In her autobiography, “Up the Capital Steps: A Woman’s March to the Governorship,” Barbara Roberts writes of a dynamic time in Oregon’s history.
And if you are lucky, she notes, “you get to make a little history as well.”
For Roberts, whose career is pressed into countless books on Oregon politics, luck had little to do with it.
In 1990, Roberts was elected the first woman governor of Oregon, becoming at the time one of only 10 women to achieve the title nationwide. She took office on the heels of a national recession, when Oregon’s timber industry was in revolt over the Northern spotted owl, and when the notion of physician-assisted suicide was considered a topic unsuitable for public debate.
Before she left office in 1994, she had raised the bar on human rights and environmental preservation, as well as changing how government gets done in Salem – the latter earning her accolades from Financial World Magazine. She fought for gay rights and responsible land-use policies, and against Measure 5, the controversial property tax cap that remains in effect today. And we speak today of the Oregon Housing Trust and the Oregon Health Plan because of Roberts’ work to establish a lasting safety net for the most vulnerable Oregonians.
She did so while raising a child with autism and tending to her husband in the final years of his life. Oregon’s landmark Death with Dignity Act was borne from her husband Frank Robert’s struggle as a state legislator to give terminally ill Oregonians the power to choose to end their life on their own terms. He died of cancer in 1993, before the Death with Dignity Act was passed by Oregon voters in November 1994.
RELATED: Roberts reflects on 20 years of defending death with dignity
After leaving the governor’s office, Roberts served as the director of the state and local government executive programs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and as a senior fellow at the Harvard Women and Public Policy Program. She later served as the associate director of leadership with the Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government, before retiring in 2005.
On Dec. 7, Roberts will celebrate her 80th birthday in a benefit for Compassion and Choices, the nation’s largest nonprofit focusing on end-of-life consultation and education. Tickets are available through Eventbrite.com.
“I have never been intimidated by adversity and I have never backed away from a challenge,” she said on the night she was elected governor in 1990. The words hold true a quarter of a century later, as Roberts continues to travel and speak as a senior statesman on issues of progressive politics, end-of-life choices and empowering women in government, an issue particularly important to the former governor as we discuss the results of the presidential election.
Barbara Roberts: It’s very disappointing to me. I know what it means to be the first woman holding a major office as the first woman governor of this state. I’m very excited about our second woman governor being elected by such great numbers on Tuesday, and then to watch the surprising and disappointing outcome on the presidents’ race – it will take a while to recover from that.
But the truth is we can’t just stand back and whine. It doesn’t solve anything. We have to move forward, we have to work together, and there are millions of young women – and thousands in this state – who worked on this campaign and got so involved. What we need to do is take that energy and intelligence and that passion and put it in to some other useful ways that those women can contribute. And that’s one of my aims, is to see how many of those young women we can get involved.
It’s not just young women, it’s young men, too. We want to encourage those young people who care that much and find a way to involve them in our culture in useful ways and productive ways and positive ways. We don’t want them to be just turned off and go away.
J.Z.: How do we do that? How are we going to keep the next generation of young women engaged in politics and running for office?
B.R.: I think women like myself, who have worked to help other women run before, who have worked with the Women’s Resource Center at Portland State (University) to train women, to teach women, to get young women to think of themselves as serving and being elected – we have to continue that. We have to step forward and continue to be the mentors and be the role models. If I just threw up my hands and said this is so awful I can’t contend with it, then that wouldn’t be very useful. But if I say to those young women, we’ve lost before, we can come back. This is a huge loss for women in this country and for women’s history, but this is not the ultimate loss, so our job is to make sure we can move forward to the next opportunity and we’ll be ready. And I think young people are ready for that. We’ve got to engage them. We’ve got to give them places they can make a difference, where they can contribute, where they can spend their time and passion and energy, and I think we can do that.
J.Z.: And the environment among the voters is probably 180 degrees from even when you were running for office as secretary of state. That today a woman, like the governor did in this election, could receive support that is so overwhelming.
B.R.: Kate Brown and Ellen Rosenblum won by over 50 percent in races where one of them had five opponents. To get even 50 percent in a race with five or six candidates is very difficult to do. You have to be really accepted by the electorate, and obviously those two were.
We’ve seen a woman win another seat on the Portland City Council.
The Multnomah County Commission has five women on it. We’ve had that before, but it’s been a long time. And three of those women – the majority – are women of color. That’s never happened before. I think we in Oregon have a lot to feel very good about.
The people stepped up for election financing reform in Portland, for funding housing for low-income and homeless people, for funding programs for the veterans of this area. So I think we can feel pretty good about Oregon voters right now.
I think it just means you have to work harder and step up, and not give in and not give up.
J.Z.: Given the changes in politics for women, do you ever wish you were governor today? Do you think the times would be easier?
B.R.: I look back when I took the governorship in 1991; Measure 5 had just passed, which from that day forward really underfunded schools. It was just devastating statewide. And the spotted owl crisis was going on, which was a massive economic and social change in Oregon, and particularly in the rural areas, it was very, very devastating. So it was a really tough time to serve. But I never regretted being there in the tough times. Somebody had to do it, and I wasn’t afraid of the tough stuff, and Kate Brown is the same kind of governor. She will step forward and she will do what needs to be done. I’m feeling very confident.
J.Z.: What does it mean to you to have this kind of celebration for your 80th birthday?
B.R.: At 80, I’m looking at a different time in my life in a lot of ways, and I wanted to do a benefit for something that I really care about, something that I thought was socially important and culturally important, and is something I really believe in. And Compassion and Choices, the Death with Dignity law, filled that completely. So it was an ideal match for me to say at 80 years old, this is something I really care about. End of life is not too far away when you get to 80, and you start thinking about it in different ways. But it wasn’t a negative approach to this, it was just how much I love the work the organization does and how critical I think it is for our state and for our nation.