When Rep. Peter Buckley began his first term in the Oregon House in 2005, the liberal Ashland Democrat was convinced he could make a difference.
But the 2005 session was under Republican control, with Speaker Karen Minnis pushing a conservative, no new taxes agenda. At every turn, bills introduced by Buckley were consigned to oblivion.
"It was really a hard session, because the legislative process was clamped down so tightly," Buckley says.
"I woke up every morning wondering what negative thing was going to happen today, what good idea was going to get crushed."
He managed to get only two admittedly minor bills passed. Fast forward to 2007 when Democrats took over with a bare two-vote majority.
"That was like opening a door," said Buckley, who quickly established himself as a player in Salem's new liberal paradigm. Speaker Jeff Merkeley, D-Portland, named him chairman of the Education Committee. He also served as vice-chairman of Elections, Ethics and Rules and was appointed to the Transportation Committee.
As assistant majority leader, he is a member of the House leadership council that set the Democratic agenda for the session.
Among the successful bills Buckley has sponsored:
- HB2641, increasing the percentage of local option taxes a school district can levy, a measure sought by the Ashland School District.
- HB3527, establishing a special registration category allowing Brammo Motorsports of Ashland to test drive their Ariel Atom race cars on state highways.
- HB3538, allowing the establishment of heritage districts to promote historical preservation, sought by the Jackson County Historical Society.
- HB2918, requiring health care coverage for autistic children. ("It's still pending but it should pass," Buckley says.)
He also was the guiding force, as chairman of the Education Committee, in getting approval for bill to require schools to improve school nutrition, mentoring for new teachers, increased access to higher education opportunity grants and curbs on so-called "golden parachutes" for school administrators.
There were failures. Buckley was unable to get his bill passed to revise the funding distribution formula for community colleges, a formula that penalizes Rogue Community College.
And he couldn't stop a measure to allow Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to hire agents using dogs for cougar population control, even though voters agreed to outlaw hound hunting for the big cats.
Another "that still rankles me" was his failed push to get more money for RCC and other two-year institutions, Buckley said.
Buckley, who just turned 50, is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area who got turned on to politics at age 15 when Rep. Peter McCloskey ran for president against Richard Nixon.
A graduate of the University of Santa Clara, he wound up in Humboldt County in theater as an actor, director and producer — a profession he believes was good training for politics.
"People in theater throw better tantrums, but politicians are sneakier," he said. After a divorce, he reconnected with a college sweetheart then moved to Ashland with his two sons and remarried in 1997.
His first run for political office was against U.S. Rep. Greg Walden "when it looked like no other Democrat was going to take him on," Buckley said. "I got creamed," he said, but added, "it was a very good experience because it felt good to express my political views."
The ever-cheerful Buckley's reputation as a political heavyweight was cemented at the annual staff "sine die" (adjournment) party. In a skit, legislative staffers spoofed his alliance with Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, forged in 2005.
"They put us in T-shirts that said 'State of Jefferson' and called us the bi-partisan boys from Jackson County. Everytime we talked into the microphone on the House floor, we did it together," he said.
The skits can sting, and quite often push the boundaries of good taste. And the "Jackson County boys" spoof?
"It was funny. We laughed," he said.
Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.