Ms. Roberts Goes to the Statehouse
The winds of feminist change are blowing hard these days. Women, unbound by so-called traditional roles, are emerging as gifted leaders - especially in local politics. But at top levels of government, men still rule the agendas. On this and following pages, the Monitor explores leadership and how women might lead differently.
SALEM, ORE. — BARBARA ROBERTS'S path to the governorship of Oregon is a textbook case in grass-roots politics - in taking chances and making chances, in speaking plainly on controversial issues, in working hard on the things you know about, and in steadily developing expertise on those you don't. She did it at a time when there were few role models for women. And now she is giving advice to younger women also coming up the ladder. Governor Roberts is a relatively liberal Democrat who started her political life as a campaign worker for John F. Kennedy. ``He excited me, he inspired me, he made me feel good about my country, he made me feel good about being an American,'' she recalled in a recent interview. But as a young housewife and mother, it was something closer to home that really got her involved in politics.
One of her sons was autistic, but the state had no programs for children with special needs. So she became a one-woman lobbying organization, prowling the statehouse in Salem, buttonholing legislators, and eventually prevailing. ``I had to fight the education association, the state school boards association, the school administrators' association,'' she says. ``I basically took on all of the special interests of education and won.''
Following a series of elected and appointed positions on boards, commissions, and councils in Oregon, she ran for the state legislature and won there too, serving two terms as House Speaker. For much of this time she was a single mother, working as a bookkeeper and office manager. Then she ran statewide for the post of secretary of state, and won that as well.
When Gov. Neil Goldschmidt surprised the political establishment last year by announcing he would not run for reelection due to marital difficulties, Roberts jumped in. Her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, was strongly favored early in the campaign, but by election time Roberts had passed him by.
Over the past 15 years or so, while the number of women holding national elective office plateaued at a relatively low level, the number serving in state and local offices has grown steadily. Roberts sees three reasons for this. First, most women in politics started out working for abortion rights or the Equal Rights Amendment, and then moved on to boards and councils along the grass-roots path, as she did. ``They came to make a difference, and they began to find that in the process they were capable of being the decisionmaker.''
Second, the cost of running for the United States Congress or Senate has become especially prohibitive for those without connections, which includes most fledgling politicians who are women. ``Women don't say, `I think I want to be a US senator and I've got $5 million and my daddy can provide the rest and I have lots of political friends,' '' she says, without any tone of cynicism. ``They tend to come up through the ranks.''
The third reason women have yet to move fully into national politics, she says, ``is a public perception that a school-board member being a female is acceptable because women `do kids,' women can do the city council because that's sort of OK, and the legislature is beginning to be acceptable in most states because we deal with a lot of issues that are OK for women to deal with.
``But the higher you come up that political scale in people's minds,'' she goes on, ``the more it's a question of leadership, strength, and courage - attributes that we usually give to men.''
As Roberts surveys the political scene today, she says she believes women bring qualities and attitudes that are increasingly attractive to voters of both sexes. The women she knows in politics are more direct than men, yet at the same time more willing to work cooperatively toward solving public problems. ``Women represent a very different kind of leadership,'' she says.
Roberts's advice to other women seeking elective office is threefold: ``Demonstrate your courage very clearly..., learn how to cite your credentials..., and stick to your position.
``If someone said to me, `Barbara Roberts, why are you supporting the sales tax?' I'd say, `As a person who worked in business for 15 years and spent four years on the revenue and school-finance committee, I'll tell you why I think this.' ... I cited my credentials before I gave my opinion.''
In last year's gubernatorial race, Roberts stuck her neck out on several issues. She favored a ballot measure to close the Trojan nuclear power plant, citing concerns about on-site radioactive waste storage near the Columbia River. Although the measure was rejected (industry groups outspent backers 6 to 1), voters respected her position, based as it was on her experience on the Oregon-Washington board that deals with the Hanford nuclear reactor upstream on the Columbia River.
The more visceral issue in Oregon is the future of the timber industry in light of the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. While Republican Frohnmayer was more inclined to fight the listing, Roberts talked about the industry's need to adjust in light of dwindling wood supplies, increasing exports, and plant modernization that sees machines replacing loggers and mill workers.
``People thought I was dead. They thought I could not win the election talking about that,'' she says. ``But I went right into the mills and talked with the workers. I went right into timber rallies and talked with people. And I told environmental groups never to be smug when people are losing their jobs and their homes and their livelihood.''
Now that she is the governor, Roberts has big challenges ahead: to straighten out Oregon's tax structure (it has no sales tax and voters approved property tax limits); to reorganize the state's education and training structure; and to prepare for the transportation, housing, and land-use needs that are as inevitable as the thousands of newcomers who move here every month.
Asked what her next job might be, Barbara Roberts demurs. ``I said in my inaugural address that I might be a one-term governor,'' she says. ``That's OK if that's how it works out. If I know that I've done the best I can do, the most I can do for my state and its people during these four years, I'll be very happy.''