Montana Viewpoint: Oregon legislators’ flight incites vigilantes across the West

Jim Elliott

An inflammatory statement by an Oregon state senator has encouraged a militia organization’s members to insert themselves in a situation where they are neither needed nor wanted.

This is of importance to Montanans because a similar militia activity in Oregon in 2016 elicited the sympathies of at least one prominent Montana elected official.

Here’s the background. A bill having to do with climate change has been sent to the Oregon Senate for a vote. It is assured of passage because there are enough supporters — all Democrats — to pass it. It is not popular, to say the least, with Senate Republicans, who are in a minority in that body.

In order to prevent a vote on the bill, they have not come to work, which leaves the Senate without enough members present to make up a quorum — the number of senators who must be present before any official business can begin.

Under Oregon Senate Rules, attendance at a Senate session is mandatory unless excused by the Senate president. In the absence of a quorum, one of two ways to compel a member’s presence is for members making up less than a quorum to meet and adjourn from day to day “and compel the attendance of absent members.”

Absent senators can be apprehended by law enforcement and delivered to the Senate chamber, and that is now the case in Oregon where the absent members have left the state in order to be out of the jurisdiction of state law enforcement personnel. A similar incident, but by Democrats, occurred in Wisconsin in 2011.

However, one state senator has advised law enforcement looking for him to “send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon.”

After that statement, and presumably because of it, the leader of an Oregon militia group vowed “to provide security, transportation and refuge for those senators in need … doing whatever it takes to keep these senators safe.”

This was an offer which the Republican senators publicly refused. This same militia group also participated in the armed takeover of a federal wildlife preserve in Eastern Oregon in 2016. There, the rationale for taking over the refuge was in support of a father and son convicted of destroying federal property, who also rejected the support. But the militia came anyway and, with the Bundy brothers, subjected the citizens of Harney County, Oregon, to over 40 days of tension and fear, not to mention loss of business.

 The militia groups planned a demonstration at the Oregon Capitol on Saturday, and following the advice of law enforcement personnel that there was a “credible threat” to Senate members, the Senate did not meet that day; nor did the militia show up.

Leaving aside the legitimacy or illegitimacy of militia organizations, everyone is pretty much within their rights except for the senator who thumbed his nose at the laws he has sworn to uphold by threatening violence against those duty bound to deliver him to the Senate chamber (where he would presumably be held prisoner at his desk until a quorum was reached). 

He, more than any mere citizen, has an obligation to the public to embrace the laws of the state, no matter how strongly he may disagree with them. But more importantly, by making his statement he provided an excuse and a reason for the members of the militia to enter the fray, ostensibly on the senator’s behalf.

Militia insert themselves in situations that lend themselves to their rhetoric by coming to the rescue of those who neither wish nor require rescue. In Sanders County, Montana in the late 1980s, militia members and white separatists responded to a tax increase by holding protest meetings where pamphlets on “mud people” and the “Jewish Occupied Government” were prominently displayed. 

There is enough political tension in America today without elected officials threatening violence and flaunting the laws they have sworn to uphold, thereby providing a stage upon which vigilantes may strut and posture to the detriment of American citizens and the rule of law.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.