Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney is taking a medical leave of absence from the Legislature at a time when he’s under increasing scrutiny for how he handled claims of sexual harassment.
Courtney, 75, is the state’s longest-serving Senate president. In a letter to his fellow senators on Tuesday, he said he will be gone for 10 days.
“I look forward to returning to the Senate in full health and continuing our work together this session,” he wrote.
In the past few days, the Senate Democrats have met behind closed doors to discuss the future of their caucus and ongoing internal conflicts.
Some Democrats are pushing for a leadership change and argue that with Courtney’s leadership real cultural change will be difficult. There is also increasing pressure from some Democrats who worry that Courtney’s leadership could derail an ambitious legislative agenda.
On Monday, Democratic Party chair Jeanne Atkins sent a letter to Senate Democrats urging them to “take whatever steps are necessary” to show they are committed to eradicating harassment at the state Capitol. Courtney was absent for medical reasons Monday.
Courtney’s allies, however, have been vocal as well, writing opinion pieces supporting him and circulating letters to try and garner support.
Betsy Imholt, Courtney’s chief of staff, said his doctor has been asking Courtney to take a break for a while. Courtney has struggled with eye issues; he has a thyroid eye disease and detached retina, Imholt said.
The departure in the midst of a legislative session is a rare one for the Salem Democrat, an institution at the state Capitol.
“I’m shocked he’s doing this for himself,” Imholt said. “This isn’t something he would normally do.”
Later, Imholt added: “Clearly he is under a lot of pressure and clearly that is contributing to his health issues. There’s no doubt.
In a floor speech, Courtney said recent workplace training taught him how to interact with people in a more respectful manner:
“I myself found the training very helpful,” he said. “And I even started to implement it in my office in terms of saying things like ‘hello,’ when I come in the morning, and ‘goodbye’ when I leave.”
The letter from Atkins addresses those comments.
“It is with alarm and confusion that (grassroots Democrats) hear it reported that new commitments to politely greeting staff are described as significant change,” she wrote. “They understand that experiences vary among women in the Capitol but are frustrated to hear the accounts of any women being disputed or dismissed.”
Imholt, who started her career as an intern working for Courtney in 1992, said greetings are actually an important part of a respectful workplace culture.
“Of course it’s not the only thing or the most egregious thing but it’s important … The women in his office, by the way we are all women, said this is something that we asked of him. Something we asked him to change for us and it was something he felt vulnerable enough to share and now people are criticizing him for that and I don’t think that’s cool, to be honest with you,” Imholt said.
Legislative leaders sent messages of support for Courtney on Tuesday.
House Speaker Tina Kotek tweeted, “I wish Senate President Courtney all the best during his leave of absence. His health should be his top priority and I hope this leave gives him the time to recover. I look forward to him returning to his leadership role in the Capitol.”
House Republicans said they wish Courtney a “speedy recovery.”
Courtney is expected back on March 18.