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Rep. Cate reflects on first term in House

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local

Winding up her second year in office, local state Rep. Jami Cate recounted her experience in the capitol, saying last week that she was initially reluctant to run for office and that the COVID-19 pandemic made it hard to get traction in Salem as a first-term legislator.

Speaking to an audience at the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Forum Lunch Friday, Sept. 30, Cate said she’s particularly enjoyed working with Santiam Canyon communities ravaged by the 2020 wildfires and said she was bothered by how “extreme” elements have tended to influence politics in Oregon.

She also discussed the redistricting process, which, she said, at one time literally split her own family, and which, she said, often confuses constituents and makes “approachability” more complicated.

Getting Started

Cate, 35, who is running for the District 11 House seat, which includes both Lebanon and Sweet Home, was elected in 2020 to the District 17 seat, replacing Sherrie Sprenger, who stepped down to run for the Linn County Commission. Her family’s farm, along with most of Lebanon and all of east Linn County, has been moved into the new district by last year’s redistricting process.

She acknowledged to the luncheon crowd that “going into the Legislature was a curve ball in my life,” a big change from the local public service she’d been involved in previously.

Cate, who grew up in a multi-generation farm family north of Lebanon, said she was always interested in volunteering and was active in the Strawberry Festival Association and the Lebanon Community Foundation.

Describing the process that led her to decide to run for office, she said that despite the fact that she was busy and engaged in the community, “doing incredible things that we we’re so proud of and I’m so excited for the community for,” “I was getting a sense that it wasn’t enough.”

“I felt like there was just this message coming that if I wasn’t willing to put myself out there, front and center, if I continued to serve from a position where it was about the organization or cause, I wasn’t being as effective in my service as I could be.”

“And,” Cate added, acknowledging that she is not, naturally, someone who enjoys attention, “that was scary for someone who really loves to be behind the scenes.”

The turning point, she said, was when she attended a church service and “that was point-by-point the sermon.

“I’m like, ‘OK, God, you have my attention. I have no idea what you’re doing. I have no idea what you’re up to. I’m not happy about it. But I will at least agree to listen.'”

The next morning, she said, she got a phone call asking her to consider running for office.

“I said, ‘Heck, no,'” adding that she was reluctant to “get into a divisive environment where there’s so much hatred, but I knew it was important.

“I took that step and it wasn’t easy. It was very scary.”

She said she realized that “there’s an incredible community of people that support and come alongside and and it’s been an amazing adventure. ”

She said she’s grown to love the local communities she’s been representing, “especially up in the Santiam Canyon.”

“It’s been a real honor to get to serve those communities that were so devastated after the wildfires and try to help them in their recovery process.”

Engaging with ‘Imbalance’

Cate urged her listeners to get involved in public affairs, describing what she called “imbalance” in Oregon politics as “really hard” and stating that “the more we see the most extremes of both sides being the ones that are engaging in the process, the more and more the majority of our society is silent.

“And that is not how our government structure is designed to operate efficiently, so I can best represent the needs of the majority of my constituents.

“If the majority is silent, you just hear from the most extreme, the most passionate, about subjects.”

She urged the audience to “engage in the process, as scary and intimidating as it can be, as uninviting as it can seem.”

She said her office can help constituents engage with government and connect them with resources they need to solve problems, even at the federal level, where her office can get “a prioritized response” from government agencies and congressional or U.S. Senate staffers.

She said that often other legislators or staffers will be more knowledgeable about an issue.

“I’m happy to have that meeting. But I’m probably still going to try and move in one of our members that that is their wheelhouse, they serve on those committees and these are issues that they can best help address.

“So if I pass people off to someone else, it’s never because I just don’t want to deal with you. It’s usually because I think somebody else will be better equipped to actually make progress on an issue that you care about.”

“So we can help navigate that process, even if it’s just relaying your request to somebody else,” she said, adding later that legislators aren’t necessarily better-trained or wiser or more experienced than the “layperson,” but “what is different is access to information.”

An advantage of being a legislator, she said, is being able to connect quickly with sources who might be able to provide critical information.

“The access is to being able to text someone like (Sheriff) Michelle (Duncan, who was in the luncheon audience) and would be like, ‘Hey, I’m on the floor right now. What can I say against this?’ and have that information provided to you, having access to all of the agency has that you can send questions and get answers back to you, having the resources of staff and legal counsel and various things.

“They’re all at your fingertips. We are not inherently more wise than anyone else. We just have more people that are helping provide us that information that makes this makes it seem like it’s going on but it really is that bigger team of all of our networks that make it all possible.”

Cate also urged audience members to get involved in lobbying and to pursue issues “you’re most passionate about, because we all need that little bit of passion to get us over the nerves.”

“If it’s business, if it’s healthcare, it’s agriculture – whatever it is, find what groups are lobbying those issues, and subscribe to their emails. Get on their listservs because they will help keep you informed.”

Redistricting

Cate outlined changes which have placed east Linn County in House District 11 and the 6th Senate District as of the coming year.

“If you live in Linn County, you will be in this district that I’m running for and so it’s confusing for people to not know who their representative is and how to contact people,” she said. “Who is that resource they should be going to? It is a lot to keep up on.”

She acknowledged that redistricting makes “approachability of engaging with your legislators” more complicated, but noted that the Oregon Legislature provides search tools to help constituents find their representatives.

Discussing the redistricting process, she noted that her family’s farm was, for the last 10 years, split between two House districts.

“So when I was elected (in 2020), my parents could vote for me but my brother and sister-in-law couldn’t, because the line went right between the houses.”

Speaking to the redistricting process, in which legislators determine where the lines will be drawn for the upcoming 10 years, Cate said, “It’s very difficult to actually say what’s fair, but why it does matter is you can basically stack the deck one way or the other,” adding that the party in power can “be stacking the deck to give you an edge instead of best representing the district.

“That is when the legislature is out of balance.”

“It does make it hard to not just have extreme agendas being being pushed as much as the true needs of the communities.

“I will say, regardless of what side of the aisle you are on, people who have served in the Legislature when it was in balance and when it wasn’t in balance will say that the sessions when it’s in balance provide the best legislation for the actual people, because there isn’t room anymore for extremism. There isn’t room anymore for agendas.”

Effects of COVID-19

Cate noted that, since she hasn’t served in the Legislature when it was fully open, initially due to COVID, she can’t really contrast life in the capitol now with what it was previous to 2020.

And, she added, seismic improvement construction in the capitol continues to have legislative activity “largely closed.”

She emphasized that citizens can get into the capitol, which is surrounded in part by construction fencing.

“I want to tell you that there is access; it’s you just have to hunt for it a little bit. It’s not readily apparent, but the main chunk of the building, the center part that is the original structure, is closed until, I think, 2025.”

Consequently, she said, officials are trying to get the Senate and House chambers ready to be opened for the upcoming session, which starts in January.

She noted that many of the Forum Lunch attendees had participated in online, virtual meetings and could relate to some of the challenges for legislators.

“The engagement of participation in the process is just different, Cate said.

“A lot of people don’t like to look at the screen; it doesn’t compute the same, it doesn’t feel the same, your brains don’t really absorb as much information and and lead to those thoughtful questions. Trying to raise your hand and get off me my theme is more of an ordeal than if you were in-person and you could just ask.

“And so I think a lot of of that we are seeing in the Legislature, where a lot of things just kind of passed that there would have been more conversation about, we would have we would have had more of the unintended consequences maybe pop through if there had been that in-person communication.”

She said those circumstances made it hard to make in-person connections that are critical to working together as legislators.

“Especially in an environment that is so out-of-balance, especially serving in a super-minority where our votes aren’t considered relevant,” she added, noting that with only 31 votes required to pass a law, the Democratic super-majority had 37.

“They don’t need my vote, right? I don’t need to be lobbied about an issue. They don’t have to try to bring me to that way of thinking as much.

“And so it’s already easy to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind. So when you’re trying really hard to make those friendships and try to be relevant, it’s hard in a virtual world, which I’m sure we can all relate to in some degree over the past couple of years.”

With turnover expected in this year’s legislature, where some 50% of the House districts are expected to be represented by new faces, Cate said, “we all are going to go back go our offices and basically work with strangers.”

She emphasized that she prefers to work “as a collective.”

“We know each other, we know where we’re coming from. And so you can see through their lens a little bit more and they can see through your lens, of why do you feel about an issue, of how you feel?”