New Oregon House Majority Leader Ben Bowman Motivated by Solving Problems

Ten years after he started working in the Oregon House Majority Office as his first full-time job after graduating college, Ben Bowman will lead the Democratic caucus.

The freshman representative from Tigard was elected by Democratic colleagues during a closed-door meeting last week, beating out fellow Reps. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, and Andrea Valderrama, D-Portland. Eugene Rep. Julie Fahey, the former majority leader, was elected speaker of the House on the final day of the legislative session.

Bowman has wanted to work in politics his whole adult life, starting with knocking doors and calling voters for former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s 2010 campaign. He continued working on campaigns and for the Legislature while earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oregon.

“What motivates me the most is solving problems,” Bowman told the Capital Chronicle. “That’s why I love working in politics. That’s why I love serving as a legislator, because it’s a place where you can actually solve big important problems in a collaborative way.”

At 32, Bowman is the second-youngest member of the state House, older only than 29-year-old Gresham Democrat Ricki Ruiz. The two are among a dozen millennials in the House.

Despite his relative youth, Bowman noted he has more experience in the Capitol than most other legislators. He worked for current U.S. Rep. Val Hoyle while she was the House majority leader and then served as chief of staff for former Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard.

Bowman holds a master’s degree in education policy from Stanford and worked for more than two years at the Oregon Department of Education. He served one year as chair of the Tigard-Tualatin School Board and now works for the Gladstone School District as an administrator focused on support for students and their families.

Along with college classmate Alex Titus, a former Trump administration official, Bowman launched the political podcast the Oregon Bridge and the accompanying Oregon360 Media newsletter and Substack site in 2021. Reagan Knopp, the son and chief of staff of Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, took over for Titus as the podcast’s Republican voice in 2022 and soon developed an unlikely friendship with Bowman. Their podcast and weekly newsletter have been on an indefinite hiatus since early this year because of time constraints, something Bowman joked is devastating for “dozens” of listeners.

“As a friend I’m really excited for him and as a political operative, I’m obviously disappointed that Democrats picked such a talented majority leader,” Knopp said.

A top priority

Bowman told the Capital Chronicle his first priority as majority leader is making sure he maintains strong relationships with the other 34 members of the Democratic caucus.

“It’s my job to understand what they’re working on, what their priorities are, what’s happening in their districts, and make sure that they have all the support they need to be successful,” he said.

Beyond that, he hopes to continue a culture set by Fahey, former House Speaker Dan Rayfield and former and current House Minority leaders Vikki Breese-Iverson and Jeff Helfrich that focused on open communication. The House largely avoided the strife that plagued the Oregon Senate during the past couple legislative sessions and culminated in a six-week-long Senate Republican walkout last year.

Bowman said Helfrich, R-Hood River, was one of the first people to call him after his election as majority leader. Bowman is friends with him and with other Republican lawmakers: A bipartisan group of legislators would go out to dinner together every week or two during the 2023 session. Personally, he tries to find a Republican to sign on to every one of his bills as a chief sponsor.

“I think it works when you’re collaborative and you listen and you provide space,” Bowman said. “It doesn’t mean you compromise on Democratic values ever. But it does mean that you provide an opportunity for everyone to weigh in and participate in the process.”

Bowman’s counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Kate Lieber of Beaverton, praised him as a “proven champion” in a statement.

“I am so excited to welcome him as the new House Majority Leader. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I know he will be a force for good as we take on major priorities like housing and homelessness, the drug crisis, affordability and fixing our roads and bridges,” Lieber said.

Bowman is gay and shares a dog with his partner, Juan. He has spoken openly in committees and on the House floor about his experience growing up as a closeted teenager, including the shame and embarrassment he felt about his identity while he listened to politicians argue about whether gay people should be allowed to marry.

Workplace, health care bills

He sponsored an unsuccessful bill in the 2023 session to prohibit government workplaces from banning employees’ displays of “symbols of inclusion,” such as Pride flags or stickers, after school districts tried to crack down on teachers showing support for LGBTQ+ students and the Black Lives Matter movement. He also introduced a bill that would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in school board elections.

This session, Bowman grappled with high-priced health care lobbyists as he pushed a bill to stop private equity firms from controlling medical practices, something analysts say leads to higher costs and worse care for patients. It looked like it was going to pass after approval in the House and two Senate committees but Republican delaying tactics killed the bill on the final day of the legislative session, and Bowman plans to bring it back next year.

He said caucus priorities will result from the elected representatives and the feedback they hear from voters during campaign season. Last cycle, housing and homelessness were the top issues for most legislators, candidates and voters, and the 2023 and 2024 legislative sessions overwhelmingly focused on housing and addiction, including allocating more than $1.5 billion in new funding for housing and homelessness over those two sessions.

“I think we’ll learn from hearing from voters what is on top of mind,” Bowman said. “For sure we’re going to want to monitor implementation of some of the big concepts we’ve passed in recent years and make sure that they’re operating effectively, making sure that the outcomes that we intended are being produced. But I’m also sure that there will be other new items that we’ll want to tackle.”

As caucus leader, he’ll work closely with House Democrats’ campaign arm, Future PAC, and its strategists as Democrats try to maintain and potentially expand their 10-seat majority in the state House during the November elections. Republicans hope to pick off a trio of first-term Democrats who narrowly won their 2022 elections, while Democrats are eying vulnerable Republicans in swing districts in the Columbia River Gorge, along the coast and in the mid-Willamette Valley.

“The first priority is always protecting the incredible candidates, incredible legislators we already have, but I know there are some seats right now that Joe Biden won in the 2020 election that are currently held by Republicans, so I think there are opportunities for Democrats to be competitive across the state,” Bowman said.

by Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

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