“Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.”
– Maggie Kuhn, American activist and founder of the Gray Panthers movement.
On June 1, 2023, I had the opportunity to speak truth to power. I first heard that expression “Speak truth to power” from former Vice President Al Gore from the 2017 documentary about him An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power and his 2017 companion book by the same title.
According to dictionary.com, “The specific phrase speak truth to power is credited to Bayard Rustin in 1942. Rustin was a Black Quaker and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, advocating nonviolent methods in his fight for social justice. In a letter written that year, Rustin stated that ‘the primary social function of a religious society is to “speak the truth to power.” The truth is that war is wrong.’”
As a climate change organizer since 2010, I found that expression, “speak truth to power,” to be very empowering when Al Gore spoke it in 2017. After I was aware of the phrase, I wanted to find opportunities to “speak truth to power” about the climate crisis and urge elected officials to enact policy solutions to reduce the threat.
On May 31, 2023, Ethan Krow called and texted me. He is the Senior Campaign Strategist at Stuart Collective, a Portland Oregon communications organization that organizes for progressive causes and candidates. Ethan asked me to come to the Oregon Capitol on Wednesday, June 1st at 5 pm to attend a legislative hearing.
Just an hour before Ethan contacted me, Oregon Senate Republican Leader, Senator Tim Knopp, issued a press release. It announced, “The first Joint Committee on Oversight and Accountability will be held on Thursday, June 1st at 5:00 PM in H-174. Members of the Oregon Legislature and members of the public are invited to bring their experiences and observations related to state government and where it requires greater oversight.”
This was a strange public statement. Julia Shumway, Deputy Editor of the Oregon Capitol Chronicle and a media reporter at the Oregon Capitol, tweeted an image of the press release. She commented on Twitter, “As (Oregon Republican Senators’) walkout enters its fifth week, they are holding an unofficial committee hearing about government oversight tomorrow.”
Ethan alerted me that Oregon Republican Senators scheduled to hold an unofficial “sham” hearing with no Democratic legislators planning to attend. As of May 31st, Oregon Senate Republicans had “walked out” the Senate floor for five weeks, the longest legislative walkout in Oregon history. The Oregon Constitution has a quorum rule that 2/3rds of the members of each legislative chamber, the House and Senate, must be present on the floor to vote and pass legislation. The Republican Senators walked out to prevent Senate votes on bills to address abortion access, gun control, and gender affirming care.
Even though they refused to set foot on the Senate Floor to vote on legislation, Republican Senators still joined the Democratic Senators in committee meetings to hold public hearings and work on legislation. Oddly, GOP Senators and their Republican House colleagues created this unofficial Joint Committee on Oversight and Accountability for greater scrutiny of state government without input or an agreement with the Democratic legislators. Thus, no Oregon Democratic Senators or Representatives joined this committee.
With only one-party present, this committee meeting looked to be more of a media spectacle than a committee working on serious legislative business. There was a possibility the committee would invite the public to come forward give comments. Thus, Ethan wanted to pack the room with progressive leaning advocates like me to call out and embarrass the GOP Senators for attending this committee meeting while they refused to end their Senate floor walkout.
In my phone call and text with Ethan, I told him that I could attend. However, I don’t like to drive to Salem. My wife, Tanya, and I share a car. Tanya uses our car daily to commute to work. Even more, I don’t like the heavy traffic on I-5 from Portland to Salem which can make the hour drive much longer. I don’t like the wear and tear on my car to drive to Salem, plus there are parking fees to park by the Capitol Building. Even more, as a climate advocate, I don’t like to burn my own fossil fuels using my car to travel to Salem. Therefore, I made it clear to Ethan that I would be happy to go to Salem the next day if I could find someone to carpool with to the Capitol.
Ethan agreed he would help find a ride for me to Salem. I asked around some of my climate friends. I discovered that Rich Peppers, who I know from the Metro Climate Action Team, planned to go to Salem to attend this committee meeting. Rich offered me a ride in his electric car, a Chevy Bolt. Thus, I was all set to go to Salem for the committee meeting the next day.
Rich and I arrived inside the Oregon Capitol Building around 4:30 pm. Ethan and other paid organizers directed us to the Committee room inside the Capitol where the meeting scheduled to start at 5 pm. Ethan was uncertain if there would be public testimony. However, if there was, he encouraged us to testify to strongly urge the Republican Senators to end the walkout.
When we arrived in the committee room, we saw around 20 people seated. They all looked like Oregon Democratic allies. We were surprised that we saw no Republican supporters. We figured that some would show up, but they never did. It was shocking and amusing that the Republican legislators and their staff were disorganized by not inviting their supporters.
The Republican legislators walked into the committee room and sat in their chairs behind the dais. They called the meeting into session. Each committee member gave an opening statement for why this committee is necessary for more government accountability and oversight. They stated that they hoped their Democratic colleagues would eventually join this committee.
After they finished with all their opening statements, which took 24 minutes, they announced they would open the meeting for public comments. They made it clear that this committee was about promoting a better and more efficient state government. They intended to expose corruption and unethical actions by state government officials and agencies. They wanted to hear from the public at this meeting, especially any potential whistleblowers, to let them know where the state government was falling short on the job.
Yes, all of us seated in the gallery were ready to let them know exactly where we were completely unsatisfied with state government: The Republican Senate walkout. One by one, citizens walked up to the microphone to introduce themselves. Each person expressed in their own words how unhappy we were the GOP Senate walkout. We insisted they end the walkout immediately and start voting on bills.
Julia Shumway from the Oregon Capitol Chronicle was in the room. She posted live tweets with frequent updates about the meeting, including a summary of what each speaker said.
I was the fifth speaker. This was my opportunity to “speak truth to power.” It was my chance to let these Republican Senators I was furious with their walkout. I insisted that they end it immediately to vote on vital bills, including legislation waiting votes for climate action.
This was an unofficial committee with no nonpartisan legislative staff. Instead, Senator Knopp’s and Rep. Breese-Iverson’s aides filled in as staff. Oddly, they did not post agendas or stream video on the official legislative website known as OLIS (Oregon Legislative Information System). However, the Oregon Senate GOP Twitter page posted a video recording of the meeting.
The video camera pointed at the legislators for the entire committee meeting. Thus, you cannot see me or the other individuals who gave oral testimony. However, you can hear us clearly on the video. From that video, I created a video of my oral testimony, that I uploaded to YouTube. Below the YouTube link, I typed out a transcript of my oral testimony for you to read.
My June 1st oral testimony to Oregon Joint Committee on Oversight and Accountability
“My name is Brian Ettling. Members of the committee, thank you so much for this opportunity to be here today. I live in outer northeast Portland.
For 25 years, I was a seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake National Park. Hopefully, everyone has been there. One of the most beautiful places in the world. It is such a gem in Oregon. I know with my job that I had to show up for work every day, and I had to do all the duties with my job. I could not choose which programs I could, or I did not want to do. I had to do all the programs assigned to me by my boss.
That’s the same thing for all of you, all the Republican Senators. Show up on the floor. Do your job! You don’t have to vote for the bills. Do your job!
When I was working at Crater Lake, I saw climate change. Climate change is happening here in Oregon. I saw our snowpack going down in the 25 years that I was working there. I saw the fire season getting worse and worse. We need to pass bills for protecting our forests. We need to address issues such as homelessness and affordable housing.
This will only happen if YOU show up on the floor and vote. Please don’t waste this legislative session just to have a tantrum here. Do your job! Be adults in the room. Put on your big boy pants.
That is why so many of us are here today because we are tired of the games that you are playing. Thank you so much for this opportunity.”
The aftermath of my testimony to this Oregon Legislative Committee
Eleven Oregonians gave testimony demanding the GOP Senators end their walkout to return to the Oregon Senate floor immediately to vote on bills. That was the only message from the public. After everyone testified, Republican Senator Tim Knopp gave a statement that the reason for their walk out was that the Democratic Senators were treating them unfairly with an “unlawful, uncompromising, unconstitutional agenda.”
The audience did not buy Senator Knopp’s message. As the GOP legislators stood up to leave the committee room, the crowd clapped and chanted “QUORUM!” I will never forget how the Republican legislators left the room with their shoulders hunched and looking downcast. This committee meeting did not go anything like they planned. The looks on their faces showed it was a publicity disaster. The media accounts that evening and the next day indicated it was.
That evening, local CBS Portland TV station KOIN 6, reported on the committee meeting and quoted me for the story. KOIN 6 noted, “None during public testimony spoke in support of the walkout. As the committee meeting wrapped, there was no direct response to the public testimony pleas.” They showed video footage of us chanting “quorum” as the GOP legislators left the committee room.
On June 2nd, Julia Shumway wrote a story for the Oregon Capitol Chronicle about the committee meeting. This article quoted me and others who gave testimony. Julia reported in the article that “11 Oregonians – most from the area around the Capitol, but some who had driven in from as far as Tillamook County – calling on Republican senators to return.”
This article was picked up by newspapers across Oregon. It was a publicity fiasco for the Republicans. The next day, I received texts and emails from friends who work at the Capitol as legislative aides and lobbyists thanking me for my oral testimony.
A friend working for the Democratic Senate President texted me, “Your testimony looked so cathartic! Thank you for putting words to all our feelings. Your KOIN interview was great too! They ran with it.”
Meredith Connolly, Director of Climate Solutions, an Oregon climate advocacy group that lobbies the legislators emailed me,
“Deep appreciation for you, Brian.
Thanks for all you do, speaking no nonsense truth to these irresponsible ‘leaders’ still in power.”
She added, “I hope your message sinks in too. I think it is reflective of the majority of Oregonians.”
My legislators, Senator Kayse Jama and Representative Andrea Valderrama, complimented me on my testimony when they saw me at public events that summer. At an August 29th town hall, Rep. Valderrama told the audience that she was proud I was one of her constituents when she saw me on TV. She happened to see the KOIN 6 News story about the committee meeting. Her 8-year-old daughter was curious about the story and wanted to meet me at the town hall.
The Republican legislators ended the walkout two weeks later on June 15th. The Democrats watered down their bills on abortion rights, gender affirming care, and gun safety to entice them to return to the Oregon Senate floor. The full Oregon Senate barely had enough time to pass pass hundreds of bills before the legislative session came to its constitutional end on June 29th.
On Saturday, June 28th, it was a relief for me that major climate priority bills for the 2023 passed the Senate before the session ended the next day. On April 8th, I testified to the Joint Ways and Means Committee to support the Natural Climate Solutions Bill. It allows financial incentives for voluntarily managing Oregon’s farms, forests, ranches, and natural lands for carbon sequestration. In addition, I urged them to support the four Building Resilience Bills.
The Building Resilience bills align energy efficiency programs and building codes with state climate goals for rapid deployment of heat pumps, weatherization, and building retrofits for Oregonians. Even more, these bills will improve energy efficiency of existing large commercial buildings and state government buildings, including schools.
On that Saturday afternoon, I watched the Oregon Senate floor session live as those climate bills passed with a few hours to spare before the session ended. I was nervous to see if those bills would squeak through with all the other hundreds of bills that the Oregon Senate needed to pass on the final days of the session. I was very relieved and happy when those bills passed. Whew! I texted the Oregon Senators that I know personally to thank them for their support.
Final Thoughts: pay attention to your state legislature and SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER
The best advice I received as a climate organizer was from my fellow Climate Reality Leader and Citizens’ Climate Lobby friend, Greg Hamra. He once said: ‘Do you know who your member of Congress is? Wait! Better yet: Do they know who you are?’
I extended Greg’s advice getting to know state legislators and local elected officials. I show up at many local events and chat with them, so they know who I am as a climate organizer. I hope I leave an impression to make passing and enacting climate action a high priority for them as elected officials. To be effective at climate organizing or any kind of organizing, one must know who are the key elected officials that can pass significant climate policy.
For members of Congress to know who you are, they want to see that you are reaching out in coalition to other climate or environmental groups. Even more, the members of Congress listen to key stake holders of the community, such as local elected officials when deciding on policy positions. For five years now, I have contacted my Oregon representatives and senators and other Oregon legislators to urge them to pass strong climate legislation. Even more, I organized two large events, one in September 2019 and the other in January 2020 to urge Oregon legislators to pass a statewide cap and invest bill to address climate change.
In 2019 and 2020, cap and invest bills in the Oregon legislature fell short of passage. Not because of lack of Democratic votes. There were enough Democratic votes to pass these bills. These bills failed because of Republican legislative walkouts denying the 2/3rds chamber floor quorum to pass these bills. As with many climate advocates in Oregon, I felt devastated when Republican legislators used that trick to stop these bills.
An Oregon media source, KGW 8 News, noted 10 legislative walkouts in the Oregon Legislature since 1971, over a period of 52 years. However, 7 of those 10 walkouts happened since 2019. A four-year time frame! At a town hall lead by Oregon Senator Michael Dembrow that I attended earlier this year, he shared a quote from a legislator commenting about a walkout that happened decades ago, ‘If they become accepted, they will be expected.’
Sadly, the walkouts have become accepted by Oregon Republican Senators and expected by many of their constituents. In 2021, the Republican Senators decided not to walk out over a gun control bill. As a result, the conservative constituents of Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod and Senator Lynn Findley unsuccessfully tried to organize to file recall petition against them after they didn’t walk out to prevent a vote on a Democrat-sponsored gun control bill. Thus, Oregon Republican Senators face intense heat from their constituents to walk out to prevent passage of Democratic Senate bills on gun control, raising taxes to fund schools, abortion, gender affirming care, and prominent legislation to address climate change.
Many Americans don’t realize the power their state legislators have in shaping nationwide policies. In 1932, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to state governments as ‘laboratories of democracy’ that can “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.’
In the past century, state legislatures led efforts, such as for workers’ rights in Wisconsin, Louisiana creating a precursor to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, Mitt Romney’s efforts to healthcare as governor of Massachusetts served as a template for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and multiple states pushed in the legalization of gay marriage. Unfortunately, David Pepper, a political activist, former elected official, adjunct professor, and the Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party between 2015 and 2021, warned in his 2021 book that conservative leaning states have become Laboratories of Autocracy.
In recent years, states with Republican dominated legislatures have passed laws to reverse workers’ protections, ban abortions, loosen gun control laws, suppress voter turnout, and allow for heavily gerrymandered districts to keep themselves in power against the will of the voters.
Why is this happening? According to David Pepper, “Too few people, including those in politics, understand the immense power–the potential for both good and ill–in our nation’s statehouses.” He went on to say, “If the average voter doesn’t know or care what state reps do and can do, but insiders and interests know exactly what they do and can do, that’s dangerous. And a huge vulnerability to the common good.” (his emphasis)
David Pepper then explains the overlooked importance of state legislatures. They distribute federal funding to local communities and citizens. Local governments must operate within the defined powers given to the by the state legislatures. State legislatures write the laws the defines the parameters and duties as well as the laws that must be followed by statewide office holders, such as the Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, etc. They hold the power over how federal, state, and even local elections are administered in the state. They draw Congressional and legislative districts after the U.S. Census is held every 10 years. Oh, and they set the state budget, among their other powers.
The people who are elected as your state legislators matter. Even more, the party that controls your state legislative chambers matter. It is important to know if they are passing effective bills for climate action. If your legislators are, thank them. If they are not, call their offices, email them, write a letter, or attend their town halls to urge them to support strong climate legislation. If they refuse or ignore you, support their opponent in the next election. If they don’t have an opponent, run for office. It is jaw dropping how many state legislative races and even local election races go uncontested with just one candidate running.
When your legislators hold public hearings on good or bad legislation that impacts the environment and the climate, show up to give public testimony. I have given oral testimony to legislative committees numerous times. I enjoyed testifying to look legislators to tell my story why they should support or reject a specific bill. It is a very empowering experience.
Even more, your legislators might hold bogus hearings on oversight and accountability. While they hold that hearing, they could be refusing to perform their required job duties such as showing up on the chamber floor to vote on vital legislation. If they do that, like what recently happened in Oregon, make sure you show up and SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER!