The day before Senate Republicans kicked off their 2023 legislative boycott, their leader, Tim Knopp, rose from his desk in the upper chamber of the Legislature and asked to make a motion.
“Recognize, Senator Knopp,” Rob Wagner, who is serving his first term as Senate president this session, said from the dais overlooking the floor.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” Knopp said. “I move that the Senate remove the presiding officer from his duties as Senate president.”
Wagner looked surprised; Knopp was calling to remove him from his job.
“Uh,” Wagner said, pausing briefly. “We’ll stand at ease for one moment.”
The motion to try to oust Wagner was a highly unusual procedural move and yet not a shock for those who have watched the 2023 legislative session closely.
Before the session started, Knopp blasted the Democrat in a press release, calling him “untrustworthy.” Later, Knopp referred to Wagner as a “political hack,” someone who didn’t “have the skills to operate the Senate in a bipartisan way.” And as he tried to have the president removed on May 2, Knopp said Wagner was running the Senate like a “banana republic” by not following certain rules.
It’s evident Knopp dislikes Wagner. It’s clear the Republican leader would like to thwart a bill expanding access to abortions and gender-affirming care. And he believes the Senate is not abiding by a 1979 law requiring the summaries of legislative bills to be written in easy-to-read language.
But what remains murkier is why a man who spent countless hours raising money and traveling the state to get more Republicans elected to the Senate would now lead those same Republicans toward what could be the end of their political careers.
The motion to remove Wagner as Senate president failed. It didn’t matter.
The next day, Knopp’s Senate Republicans stopped showing up. And everything came to a screeching halt.
A political legacy
Sen. Kate Lieber, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, said she felt like the latest legislative walkout was preordained, almost as if “it feels like this was something from the beginning, that this was the plan.”
She could be right. And maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Knopp was first inspired to enter politics by his grandfather, who served as the mayor of Pendleton in the 1960s and 70s. His identity is so closely intertwined with the vocation that he named his firstborn son, who is also his chief of staff, after Ronald Reagan.
Knopp entered the Legislature in 1999 and stood out in a large class of freshman lawmakers for what the Oregonian called at the time “his obvious ambition to move up quickly.” He served three terms, including one as House Majority Leader. In 2003, at 38, he decided to not seek re-election to the statehouse, citing a desire to spend more time with his children, who were 8, 6 and 4.
Later, in 2012, he decided to return to electoral politics, ousting fellow Bend Republican Chris Telfer in a primary. He’s served in the Senate since. He scuttled his chances to lead his party caucus in 2019 when he sided with Democrats in calling for his Republican colleague Sen. Jeff Kruse to step down after several women accused Kruse of sexual harassment. Later, Knopp worked closely with Democratic Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin to push bills to curb workplace harassment.
After more than a decade in the Senate, Knopp knew this year would be different.
This is Knopp’s first session without Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest-serving legislator in Oregon history and a moderate who took pains to try to make most bills that passed the Senate bipartisan. Without Courtney at the helm, it was evident a Democratic effort to move the Senate more to the political left was likely.
Courtney was often considered the backstop of the state Legislature: More progressive legislation would sail through the House but die in the Senate.
Courtney and Knopp had an easy, friendly relationship, lobbing jokes back-and-forth from the floor to the dais. Courtney went as far as to say he enjoyed negotiating with Knopp.
“Tim Knopp is a straight shooter,” Courtney said in a recent interview with OPB. “His word is his bond … He’s very, very intelligent. Highly intelligent, and he’s very strategic.”
The working relationship between Knopp and Courtney’s replacement as Senate president could not be more different.
Wagner, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has also been around the state Capitol for years, serving as a lobbyist before becoming a lawmaker. He’s an outwardly affable guy, who often talks about always having an “open door policy.”
But conversations between Wagner and Knopp broke down early. Some political insiders said the tension between them feels personal.
Melissa Unger, the executive director of the public employee union SEIU and a powerful player in Democratic circles, said she believes Knopp is not being upfront about his conservative values, which she thinks are not aligned with the majority of the state.
“If he were in control of the Senate,” Unger said, “if you look at the national scene, he would be passing huge restrictions on gender-affirming care and that is what other conservatives who have the same belief are doing.”
The red wave that wasn’t
Last November, Republicans were hopeful they could break the Democrats’ long-held majority in the Senate.
Knopp was instrumental in raising money from big donors like former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who brought in millions to get more Republicans elected to the Legislature. Republicans hoped with the additional funds, a historically unpopular governor and an-anticipated national red wave, they could finally end Democratic control in the Senate.
“Rob Wagner is Senate president, and (Knopp) thought he was going to be Senate president,” said Unger, the labor leader, as a way of explaining the personal animosity.
Shaun Jillions, a lobbyist representing a variety of manufacturing industries, has a different perspective.
“The Senate is a couple thousand votes from being split 15-15, and it’s being run as if Portland is the entire state,” he said, adding Republicans are tired of feeling “run over.”
This election cycle, they allowed themselves a moment of optimism that they could break a 40-year losing streak and recapture the governor’s office. That didn’t happen.
Knopp has lodged a litany of complaints at Wagner. Republicans have accused Democrats of breaking an old 1979 rule that requires bill summaries be written at an eighth grade reading level. They feel Wagner has pushed hyperpartisan bills dealing with gender-affirming care and strengthening the state’s gun laws through the Legislature without allowing enough testimony.
“If someone isn’t willing to follow the rules or the law, the public should be deeply disturbed,” Knopp said of Wagner.
Knopp tried unsuccessfully to convince Wagner to set up an oversight and accountability committee to look into the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission scandal, in which rare liquor was being diverted for state workers’ personal use, and dig deeper into the misconduct that cost Secretary of State Shemia Fagan her career earlier this year.
“Democrats own every branch of government, and they just don’t care,” Knopp said, calling their overall actions the “tyranny of the majority.”
Blaze of glory
Normally during the legislative session, Knopp attends his church in Bend remotely.
This Sunday, he’ll be at Eastmont Church in person.
Negotiations between the two parties continue and Republicans have said they are willing to return to Salem before June 25 to pass the state’s budget along with some other, noncontroversial legislation.
It’s unclear whether Knopp had planned to seek reelection after his term ends in January of 2025. After redistricting in 2020, his Central Oregon district became even harder for a Republican to win. Republicans plan to fight the voter-approved measure to ban lawmakers from participating in extended walkouts.
But in the end, Knopp said “I wasn’t aspiring for a political career. I was aspiring for a public service career, and I’ll be fine when it ends.”