© 2024 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Republican Oregon lawmaker Charlie Conrad’s support of controversial bill reflects his ‘middle ground’ beliefs

Standing wearing a suit and holding a piece of paper with both hands, Oregon Rep. Charlie Conrad makes a speech in the Oregon House of Representatives.
Courtesy Rep. Charlie Conrad
Charlie Conrad is a first-term Republican state lawmaker representing House District 12, which covers eastern Lane County. He is shown in this photo making a speech in the Oregon House of Representatives in Salem on March 30, 2023.

Last month, Oregon Rep. Charlie Conrad was the sole Republican state lawmaker to vote in favor of House Bill 2002, which would further protect access to abortion and expand insurance coverage for gender-affirming care. It would also allow minors to obtain abortions and teens 15 years and older to receive gender-affirming care without parental consent. The bill is one of two cited by Republican and Independent state leaders as the reason they staged a walkout a month ago, effectively grinding Senate business to a halt.

The Capital Chronicle earlier reported on why Conrad shifted his stance from opposing to supporting HB 2002. The first-term lawmaker recently spoke with “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller about HB 2002, which he initially voted against in April as a member of the House Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee.

Conrad also spoke about being a pro-choice Republican lawmaker representing a politically diverse district in eastern Lane County, and how extreme partisanship hinders the ability to make good policies, irrespective of party affiliation. He said he changed his vote after seeking out more information about how gender-affirming care decisions are made by medical professionals regarding 15- to 18-year-olds who may not have parental support.

The following are highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How sleepless nights caused Conrad to reconsider his first vote in opposition to HB 2002:

The comments that I made when I voted against it in committee were very specific to the gender-affirming care side of it. I am not transgender. I don’t have any close friends or family that have gone through that process. And there was some uncertainty in my mind about what that process really looks like. And after that vote, I didn’t sleep well for a while because I was uncertain if that was the right decision or not.

So based off of that, I continued looking into that, researching it, thinking about it, talking to people about it to see if … my vote was correct, or if I should change my vote.

Afterwards, I sought out people that I could trust their confidence, given the path that I was going down of, possibly, being a Republican. I didn’t campaign on being pro-choice, but I made it known that I was pro-choice during my campaign time. And one of the things that is really important to me is not to be a hypocrite. And if I was going to vote no on this bill, I wanted to have a solid foundation for that no. And if I was going to vote yes, I want to have a solid foundation of why I’m voting yes on that bill.

In order to come to peace with my vote, and ultimately what I would choose to do on the floor given that it is a very partisan bill as, I think, we all understand, I wanted to be confident with my vote one way or the other. And that I could articulate it and explain it knowing that however I voted, there are going to be people that weren’t happy.

The outset of my district is Eastern Lane County. But I also have a portion of the south hills of Eugene. There were voters in my entire district that were contacting me beforehand, voicing support and opposition to the bill. And they’ve done that afterwards as well. So I knew I needed to be on solid ground with whatever my vote was going to be.

Why researching gender-affirming care helped Conrad change his mind:

One of the key things for me was getting that better understanding of the process that a person goes through when they’re having gender dysphoria, whether it’s truly diagnosed as gender dysphoria or whether there are some other issues going on. And we’re talking juveniles at this point in time — folks that are under 18 and probably under 15 — that need some assistance. It’s a process. There is a spectrum of care beginning at things that are reversible: changing your pronouns, dressing differently, those are things that are reversible. Then there is a continuum of care that slowly progresses from that depending on what a person needs to feel comfortable and to resolve the issues that they’re having. A lot of that comes down to the mental health and behavioral health side of things, and getting the care that they need.

In combining that with the WPATH-8 standards — and these are the standards of care that practitioners follow — it is talking about kids, juveniles, that have the maturity to make the decision, that there’s been persistent dysphoria — so, something that’s been going on for a while … and that all other mental health or behavioral health issues have been resolved and taken care of. Those things right there, combined with a multidisciplinary team, combined with having a support system, whether it’s family or friends, relatives, whoever it might be to help people progress through that so that … they can be happy, that they can enjoy their life and they get the support and help that they need.

Because those things resonate with what I did as a police officer for 14 years. I’ve talked to many people that had issues, that had concerns, that had family disruptions, and that weren’t getting along with parents.

Parental consent is one of the issues that has come up in opposition for this bill. And for me, parental consent, it begins in the involvement of parents when a child is born. And it’s developing that relationship, continuing to nurture that relationship, so that as a child progresses through their various stages, that they know that the parents are there to support them. That they know they can reach out to them and contact them and get that support. But given that families are comprised of people, that doesn’t always work out for whatever reason.

Sometimes there are various stages or various stressors in families that juveniles run away, that parents kick their kids out, that they have disruptions. And it’s during those times that very poor decisions can be made, that there are things that can happen. And this goes to the abortion and the health care and the reproductive health care side as well, that I know because I’ve been to many of these calls, that sometimes the kids run to their best friend’s house and they rely on the parent of their best friend to help them out. This bill will allow the parent of a best friend to help them out to ensure that they’re getting the health care that they need when they need it while they work out those family stresses.

Conrad gave House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson notice beforehand that he would vote in favor of HB 2002. He also chose to write a three-page letter explaining his support for it instead of making a speech on the House floor:

I wanted to be courteous, because I knew that my caucus — the other folks in the party — were going to be speaking in opposition and that it was going to be fervent opposition. I wanted to be courteous and enable them to have the floor to be able to have that discussion without me arguing against them. I wanted to hear what they had to say, and I didn’t want to detract from what they had to say. So, I wanted to be courteous and polite and give them that opportunity … knowing full well that I would have the letter written and it would be submitted so anybody that wanted to see why, they would be able to go and look at that.

Some constituents took to social media to let Conrad know they weren’t happy with his vote. That feedback helps remind him of the stakes involved with being a lawmaker:

One of the quotes that I often recite in my head, and I think about particularly in this position, it’s always been attributed to Stalin. It’s “the death of a soldier is a tragedy. The death of a million soldiers is a statistic.” That’s important to me because it talks about the lens and the scope. So, if we are passing legislation statewide, it’s important to remember that it impacts people’s lives. And when I get those emails, it helps me remember that the decisions I make actually affect people’s lives, that they have ideas, they have thoughts, and to try and keep those two things in perspective so that I can hopefully make better decisions. And with my district being such a wide constituency based wide on the political spectrum, there are very few decisions that I will make that will make everybody happy. But it’s important for me to read those and to know that, and when people put forward solid arguments one way or the other, to take that into account and try to learn from that and pay attention to those.

Why Conrad thinks ‘hyperpartisanship’ is preventing ‘the middle ground’ from being heard:

It is the hyperpartisanship, and the news and the media ... not even just looking at Oregon, but looking nationwide, it is always one side or the other. It’s either this or it’s that, and I think what has been lost, it’s the middle ground. Most of us — and this is what I found out talking to people on the campaign trail, and in my personal life as well when I talk to people — we’re all pretty complex. Most of us might side with one side or the other on 80% of the issues, but the other 20%, we might have a little different perspective that might not be strictly party-line. And everything right now, it’s all one or the other. It’s that middle ground and the voices in the middle that aren’t being heard.

And that’s really one of the reasons why I ended up running and I decided to run is because that’s who I am. I’m in that middle group. I’ve always been a registered Republican, but given some of my voting record now, it’s clear that I’m not 100% party-line.

There are some good policies out there that really help people, and that’s where I want to focus on, is really helping people and passing the good policies, and not necessarily going down just the party-line side of things. And it’s unfortunate that’s the case. I think some of what that does is it chills good, solid discussion about the pros and cons of policies and where we want to go as a state.

This story was originally published by Sheraz Sadiq of OPB.

You make stories like this possible.

The biggest portion of Boise State Public Radio's funding comes from readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

Your donation today helps make our local reporting free for our entire community.