By Lauren Dake / The BulletinPublished April 05, 2012.
SALEM — Former House Majority Leader Tim Knopp’s recent announcement that he will run for the state Senate caught most political players by surprise, including incumbent Chris Telfer, whom he hopes to unseat in the May Republican primary.
Knopp wasted no time trying to differentiate himself from the first-term incumbent. He would do a better job lowering the unemployment rate in the region, he said. He, not Telfer, is the true fiscal conservative. Moreover, he has a proven record of being a “team player.”
Knopp accused Telfer of initially trying to undermine the effort of Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, to secure funding for a new building for the Oregon State University-Cascades Campus, which passed during the 2011 legislative session.
Telfer refutes the claim and says she’s prepared to correct a lot of “misinformation” that Knopp is spreading. Both Conger and Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, have endorsed Knopp but said they won’t wade into the negative fray.
But was Knopp known as a team player during his tenure in the Legislature? It depends whom you ask.
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The late Ben Westlund, who served with Knopp in the House more than a decade ago, used those very words to describe the would-be state senator in 1999, at the end of Knopp’s first session. Westlund died in 2010 from cancer while serving as the state’s treasurer.
But Lynn Lundquist, another Central Oregonian who served with Knopp at the time, has a different view.
At that time, Democrat John Kitzhaber occupied the governor’s office and Republicans enjoyed the House majority. The 1999 legislative session began with more than 20 first-time lawmakers, the largest number of freshmen to enter the House in three decades. During the ensuing months, which were marked by fierce partisan bickering, the governor solidified his nickname “Dr. No” by vetoing a large number of bills.
And because lawmakers could not agree on legislation, voters faced more than 20 ballot measures.
One political analyst noted at the time that the new Republicans were less likely than their predecessors to look for common political ground. One of those newcomers was Knopp.
It was an occasionally difficult time for the all-Republican Central Oregonian delegation, which included Westlund, Lundquist and former Sen. Neil Bryant. Lundquist, known as a moderate, had served as Speaker of the House during the 1997 session. Two years later, however, the new wave of Republican lawmakers quickly stripped him of his position and replaced him with Lynn Snodgrass, a more conservative Republican from Boring. There were rumblings, however, of a coup to replace Snodgrass and restore Lundquist to the House’s top spot.
“We had a large freshman class,” said Lundquist. “I was attempting to be speaker for a second term and thought certainly the local legislators would be supportive of that.” Lundquist said he had Westlund’s support, but the new lawmaker, Knopp, stuck by Snodgrass’ side.
“The speaker brings a good opportunity for those from the region from where he or she is from,” Lundquist said. “Tim chose not to support me in that endeavor, which I was surprised with.”
Knopp said he supported Lundquist until it became clear that he would not become speaker.
“There was not really an opportunity where any of us could have saved Lynn at that particular time,” Knopp said.
But supporting Snodgrass may have made Knopp more influential than his more senior counterparts. Snodgrass was known as one of the House’s more conservative Republicans, as was Knopp, who aspired to a leadership position.
“There are some personalities that become vocal and pushy about wanting leadership,” Snodgrass said. “I wouldn’t say that’s what he did. He wanted to do his job well enough to be a leader, and that was clear. He was trying very hard to build the relationships he needed in the building and out of the building to make sure he had the information he needed to be a leader.”
Bryant, who served with Knopp for only one term, recalls him working well with his colleagues on Central Oregonissues.
“What happens your first session is you’re quieter, you learn, you listen, and that’s my impression of what he did,” Bryant said.
Central Oregon’s biggest issue at the time was funding for the local branch of Oregon State University. Knopp was part of the team that secured money for the campus.
“He’s farther to the right than I am, but when it came to issues forCentral Oregon, I don’t remember him being on the other side,” Bryant said.
Knopp also became known that session for supporting various social reforms, including parental notification for abortions and prohibiting marriage for same-sex couples. Knopp also voted consistently against tax increases, including an ultimately successful push to increase the gas tax. He was perhaps best known for his push to place the kicker,Oregon’s income tax surplus law, in the Constitution. Westlund worked with him on the effort.
Lundquist said there weren't any divisive issues during that time that would have split the party or delegation. Knopp mainly voted along party lines. But, Lundquist said, there were differences.
“When I was there, the Central Oregon delegation ... was certainly viewed as trying to work across the aisle and accomplish as much as possible,” Lundquist said. “Tim was certainly more partisan. You could almost call him pre-tea party, because we didn’t have a tea party. He certainly fit into the mold to the right of where the rest of the delegation was.”
By his second session, Knopp was calling himself a “mainstream conservative.” At the time, Westlund told The Bulletin that Knopp realized you quickly get marginalized if you’re too far left or right and it’s better to be somewhere closer to the center.
Former Rep. Chris Beck, a Democrat from Portland who worked closely with Westlund, said of Knopp at the time, “I never thought he was as conservative as his reputation, and I don’t know whether that helps him or hurts him.”