Two rising stars in the Oregon Legislature bring different perspectives to climate policy, but share backgrounds in local government and a deep connection to their districts

By Ted Case

Reps. Karin Power and David Brock Smith confering during a meeting
Reps. Karin Power and David Brock Smith confer during a meeting of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction. Photos by Lynn Howlett

State Reps. Karin Power (D-Milwaukie) and David Brock Smith (R-Port Orford) are affiliated with different political parties, serve vastly different constituencies and are on opposite sides of the Legislature’s centerpiece environmental issue this session.

But the two legislators have more than a few commonalities, besides sitting next to each other in their leadership positions on the high-profile Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction.

They share deep roots in local government, relentless work ethics and—refreshingly, in an era of deep political polarization—can disagree on policy without being disagreeable.

Power, co-chair of the Joint Committee, represents House District 41, where housing, child care and transportation are major issues for traditional working-class neighborhoods in Milwaukie.

A graduate of Lewis and Clark Law School, Power uses her legal training and passion for the environment for The Freshwater Trust, which focuses on innovative ways to protect river ecosystems. She has extensive experience in local government, including a stint as a Milwaukie city councilor.

Her background and legal training made her a natural fit for the Legislature’s special committee to address carbon policy, but Power also brings a uniquely personal perspective to the climate debate—one of her highest priorities in the legislative session.

Power hails from New Jersey and saw the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy on friends and family in the Garden State. Power said the storm was a searing experience—one she hopes Oregonians will never face.

“We have seen scientific patterns, but we haven’t had entire communities leveled,” she said.

As one of the key sponsors of HB 2020, which establishes a complex cap-and-trade program to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, Power believes the state is primed to be a national leader in decarbonization.

“CO2 is impacting how we live our everyday lives,” she said, pointing out that smoke from summer fires choked the Portland area to a level where it was unsafe for her young son to go outside.

She also believes the bill can be crafted in a responsible way that does not harm Oregon’s fragile rural economy.

Visitors sitting watching a panel of legislators
The Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction is at the center of the Oregon Legislature’s centerpiece environmental issue: a proposal to regulate greenhouse gases.

“We can write this legislation in a way where the economy and environment are not mutually exclusive,” she said.

Because of the scope of the legislation, the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction scheduled several meetings to hear testimony from a wide range of special interests.

Power noted the committee also planned field hearings to take testimony from Oregonians who rarely grace the corridors of the state Capitol.

“Rep. Smith and I value hearing from regular people,” she said, adding that both have strong ties to their communities and service to them.

Smith, who represents House District 1, established strong ties to his “fisheries and forest” district along Oregon’s south coast by serving in local government, including as chair of the Curry County Board of Commissioners. He was named co-vice chair of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction after doing a deep dive into carbon policy during the 2017 interim, attending every work group session exploring various aspects of a cap-and-trade program.

“This allowed me a broad scope to see where we are moving and to craft conversations with a wide coalition,” he said.

Smith said he ultimately wants a rational carbon policy that ensures “transparency, equity and fairness for all Oregonians.” He has nothing but kind words about Power.

“It’s a privilege to work with Rep. Power on this committee,” he said.

However, he is not as sanguine about the economic impact of HB 2020—a 98-page bill that establishes an ambitious program to reduce carbon from industry, utilities and transportation sectors.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “If this were to pass today, it would decimate our current state economy and devastate rural Oregonians,” he said.

The stakes are high. While Power and Smith may not ultimately agree on the details of a carbon reduction program, they have not embraced the rancor and cynicism that has left the nation’s politics deeply divided.

“I believe Rep. Power truly has a desire for a bipartisan effort that works for all Oregonians, not just those in Portland,” Smith said.

For her part, Power believes she and Smith bring similar approaches to policy debates, even if their politics ultimately diverge.

“We cannot consider our colleagues to be wrong for representing people in their district,” she said.