served in Oregon’s House of Representatives from 1995 through 2000. He was appointed to the Senate in 2003, elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2006. Prozanski chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he serves on the General Government, Consumer and Small Business Protection committees and the Rural Communities and Economic Development Committee.
He also was appointed to three task forces formed during the 2013 session: the Justice Reinvestment Grant Review Committee, the Task Force on Public Safety and the Task Force on Resolution of Adverse Health Care Incidents. In addition, he serves on the Oregon Law Commission, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, the Asset Forfeiture Oversight Advisory Committee of the Criminal Justice Commission and the Oregon State Council for Interstate Adult Offender Supervision.
Among other legislative issues, Prozanski, whose sister was killed with a handgun, is a key voice in the debate over gun laws in Oregon. A gun owner himself, Prozanski has introduced SB 1551 this session and says the bill would close a loophole in Oregon’s system of background checks and help prevent felons from buying them.
Rep. John Davis, R-Wilsonville
When asked what made him want to become an attorney, Rep. John Davis says he worked in Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt’s computer department during high school and the experience made a definite impact.
“My mom vividly recalls me coming home from working in the firm and saying I would never become an attorney because they work such long hours,” he says with a laugh.
A few factors eventually changed his mind, however. He started a computer consulting business during college and was interested in learning more about how to run it successfully. He served in AmeriCorps’ VISTA program for a year as the program director for a community nonprofit and enjoyed the public service. And he became increasingly interested in policy and politics as a law student at Willamette University.
“I really found that law was an excellent intersection of those four areas: policy, business, public service and politics,” says Davis.
During law school, Davis clerked for the university’s general counsel’s office and helped edit legal texts. He created the Northwest Small Business Law Blog, which tracked business-related legal decisions and articles that were relevant to companies in Oregon and Washington.
Now a business and real estate attorney, Davis enjoys being a kind of tour guide for his clients. “They’ve usually made the business decision and they know where they want to go, so I help guide them along and protect them along the way,” he says.
His training as a lawyer has been invaluable in the legislative arena, he notes.
“The ability to think like a lawyer has been incredibly helpful. We’ve been taught to see all of the different perspectives, separate an issue or policy and lobby for the public interest,” Davis says. “I think oftentimes legislators forget that. We may say, ‘Everyone agrees this is a great bill,’ but we need to sit back and remember that we are here to represent the people and do what is in the people’s best interest.”
The same emphasis on public service that made him want to become an attorney also led Davis to the Legislature. While the slow pace of the political process can be frustrating, he says working in the Legislature is a perfect fit because he enjoys people and politics is a “people business.”
During this session, Davis would like to promote initiatives that expand Oregon’s economic development and recovery to rural areas. His district, which includes Washington and Clackamas counties, is experiencing an unemployment rate around 6 percent. That number is significantly higher in other parts of the state, Davis points out.
“There is a recovery in Oregon, but much of rural Oregon is not experiencing it,” he says, adding economic improvement in rural areas will benefit the entire state.
Davis would like to see a greater separation of powers within the state. “We have an executive branch with executive agencies that are so big and so powerful that there is a lack of balance between the executive branch and the legislative and judicial branches,” he says.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose
With a history degree in hand and few job prospects related to it, Sen. Betsy Johnson attended night classes at Lewis & Clark College’s Northwestern School of Law. During the day, she worked as the recognizance officer for the Multnomah County Circuit Court. Johnson graduated from law school the same day the Portland Trail Blazers won the national championship and recalls the championship garnered the spotlight — even among the graduates.
“I think I always wanted to go to law school,” says Johnson, who learned about the importance of public service from her father, Sam Johnson, who was a member of the House of Representatives, and her mother, Becky Johnson, a member of several state boards, including the State Board of Higher Education and the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.
“I liked the discipline of the law. I liked the notion of practicing law. I liked lawyers and getting people a fair shake in the system,” Johnson says. “The real issue for me was that by the time I graduated from law school, I knew that I wasn’t inclined toward a traditional practice and I just didn’t have the right mindset to do transactional law.”
Instead of practicing law, Johnson, a licensed commercial pilot, founded Transwestern Helicopters in 1978. Now known as Transwestern Aviation, the company is managed by her husband, John Helm. Johnson has served as manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division and as vice president of legislative affairs for the Oregon Pilots Association. In the latter role, during the 1999 session Johnson successfully advocated for legislation that created the Oregon Department of Aviation.
Johnson joined the Legislature as a member of the House of Representatives, and was starting her third term when she was appointed to the Senate seat formerly held by Sen. Joan Dukes. Johnson says her legal education has played a crucial role in several ways during her work as a legislator.
“It’s been very helpful in negotiations, precision reading and writing. I wish I had more time to write well and read more, but it takes an enormous amount of time,” she says. “Law school also has helped with the rigors of thinking things through in a logical way. One of the most important attributes I took away from law school was the ability to make linkages — ‘if this then that.’ ”
During the 2013 session, Johnson was appointed to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, where she has served since her first session. During the last session, she served as vice co-chair of the full Ways and Means Committee and co-chair of the Transportation and Economic Development Subcommittee of Ways and Means. She also was a member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on General Government, the Economic and Community Development Commission and the Legislative Administration Committee.
Johnson knew that while the short session would be “minimalist,” she hopes adequate funding for the state’s legal system will be high on the priority list for the full session in 2015.
“Americans have a core belief that the judicial system is there, it functions and it’s a place where you get a fair shake. And if we close the doors to that institution, I think we close the doors to a fundamental mindset to something that is in our American DNA,” she says. “If we deprive people of their day in court, we have done enormous damage to the perception of our whole system of justice.”
Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario
Rep. Cliff Bentz grew up on ranches in rural Oregon with little access to television and much greater access to books. As one of seven children helping out with the family’s ranching business, Bentz had the opportunity to witness his family’s frequent interaction with governmental agencies and laws related to their business. He knew by the time he was 15 that he wanted to become an attorney.
His experiences as high school and then college student body president further refined his career direction, and Bentz had his sights set on politics. After graduating from Lewis & Clark’s Northwestern School of Law in 1977, Bentz joined Yturri Rose in Ontario because one of its founders, Anthony Yturri, had experience as a state senator. As Bentz learned about life in the Legislature from Yturri, he honed his practice in agricultural, water and real property law and became a partner in the firm in 1981.
“I enjoy working with people the most,” he says of his law practice. “I like helping folks put together structures that give them a bigger chance of success, and I like finding solutions to difficult situations.”
When Bentz joined the Legislature, he discovered just how much his legal training had prepared him and other attorneys for political life.
“Lawyers have a huge advantage in this (Capitol) building because they understand how laws are put together and what is going to happen once they are enacted. Having a clear understanding of the common law issues and statutory framework is absolutely invaluable,” he says.
“Also, having a clear understanding of the vocabulary is a huge advantage because explaining how things work to your constituents is similar to explaining the law to clients,” Bentz says.
As a legislator, Bentz has come to appreciate the democratic process and feels fortunate to be a part of it. “It’s pretty amazing when you think about self governance, that people are going to sit down and define the rules that are going to govern themselves,” he says.
When asked about the challenges that go along with being a state legislator, Bentz jokes that, “The biggest challenge is convincing everybody that I’m right.”
“The truth is that the biggest challenge is convincing people that they really can be heard if they truly want to be,” he says. “Some people feel like if they just yell loudly that will work, but they need to take the time to get involved. It doesn’t work to throw rocks through windows. They need to understand complex issues, and it takes time and effort to do that.”
During this short session, Bentz went into the 2014 short session hoping to accomplish legislation that prevents the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species. “We’ve already set aside huge tracts of timberland for the spotted owl, and I don’t think we can afford to set aside even more land for the protection of other animals,” he says.
Bentz also hopes to see the Legislature provide funding for new courthouses. “The courthouses are an important part of our business and social systems, and they are an embarrassment and a disgrace,” he says.
Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte
Like Bentz, Rep. Mike McLane grew up on a farm with little access to a TV. He spent much of his time helping his family make hay on their Condon farm and gray reading biographies. He says he was particularly inspired by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
McLane earned a degree in agricultural resource economics from Oregon State University, and then earned his law degree at Lewis & Clark College. He clerked for Justice Michael Gillette at the Oregon Supreme Court before joining Stoel Rives. McLane also served several years as a pro tempore circuit court judge in Deschutes County.
Now an attorney in Miller Nash’s Central Oregon office, McLane says he has been motivated by the opportunity to make a difference in his community. His legal training, particularly the ability to analyze statutes and understand how the appellate courts evaluate them, has been a tremendous advantage in his work as a legislator.
McLane says he became a legislator because he wants Oregon to overcome its economic challenges and remain a place where people stand a shot at success.
“I saw a collision course between the programs of the Great Society and financial reality. We’re living through that slow collision right now because of the pure demographic trends of our country,” he says. “I want to fight to make Oregon emerge from that collision to be a place where my children can live and prosper. I don’t want to see my grandkids raised in Texas or North Dakota or some other place where jobs are more plentiful.”
Despite the challenges McLane sees as a legislator, he remains optimistic. “I have found that Oregon is still a place where good ideas get traction, and that is meaningful to me. Despite our districts or our party, we still (behind the scenes) work together a lot and try to produce good outcomes, and that makes me proud of Oregon,” he says.
During this session, McLane hoped to see a positive outcome for his efforts to fast track the siting and development of industrial lands in rural areas. In the long term, he would like to see additional funding for the Oregon Youth Authority to provide more substance abuse programs.
“We need drug and alcohol abuse intervention programs for teenagers, especially for teens in Klamath Falls. That’s one specific area we’re not adequately funding and it makes a significant impact,” he says. “Traditionally the short session is not about funding, but if we’re going to look at areas that really need some additional funds to get through, that’s where I’m going to advocate for it.”
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer whose work appears frequently in the Bulletin.
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Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer whose work appears frequently in the Bulletin.
© 2014 Melody Finnemore