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At home in Oregon’s House

First term Rep. Gail Whitsett knows her way around the Capitol

by DEVAN SCHWARTZ , Herald and News 2/21/13

Editor’s note: Herald and News reporter Devan Schwartz is visiting our state representatives at the Capitol this week to give readers a look at the legislative process.

< H&N photo by Devan Schwartz. At Tuesday’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting in Salem, Rep. Gail Whitsett asked questions about how a proposed bill on outdoor recreational guiding would impact Klamath County’s birders.

SALEM — The adjustment from two-term chief of staff for her husband, a state senator, to state representative cannot be an easy one, even if Gail Whitsett makes it look easy.

Rep. Whitsett, R-Dist. 56, is teaching her staff to do things how she did them herself. (She was chief of staff for Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Dist. 28). The hardest part of her new job, Whitsett said, is the lobbyists chasing her down the House wing of the Capitol building. So, she tells staffers to focus on local folks from her district.

Since constituents come from great distances, some as far as Lakeview (more than 300 miles), her staff schedules them to meet with Whitsett first — whether they represent a business, a citizen group or a family.

“There are less of us to represent Eastern Oregon,” Whitsett said in a recent interview in her Salem office. “It ends up feeling like a lot of people are depending on us to do the right thing for them.”

This is the case with committees, where bills are discussed and then brought to the House floor for full debates and votes.

Usually, committees are heavier on politicians from west of the Cascades, where the state’s highest population density is found.

On the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Whitsett said she represents two thirds of Oregon’s land mass as the only Eastern Oregon representative.

“Everywhere else has rainfall and most of the water they need,” she said. “I have to think how legislation will affect us because no one else is thinking about it.”

Other divides have shown on subsidies and investments in solar, and the possibility of opening exclusive farm use lands for solar. Whitsett said it’s important not to change land use rules just because people like the idea of solar energy.

Plus, Whitsett said she is interested in how geothermal, an important natural resource in Klamath and Lake counties, can be further brought to the fore in her committees.

But Whitsett has also learned to rely on her colleagues for their areas of expertise. For example, she’d never heard about derelict ships being abandoned on the Oregon coast, and relied on the experience of her coastal colleagues.

Overall, Whitsett said she is grateful for the fairness of House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Dist 44, whose job it is to make committee appointments.

Compared to the Senate and its harder-line leadership of Peter Courtney, D-Dist. 11, Whitsett feels like she’s serving in the people’s chamber in the Oregon House of Representatives.

“So far it has been very genial on the House floor,” Whitsett said.






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