Women in Government: Barbara Roberts

There are few women in Government, who have carved out a harder path than Barbara Roberts. Oregon’s first (and to date only) woman Governor, Barbara Roberts is a woman of great integrity and commitment to public service, who has served in state and local government for over 25 years.

Barbara Roberts was born Barbara Kay Hughey in Corvallis, Oregon. She married her high school sweetheart, Neal Sanders, and had two sons. The family eventually settled in Portland where she attended Portland State University (my Alma Mater). Her older son, Mike was diagnosed with autism in 1962, the Sanders’ were told that he would never be able to live on his own, never be able to hold a job. This was unacceptable to the future Oregon Governor, and she soon became a fierce advocate for special needs children and tirelessly lobbied the state legislature to protect their rights.

In 1973, then a single mom, Barbara ran for and won her first public office: a seat on the Parkrose School Board. She had challenged a long-time male member of the board and won a spirited race. Barbara married respected Oregon politician Frank Roberts in 1974. In 1978, Roberts won an appointment to fill a vacancy on the Multnomah County Commission serving until her election to the Oregon State House in 1980.

In the Oregon House, Roberts’ continued her advocacy for children, as well as for the LGBT community. Roberts’ tenacity and leadership abilities, as well as her husband’s political connections won her election as the Majority Leader for the Oregon House during her second term in office. Roberts became the first woman to hold that post.

In 1984, Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus R decided not to run for re-election (in preparation for her Gubernatorial bid in 1986). Barbara Roberts became the first Democrat to be elected Secretary of State in Oregon in over 100 years. Norma Paulus had become the first woman, and so Barbara Roberts was also the first woman Democrat to serve as Oregon Secretary of State. Roberts made a huge political statement by having the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus sing at her inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Salem. Roberts was easily re-elected to a second term in 1988.

Former US Secretary of Transportation, Neil Goldschmidt had defeated Norma Paulus for election as Governor in 1986. Widely popular, Goldscmidt surprisingly decided not to run for re-election, rumors spread that it was due to his wife’s infidelities and in 2004 it was revealed that he had inappropriate sexual relations with a minor in the 1970’s. Unopposed in the Democratic Primary, Roberts faced off Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohmayer in the general and won. Roberts did not run for re-election 1994, and was succeeded by Democrat John Kitzhaber (1995-2003; 2011-present).

Roberts is still beloved amongst Oregonians, and continues to show her support for advancing women politics. She is heavily involved in the New Leadership Oregon program at Portland State University – where every year she gives a personal tour of the state Capitol in Salem to young women leaders. She is a tireless advocate of the LGBT community, marching annually in Portland’s Gay Pride Parade with a few times as the Grand Marshall. She was also standing next to Governor Ted Kulongoski as he signed the same-sex civil unions act into law in 2007.

Roberts returned to public office in February of this year with an appointment to the Portland Metro Council, a elected governing body that oversees infrastructure of the Portland Metropolitan Area.

I first met Barbara Roberts in 2005. We discussed the disappearance of gay ghettos, and she said “its progress! Gays are integrated into the mainstream fabric.”

Roberts has a new book out Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman’s March to the Governorship available on Amazon.

Below is a picture of me behind the Governor on the day I spent being her body man touring the state Capitol.

If you are interested in learning more about Advancing Women in Government please check out our GovInsight series.

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