“Oregon system” showed the nation how to reform corruption
After out-of-state interests overplayed their hand and showed how little power locals had in their own state, Populists and renegade Republicans got together to do something about it. The result: The initiative-petition system.
By Finn J.D. John — December 25, 2016
As the year 1896 drew to a close, something like a revolution was brewing in the state of Oregon.
It was becoming increasingly clear that out-of-state interests were wielding a lot of power in the Beaver State. Put simply, the political system at that time was remarkably responsive to money. With half a million dollars and a clear legislative agenda, a powerful magnate could get almost anything he wanted.
Gangs of undocumented “repeaters” were available for hire to traipse around from polling station to polling station. With their help, one could purge troublesome legislators and pack the state House with friendly faces promulgating friendly legislation.
Plus, at that time, each state’s U.S. Senators were chosen by a vote in the state Legislature. This meant that with the payment of a few dozen massive bribes, one could directly influence politics not just locally, but nationally as well.
But, one might ask, who had the resources to buy that kind of influence?
A few Oregonians did. But the main beneficiary of the cash-and-carry political system in Oregon was the out-of-state operators who ran railroads through Oregon and ruled empires of timberlands and sawmills.
By 1896 or so, it was increasingly obvious that government at all levels was becoming so responsive to this kind of special influence that it was starting to lose its spirit of public service. Laws were being passed that were blatantly contrary to the public interest, for the specific benefit of those who were paying the bribes. And Oregonians of all political persuasions were starting to realize that they were losing control of their state.
The whole thing came to a head in early 1897 with what’s become known as the “Hold-Up Session.” On this occasion, local Republicans led by Rep. Jonathan Bourne of Portland revolted after learning that Senator John M. Hipple (serving under his alias, John H. Mitchell, the name he had adopted 40 years earlier when he was a fugitive from justice) was planning on selling out Oregon silver-mining interests at the behest of the out-of-state interests that ran the national party. Word of this betrayal came after Bourne had personally distributed almost a quarter-million dollars in bribes, using cash supplied by the Southern Pacific Railroad, to secure pledges of support for Mitchell’s re-appointment; with those signed pledges in hand, Mitchell thought the coast would be clear.
In response, though, Bourne partnered with Populist Party leader William U’Ren to lead a walkout. Fourteen Republicans, three Democrats and 13 Populists retired to the Eldridge Block, which Bourne had rented and where he now treated the rebel faction to a 40-day-long party, leaving the state House short of a quorum and therefore unable to re-elect Hipple. (For full details, Google “Offbeat Oregon 40 day debauch.”) From party headquarters, they sent a list of demands to Mitchell: they wanted someone other than Mitchell elected to the Senate; Bourne elected as House Speaker; and — U’Ren’s contribution — an Initiative and Referendum law.
Mitchell and his supporters refused to even discuss it. The upshot of this rebellion was that Oregon went two years with only one Senator.
Most of the Populists, including U’Ren, lost their bids for re-election. So, in fact, did Bourne. It’s not clear whether the frustrated out-of-state interests had a hand in this or not; the “hold-up session” played very poorly with the public, and the loss of representation in the Senate was felt very keenly.
Nonetheless, the hold-up session crystalized the battle lines in Oregon’s dominant political party along national-vs.-local lines. The local Republicans — led by Bourne — were now in open coalition with the Populists. And the Populists had convinced them that the only way to fight the torrent of out-of-state money that threatened to make the state capital into a dependent colonial outpost was to adopt U’Ren’s plan.
U’Ren had been carrying the torch for the Initiative and Referendum in Oregon for several years, having sort of hijacked the movement from Sophronia Lewelling around 1893 or so. At first, he hadn’t gotten much traction with it; although it steadily gained in popularity at the grassroots level, most politicians’ response had been less than friendly.
But the throwing-around of weight by out-of-state financial interests in 1897 had many members of that government seeing things very differently now. Bourne, for his part, openly embraced the plan and became, essentially, its number-two fan.
Now U’Ren, a lifelong political outsider, found himself riding a tiger. He and other proponents of direct democracy formed a non-partisan coalition devoted to the cause, dedicated to helping anyone get elected anywhere under any party’s auspices so long as he was a fan of the Initiative and Referendum plan. And the public was getting increasingly enthusiastic about the idea, which made it electorally quite dangerous to oppose it — and, most likely, several out-of-state timber and railroad firms were learning to their dismay that bribing politicians only works when the public is not paying close attention.
And so, in 1899, the Legislature voted to approve a Constitutional amendment allowing for the Initiative and Petition system in Oregon — the first step in the process of making it happen.
Two years later the Legislature took the second step, and voted to send the question to the voters of the state. The result at the polls was 11 to 1 in favor — one of the most lopsided vote results in history.
Oregon was not the first to grant the public the power of direct legislation in state government; that honor goes to South Dakota, which did it in 1898. But Oregon was the first to actually use it, starting right away in 1904 with a law to replace the old smoke-filled-room party nomination process with a primary election system — including a nominating process for U.S. Senators. The result of the Senatorial elections would be merely advisory, since the real power to elect Senators still rested in the state House; however, very few politicians would undertake to thwart the will of the people expressed directly at the polls just weeks before. For all practical purposes, Oregon now had direct Senatorial elections.
With these reforms in place, the eyes of the nation suddenly became trained on Oregon. The entire Initiative and Referendum system became known simply as “the Oregon system,” a term that’s still sometimes used today. Other states started following, either adopting Oregon’s system in its entirety or modifying it to fit local conditions.
In 1906, Bourne — who, overshadowed by U’Ren’s legacy, seldom gets credit for his role in bringing the Oregon System about — became the first U.S. Senator picked in a primary election by the people of Oregon. In 1908 the law was put to a real test when the primary nominated a Democrat — then-governor George Chamberlain — and the Republican-dominated House had to hold its collective nose and vote for him. With noticeable reluctance, it did.
By 1917, when the outbreak of the First World War brought the Progressive Era to an end with something of a sickening jolt, the experiment was a pretty obvious success. There were issues, of course; right from the start there were clever lobbyists who would write devious bills to try to sell to the public, and sometimes the ballot ran to dozens and dozens of items, leaving many voters confused and frustrated.
But possibly the most important impact of the Oregon System was the least obvious one. It’s best illustrated with one of the earliest cases of referendum use, in 1904, when an omnibus appropriations bill was presented that included operating funds for the state’s colleges and universities. It had been lovingly crafted and influenced by a group of normal-school administrators, who had hoped the Legislature would approve it even though their benefits from it were exceedingly generous because the alternative would be to starve the state’s flagship colleges of needed resources.
Ordinarily this would have worked, and in fact it was pretty standard procedure in the pre-referendum days. Now, though, things were different. The referendum was promptly invoked; the matter was put on ice for a year and a half pending the next election; and there was nothing anyone could do about it other than sit tight and wait … and remember the lesson.
In other words, the Initiative and Referendum was working — as it still does — as a “big stick” in the hands of the public. It’s not always the right tool for the job; in fact, it’s usually not. But Oregon politicians always know that if they don’t do their job, or if they succumb to the temptation to behave unethically, that stick will come down there will be pain.
So the Oregon System inspires good behavior. It’s hard to quantify the benefit the state has gotten from that subtle effect, but a quick comparison of the functionality of our state government with the unaccountable morass of special interests, back-room deals and partisan petulance that currently runs amok in Washington, D.C., would suggest that it’s not inconsiderable.
(Sources: Culbertons, Paul Thomas. A History of the Initiative and Referendum in Oregon (Ph.D. dissertation). Eugene: Univ. of Oregon, 1941; “Oregon History: The Oregon System,” Oregon Blue Book. Salem: Oregon State Archives, 2016; Chamberlain, George. “Wrecking a Political Machine,” LaFollette’s Weekly Magazine, Jan. 30, 1909)