The Oregon Legislature will soon close its 35-day short session after tackling a few big-ticket items before the political season begins.
Just like the 2021 long session at the height of the pandemic, the legislature’s committee hearings are held virtually to give Oregonians a safe, accessible way to participate. However, this session there is also a distinct difference from the last: The State Capitol building is now open for the first time in two years.
During the second week of the session, my colleague Britni Davidson and I decided to make the journey to a building where I’ve spent considerable time as an advocate for Oregon’s electric co-ops. As it turns out, things have changed.
The Capitol is undergoing an extensive renovation. Much of it is fenced off, giving it the appearance of a stone fortress. The front revolving door, which welcomed visitors without a passing glance, is gone. As a sign of the times, gleaming new metal detectors greet everyone who enters the building.
Yet the most jarring changes are once you’re inside the building. A “normal” legislative session in Salem has frenzied legislators darting down corridors, pursued by eager lobbyists intent on winning their vote. There are school groups and visitors taking the Capitol tour, their voices echoing off the rotunda. It’s a vibrant place of big personalities and even bigger voices.
But the day of our visit, it was eerily quiet. There was hardly anyone there. I spotted a few lobbyists milling about. It was otherwise empty, save for legislators solemnly debating bills in the House chamber.
While the scene was a little jarring, it also gave me a glimmer of hope. Things are not back to normal, but there is a path to normal. The entry to a post-pandemic legislature—metal detectors and all—has been cracked open, ever so slightly. I can envision a day when the fencing comes down and the public climbs the steps. Lobbyists will again patrol the halls, yelling after legislators. High-pitched school kids will pack the Senate gallery.
We may not be there yet, but we are ever so close to hearing the dull roar that is our Oregon State Capitol. It’s the sweet sound of democracy in action.