(Re)Drawing the Line

Rep. Chris Garrett ’96 threads his way through the labyrinth of the Oregon State Capitol.

By Romel Hernandez | June 1, 2012

It’s raining in Salem, and the March drizzle has darkened the marble of the Oregon State Capitol to a dreary shade of gray. But the third-floor office of Rep. Chris Garrett is positively aglow with energy as constituents, staffers, and lobbyists clamor for a few moments with the second-term Democrat. One visitor frets about funding cuts to a pet project. Another seeks help hammering out a compromise on a controversial bill. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici calls on his cell phone. A newspaper reporter wants an interview.

Through it all, Garrett exudes an effortless calm. He greets everyone cordially, switches seamlessly from education to economics to small talk. After a while, you notice that he listens more than he speaks, and when he does speak, it’s usually to pose a question.

At first glance, the lanky, red-haired lawyer in the trig suit might appear more temperamentally suited for a position in academia. (The four-volume Papers of John Marshall holds a place of pride on his office bookshelf.) But Garrett has thrived in the hurly-burly of politics and is considered a rising star in Oregon’s Democratic Party.

“I love being part of the process, the give and take,” he reflects later. “I think of politics as problem solving, and I believe my value is working behind the scenes to bring people together.”

Garrett grew up in Portland, the son of two music teachers. His father taught organ at Lewis & Clark. His mother, Bonnie Garrett [director, applied music 1988–2010] taught piano and harpsichord and directed the private music program at Reed for decades. (Garrett still dabbles with piano, but says he is far from proficient.) He spent his freshman year at Willamette University in Salem, but transferred to Reed driven by a desire for “something different” and drawn by the school’s reputation for intellectual rigor. “Reed was a place where you could be anything you wanted, and that atmosphere of openness and nonconformity was really attractive.”

A summer internship at the ACLU whetted his interest in politics and provided fodder for his political science thesis on the ballot measure process in Oregon.

Initially, his interest in politics was primarily intellectual. But after graduating, he volunteered as the campaign manager for Richard Devlin, a Democrat running for a seat in the Oregon House. (Devlin is now the senate majority leader.)

Garrett earned a law degree from the University of Chicago and joined the Portland law firm of Perkins Coie in 2002, but took a leave of absence to work as an aide for the powerful president of the Oregon Senate, Peter Courtney (D-Salem). Known for his political savvy, Courtney has served as Garrett’s mentor even though their personalities are vastly different—Courtney garrulous and mercurial, Garrett cool and composed. “Peter’s a statesman,” Garrett says. “And that’s what I aspire to be—not so much a politician as a statesman.”

Garrett’s legal acumen coupled with his gregarious nature make him a force to be reckoned with in the state capitol, Courtney says. “This is a business full of egos and difficult personalities, but this young man understands how to get along with everybody,” he notes.

Garrett won handily when he ran for election in 2008 in House District 38, which includes Lake Oswego and parts of Southwest Portland. His district is solidly Democratic, but he is no ideologue.

“Some people think ‘compromise’ is a dirty word. I think compromise is a beautiful thing in a democratic society,” he says. “If you believe in progress, you have to compromise. . . . Most things are negotiable.”

Politically, it is a good time to be a pragmatist. After years of intense squabbling between Republicans and Democrats, a delicate atmosphere of bipartisanship has settled over the Oregon Legislature. The House even has cospeakers, a Democrat and a Republican, for the first time in its history. Garrett prides himself on making deals across the aisle, and is often sought out by Democratic leaders for sensitive negotiations because he is viewed as someone who works well with Republicans.

Rep. Andy Olson (R-Albany) praises Garrett as someone who “clearly supports his own values and his own party, but believes very strongly in common-sense solutions.” On a personal note, Olson says Garrett is someone he can trust: “You don’t find these types of relationships too often in political environments, especially when you have some opposite views.”

Last session Garrett was tapped for the politically charged task of redistricting—specifically, cochairing the committee redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries to account for population shifts.

For decades, Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol had been at loggerheads over redistricting, with little to show for their trouble but lawsuits and bitterness. Nonetheless, Courtney counseled Garrett to take it on. “It’s a dangerous mission, a mission most people don’t come back from,” Courtney says. “I told him he needed to go for it, but I’m not sure that’s what he wanted to hear.”

It proved to be a daunting challenge. Garrett recalls a low point during the negotiations when the lawmakers asked themselves if they wanted to give up. “We all answered that we wanted to go forward and keep trying,” he says. “We wanted to get it done, something people didn’t think could get done.”

That decision seemed to give them new momentum. Within a few weeks, a new state redistricting plan passed with strong bipartisan support. The landmark legislation drew its share of criticism, but the critics seemed equally divided between the parties.

Courtney says Garrett’s leadership was extraordinary throughout. “It got very, very tough,” Courtney says. “But he never lost his cool, he never lost hope. He just counter-proposed, counter-proposed, counter-proposed, and never gave up.”

Quizzed about his future, Garrett demurs, saying he is happy in his job, but does not rule out a run for higher office someday. Right now, he and his wife, Lauren Rhoades Garrett, are focused on their first child, Graham, who arrived in April.

But read what you will into the framed portrait of one of his political idols, Robert F. Kennedy, that dominates his office wall. The photograph shows a contemplative Kennedy walking with his hands in his pockets alongside his dog at the Baker City Airport on a campaign stop in Oregon during his 1968 bid for the presidency. “He’s an example of someone whose own views of politics changed over time,” willing to break with party orthodoxy when it was the right thing to do, Garrett said. “You don’t see that in a lot of politicians.”

An aide pokes his head into the office reminding him of a floor vote he needs to get to—now. Garrett reaches for his coat and dashes out the door, calling out as he bounds for the stairs, “I’ve got 28 seconds—talk to you later!”

Tags: Alumni, Awards & Achievements, Life Beyond Reed, Service