Honoring Barbara Roberts and her Lifetime of Service

Mary Kyle McCurdy
Thu, 03/23/2017 - 3:30pm

2017 Tom McCall Legacy Award

On March 18th, at our 2017 McCall Gala, we recognized the Honorable Barbara K Roberts for her lifetime of service to Oregon. The Tom McCall Legacy Award is given to those who have demonstrated a deep commitment to Oregon and our land use planning system. 

Descriptions of Barbara Roberts’ contributions to Oregon always include her many firsts - the first woman to serve as Governor of Oregon (1991-95);  the first woman to serve as majority leader in the Oregon House of Representatives; the first Democrat elected Secretary of State in over 100 years – and to celebrate, she was the first statewide elected official in the country to have a gay-identified choir sing at her inauguration.[1]

But what makes Governor Roberts stand out is her sustained devotion to Oregon and its people. From her first entry into public policy as a young mother advocating for the education rights of her special needs son - when she succeeded in lobbying the Oregon Legislature to pass a bill requiring public schools to guarantee basic education rights for all special needs students – to today, where Gov. Roberts is in the trenches of human rights advocacy, Gov. Roberts has never balked at doing the heavy lifting, over a long time, required to win.

Governor Roberts has long understood the central place that Oregon’s land use system plays in making Oregon, Oregon, and she has given her brains and her time to land use in many ways over the years, including serving on the 1000 Friends Board and the Metro Council. But two merit special recognition.  Back in the early 90s, during her term as Governor, Barbara Roberts was the one who formally pulled the plug on the Westside Bypass – a mega-freeway that would have cut a wide and long swath through some of the best farm land in the state, the Tualatin Valley.  Many powerful and moneyed interests were advocating for the Bypass, but then-Governor Roberts listened to the thousands of Oregonians who not only opposed the project, but offered a better solution for the Portland area’s traffic congestion, one that would serve all residents rather than a few.  So instead of concentric circles of sprawl rolling across the countryside from Portland, chasing the speculative development opportunities of a freeway, the Metro area has a light rail system, better bus service, and a commitment to safe sidewalks and bicycle ways in every community.

Over a decade later, Governor Roberts joined with former Governor Vic Atiyeh and John Gray to lead the statewide effort to overturn ballot measure 37 – which would have caused widespread development across Oregon’s working farms and forests, severely impacting Oregon’s #2 industry of agriculture – and replace it with Measure 49.  Governor Roberts brought back out her lobbying skills to make sure the legislature developed a fair replacement for the ballot that also protected Oregon’s farms and forests, and then she, Gov. Atiyeh, and John Gray lead the campaign to see that Measure 49 passed.

In “An Open Letter to the Women of Oregon,” Governor Roberts summarized the characteristics of women’s leadership:  “Hardship. Endurance. Persistence. Bravery. Strength. Tenacity. Scar tissue.”[2]  That sums up Barbara Roberts.

[1] The Portland Gay Men’s Chorus

[2] Portland Monthly, March 2015.