PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — On a rainy Monday morning in September, state Sen. Brian Boquist is sitting in a darkened manufactured home that serves as his district office, his face aglow from the glare of a computer monitor.
He is a military man by training but now he’s teaching himself to be his own lawyer. From his rural Polk County home, he is putting in the first of many hours writing a legal brief. He’s advancing his fight against Senate President Peter Courtney, using the courtroom and self-taught law to make his case.
The open doors let the autumn morning breeze blow through as Boquist drank tea and typed away. Around him were stacks and binders of legal documents. Some were his. Others were research material, models to draw on.
Around the Capitol, he’s typically in cowboy boots, jeans, a mock turtleneck and worn sport jacket. This morning, he’s in cargo pants, a denim shirt and a black fleece emblazoned with a patch declaring “sh*t creek survivor.”
With the slightest encouragement, he turned in his chair and began listing off what he sees as the evidence of corruption in the Legislature’s top ranks.
Boquist, a retired Army Special Forces officer from Dallas, is a gadfly in Oregon politics. Not long ago he was known as a reliable collaborator with Democrats.
Sen. Ginny Burdick, the Senate Democrats’ leader, called Boquist one of the sharpest policy minds in the Capitol. She also said there were two sides to him, and the dark side does and says things she considers unacceptable.
That collaboration over the past year gave way to his focus on the malfeasance he sees in the Legislature. And he’s been none too restrained in making his points. The burn-it-to-the-ground mentality has made him a cult hero among some, while others consider him deranged. Boquist sees himself as a needed force to push a corrupt establishment back on track.
For Boquist, the prime culprit is Courtney, his longtime friend.
Over the summer, Boquist twice sued Courtney over access to public records. He claimed Courtney covered up sexual harassment allegations and stood on the Senate floor to tell Courtney that hell was personally coming to visit him. Boquist banned the Senate president and his staff from his third-floor Capitol office.
In both lawsuits, Boquist is representing himself.
His $2,600 monthly legislative pay won’t buy a lawyer’s services, Boquist said, so he’s teaching himself. Through the summer, he spent his free time in the double-wide he converted to an office, next to his home on a 17-acre farm outside Dallas.
To craft his legal filings for state court, he uses templates he finds on the internet and advice from the Oregon State Bar website. He also reads legal documents to pick up on the language and style of writing.
However, Boquist’s legal filings are unmistakably his own. The sentences reflect his rambling, inciting tone. He favors analogies and often uses a conspiratorial tone, as if he’s accusing others of being naive to the rampant corruption all around.
He recently filed a 164-page legal response that he said took more than 120 hours to craft.
Boquist said he doesn’t enjoy the work, though he clearly relishes the combat. His eyes light up when he talks about the lawsuits. He’s trying to show the public that the system can work — you don’t need money or experience to hold powerful people in check. Time and motivation serve well, he said.
Boquist relies on military analogies when he talks about his lawsuits and crusades as a state senator. He spent 34 years in the military, sometimes fighting guerrilla wars. He retired Aug. 20 as lieutenant colonel.
He takes a military approach to politics because it’s ingrained in him. Campaigning, he said, is guerrilla war. “Anything you do for four decades changes you,” Boquist said.
It’s something he and his more liberal friend, state Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, have in common. Evans said they often sat in Boquist’s office and talked about the military. The two served in many of the same combat zones, though at different times.
Evans has known Boquist for about 30 years. For decades, Evans said, Boquist vowed to uphold the values of the military. Evans said Boquist struggles with the deceit and trickery in politics, which causes him to lash out.
But he said Boquist is far more complicated than most give him credit for. “I believe that Brian Boquist is a good man who tries to serve well,” Evans said. “Anybody who believes he’s the caricature that some want to spread is a fool. He’s bright.”
A ‘black ops’ side to him
Boquist was raised in Tillamook with two biological brothers and an adopted brother. He lived on a dairy farm across the street from the Tillamook Cheese factory.
Keeping after the 60 cows taught him a work ethic, but he yearned for more. The military was his escape. “I know that I didn’t want to milk cows in Tillamook,” he said.
After four years of service, he got out, but later joined the reserves to pay for school. He was tapped to become an officer, and got a master’s degree in administration. That opened up opportunities in the military, and he was making good money.
In comparison, his political battles seem trivial.
Boquist said he first became interested in federal politics. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1996, then lost two U.S. House races before being approached by two timber lobbyists who pushed him to run for the Oregon House in 2004. He won two terms before getting elected to the Senate in 2008.
He doesn’t enjoy politics beyond serving his constituents. Throughout his career he has been more comfortable as a lone wolf. When asked who he is close to, he scoffed.
He’s also a bit of a luddite: he favors an AOL email account and refuses to use a cellphone, though that is largely because he doesn’t want his information tracked.
Burdick said people tease him for being a “tin hat” guy. “There is that mysterious, black ops side to him,” she said.
Boquist does have a small group of senators from both parties that he’s friendly with. There was a day when that circle included Courtney. They used to meet weekly for coffee. Boquist said they would discuss how to break down political walls. When Courtney considered stepping down as Senate president last year, Boquist said he convinced him otherwise, something confirmed by others in the Capitol.
But that changed on Aug. 17, 2018. Boquist was at a meeting in Portland with Courtney, some of his staff and other lawmakers to discuss sexual harassment allegations at the Capitol. Boquist declined to discuss the details, other than to say it was clear Courtney and his staff were trying to cover up the allegations.
“What I think happened is I think Brian Boquist recognized that some people hadn’t been treated right,” Evans said.
Meeting in church
Evans said Boquist at first tried to work within the system, but found it ineffective. So he took an “asymmetrical” warfare approach, Evans said. Boquist began asking questions, and soon lawmakers and staff from both parties were coming by his office to secretly share other information about workplace harassment, he said. He decided to hold Courtney accountable. He said he thought through each move in what ensued — tactical is the word he used.
Late in the session, Boquist lit into Courtney during a Senate session. Boquist felt Courtney and his staff had been abusing their power. In his court filings, Boquist contends Courtney has lost his soul.
Courtney declined to comment for this story, and other legislative employees who didn’t want to be identified speaking about private legislative matters characterized Boquist bluntly as insane.
Such views are no surprise to the senator. “The famous term is ‘left the reservation,'” he said.
Boquist said he used his volubility to keep the pressure on Courtney and others to address the harassment. After verbal prodding didn’t work, he turned to legal tools.
On Thursday, Sept. 5, Marion County Circuit Judge Donald Abar advised Boquist of the benefits of a lawyer before explaining he should be suing the state, not Courtney. Boquist says he’d like a lawyer but can’t afford one. “Notice I am not sitting in a palatial palace on the river,” Boquist said later, gesturing to the three-bedroom home where he and his wife raised six children.
Courtney is being defended by Andrew Hallman of the state Justice Department.
Courtney didn’t appear at the most recent court hearing, but he and Boquist still encounter each other weekly at church.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Boquist and Courtney filed into St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in downtown Salem. By habit, Courtney and his wife, Margie, took a seat on the left. Boquist and his wife Peggy and their daughter sat six rows back and on the right side. The senators didn’t acknowledge each other.
A ‘shocking’ gun fight
The tumultuous final weeks of the 2019 Legislature had put a national spotlight on Boquist. His comments were printed on T-shirts and brought Fox News and CNN to his doorstep.
Boquist is the only lawmaker required to give officials 12-hour notice before entering the Capitol so that additional state police troopers can be present.
But those who have worked with Boquist speak well of him. He’s more welcoming to the press than just about any lawmaker in the state. He routinely shares with reporters internal emails meant only for lawmakers.
Burdick said she mostly finds him pleasant. They worked closely in 2017 on a law to allow a judge to take a gun away from people deemed dangerous. Boquist signed on after his stepson, a U.S. Navy veteran, died from a self-inflicted gunshot.
Boquist, a staunch Second Amendment supporter, was pressured by the pro-gun community to change course. “He was aware of the political issues concerning his caucus, but he never wavered in terms of making it weaker for political reasons,” Burdick said. “He just seriously wanted something that would work. And he had something I don’t have, which is credibility with the National Rifle Association.”
The Oregon Firearms Federation strongly opposed the legislation, focusing on Boquist and his wife. “It was reprehensible. It was so offensive,” Burdick said. “The abusive phone calls, the abusive emails. It was just shocking.”
Burdick said Boquist never complained.
While Burdick applauds Boquist for helping lead to law that saves lives, she acknowledges his fiery side. “It’s real, and it’s concerning. It’s almost like he’s two different people,” she said.
Boquist has demonstrated an unwillingness to follow orders from anyone, whether it’s political leaders, the majority or his own party. He’s helped Democrats pass progressive policies. He revels in the tense political moments, often using them as an opportunity to further disrupt Oregon politics.
His constituents have repeatedly backed his independence. He’s won his three Senate races by at least 20% in a district where Republicans have just a slight edge in voter registration over Democrats.
He said he wants to continue fighting for the people of his district. To that end, he said he’s done a good job, though mostly deflects when asked to more deeply assess his career.
“I have no ego,” he said. “I don’t expect to have any legacy.”
Reporter Aubrey Wieber: email@example.com or 503-375-1251. He is with the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of the Pamplin Media Group, EO Media Group, and Salem Reporter.