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Betsy Johnson, Oregon Senator

Betsy Johnson

Prior to joining Oregon’s legislature, Senator Betsy Johnson founded TransWestern Helicopters, Inc. in 1978, which is now TransWestern Aviation, Inc. As a licensed pilot for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, she was also appointed manager of the aeronautics division of the Oregon Department of Transportation and later vice president for legislative affairs for the Oregon Pilots Association, where she helped create the Oregon Department of Aviation.

Sen. Johnson earned her law degree from the Northwestern School of Law, Lewis & Clark College in the 1970s, but in lieu of taking the Bar Exam, she went to Europe and the former Soviet Union to represent the U.S. on an aviation team. She has served on countless boards and commissions, including the Oregon Public Broadcasting Foundation, the Oregon Health Sciences University Foundation, the Columbia River Maritime Museum, and currently the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College, among many others. She also has received many prestigious honors, including the Hatfield Award, the OPUDA Rock Solid Award, the Legislator of the Year Award from the Oregon Economic Development Association (OEDA), and recently, the Gordon and Sharon Smith New Freedom Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Sen. Johnson has held numerous leadership positions during her time in the House and Senate. She is currently the co-chair of the Joint Committee On Ways and Means and the Joint Committee On Legislative Audits. She’s a member of several others. Notably, she has served on Ways and Means since her first session in Congress.

Please note that this interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview Questions

[] Before serving as a representative and now a senator, you were a pilot, an aviation company founder, and the manager of the Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, among other positions. I also know you come from a family tradition of public service. What specifically shaped your decision to get into local government?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Well, just as you put it, I came from a family where public service was valued and practiced. My mother served four governors, both Democrats and Republicans, on education policy boards, including a number of stints on the State Board of Higher Education and what was then the Coordinating Commission—the precursor to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission that exists right now.

My father had served in the legislature. He was a businessman who ended up trying to recruit candidates to run. This was back in the mid-60s, and they had gotten a wonderful candidate to run for the senate seat in Central Oregon. They couldn’t recruit a House candidate and so the decision was made to turn my father into the candidate—a fairly reluctant candidate, at that. The conventional wisdom was that Gordon McKay couldn’t lose and Sam [Johnson] couldn’t win.

[My father] Sam went on to win and served seven terms, retired from the legislature, went home, and was overwhelmingly elected mayor of Redmond. He was mayor at the time of a fatal heart attack in 1984 that ended his life.

My mother was appointed to boards and commissions and ran as a candidate on the ballot for a hospital district board. She also had been an elected school board member and was the president of the American Association of Governing Boards.

I just don’t remember a time that they weren’t heavily involved in national as well as state and local public service.

[] So given that family tradition of public service, you decided to enter yourself?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] My political career started out as eighth grade student body president in Redmond. John Tuck Grade School. I had been a student body officer all through grade school.

In high school, I was student body president, and I knew that public policy and public service were things that I liked.

Over my time in the legislature, I would say that I’ve become pretty good at it. I was just elected this last November with 83 percent of the vote. I think that’s validation from my constituents that I’m doing a pretty good job.

[] Absolutely. You’ve already enjoyed such a fantastic career in government and you’re very popular with your constituents. I noticed that you got the highest share of the vote of any Oregon senator in 2018, which is amazing. You also helped create the Oregon Department of Aviation and you now co-chair the powerful Joint Committee on Ways and Means, where you’ve served since your first term in government, which is unusual and really impressive.

[Senator Betsy Johnson] That’s very unusual: to be appointed to both Ways and Means and the Emergency Board in my freshman year. I remember distinctly calling my mother and saying, “Hey, I just got appointed to Ways and Means as a freshman.” And my mother’s response was, “What’s up with that? Your father had to wait three terms before he got appointed to Ways!” But my whole career in the legislature has been in the budget arena.

[] Piggybacking off of that, I know that this is a really intense legislative assembly. What are your top three priorities?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Well, I am constitutionally required to produce a balanced budget. Representative Rayfield, Senator Steiner Hayward and I are trying to change some of the architecture that has led to structural deficit after structural deficit. We are attempting to look at the budget through a much more conservative lense. We aim to have a much more robust ending balance. We are not going to bond to our full capacity, and we are looking at efficiencies throughout government.

Oregon, in my opinion, is very good at identifying problems and applying money and people to the fix. We are not so good at going back later and saying, “Was our fix efficacious?” We just don’t go back and measure very well.

So the three of us have approached this budget from a fiscally restrained perspective. I’m hopeful that we can stick with our decision to begin to create a budget that is sustainable when all of the economic indices are pointing to the fact that our economy may be slowing. In fact, the global economy may be slowing.

None of us want to participate in this kind of boom-and-bust economy because we are so tied to the vicissitudes of the business cycle vis-a-vis our heavy reliance on the corporate and personal income tax to fund public services. In boom times, we have plenty of money and resources to create programs and then we race right out to cut them when the business cycle suffers some kind of a downturn.

[] Apart from balancing the budget, do you have any other major priorities?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Well, we want to inoculate against the inevitable downturn that would result in us having to cut programs if there was an economic decline.

And then last but not least on a policy level, I am very concerned about doing no harm. There are some very aggressive proposals in this legislative session—some of which I think could be highly detrimental to Oregon’s economy. I am watching those with care while still trying to get this budget framework prepared. We have been working on the budget framework almost exclusively since mid-December and then, of course, just this last Thursday rolled out what is called the Co-Chair’s Framework.

On an average day, I spend three hours in the legislative fiscal office. Then, because of the paucity of time, Senator Steiner Hayward and I stay late on Tuesdays and Thursdays to hear people that are interested in seeking financial support from the legislature.

[] I’d like to talk a bit about the demographics of government leadership. As you probably know, Oregon is one of four states where women make up at least 40 percent of the state legislature, which is great. Why do you think that women are still relatively underrepresented in government leadership?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Well, I think generally—and this is a gross generalization—that women end up shouldering numerous responsibilities that make service in the legislature problematic. The hours that people spend in the legislature are not family-friendly hours. And if a woman is responsible for a family with young kids, getting them to school on time, participating in after-school activities…This is just not an overly family-friendly place and has demanding hours.

[] That makes sense. And how do you think that Oregon’s relatively high proportion of female leadership affects its legislating compared to other states? Or does it?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] I don’t consider myself particularly a feminist—more a pragmatist. It has been my observation that women are pretty uniquely capable of identifying problems, identifying pathways for solutions, and negotiating to conclusions that everyone finds satisfactory.

I’ve watched women in negotiations. They tend to be receptive to the other side’s concerns and needs. I think women listen very carefully and I think that women are better negotiators because sometimes they are better collaborators.

[] And of course, being raised to always consider the needs of others can influence their collaboration efforts as well. So have you ever faced any gender discrimination in your time in government?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] I came up in a profession where there were so few women. I do not know this for a fact, but I believe I was the first woman carded by the Forest Service to do work with a long line of forest fires. This means I was credentialed; they call it “carding.” And the guy that was supposed to do the check rides for the FAA wouldn’t fly with me because I was a girl!

[] What? Wow. You were in your twenties? Was this the 80s?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Yeah, I was probably in my twenties.

[] Was this before or after Mount St. Helens?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] It was before Mount St. Helens. And he wouldn’t fly with me, so they had to bring up a special examiner from California. My view was always don’t get mad—outfly them, outwork them, outthink them, outmaneuver them. So my best revenge was just doing it better than the people that had been distractors. And in my day, I was a pretty damn good low pilot.

[] Yeah, I bet you were. I was reading about your time in St. Helens. The fact that you were the aviation company founder and also the manager of the Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division…you’ve had a lot of milestones.

[Senator Betsy Johnson] The company was founded in the late 1970s. I was in the middle of getting ready to take the Bar Review to be able to practice law. I got a call asking if I’d like to go fly in Europe and what was then the Soviet Union, representing the U.S. on a team. And I thought, let’s see: stay in Portland and take the bar or go fly in Europe? I was on a plane so fast my head was spinning by the time they closed the door!

So I came back then and found the company. My mother never forgave me that I never practiced law, but it was a wonderful decision not to. And so, we had helicopters throughout the 11 western states. Our little company motto was “Your wallet, we haul it.”

We did all sorts of things: we fought fire; we set power lines; we changed the latrines on top of Mt. Rainier; we took bad bears out of the National Parks; we did movies for Disney; and we were the prime contractor to the U.S. Geological Survey for more than a decade on Mt. St. Helens.

We were in and out of the crater all the time. One of our helicopters landing on the lava dome as it was growing inside the crater was deemed one of LIFE Magazine’s Pictures of the Decade! I was not the pilot on that job, but I landed on the crater dozens of times.

So I ran the company, and then there was an opportunity to serve in the legislature. Jackie Taylor was termed out; we had a brief period of term limits and I had just come off of a corporate board that did not allow political participation. I finished my service on that board I ran for the legislature.

[] Wow. I know that you come from a timber family. How did you get into flying?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] My father taught both my sister and me how to fly. He’d been a pilot early on and he taught us. I don’t think that he ever expected that we would both have the high honor and privilege of representing the United States on aviation teams.

My sister did two tours on the U.S. Aerobatic Team—upside down, sideways, all that stuff. She was really good at it. Flew all over the world doing that! And at one time she had been offered the opportunity to be a demo pilot for one of the big aerobatic airplane manufacturing companies: Pitts Aircraft. She was trained and credentialed as an ICU nurse, but spent most of her waking hours flying. Patty taught lots of airline pilots aerobatics. Take ‘em up and just wind them up real good in an aerobatic airplane. She was pretty good at it.

[] That’s amazing and speaking of male-dominated fields, you mentioned your experience getting carded with the Forest Service and the man who wouldn’t even fly with you. In government, have you seen any similar types of discrimination?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Aeronautics and particularly helicopters were for a long time heavily dominated by males. And I never let it get under my skin. I just flew better and worked better. And at the capital, because I came up in an industry that was so male-dominated, I got pretty thick skin. I can hold my own with just about anybody. I am unapologetic. I make it pretty clear where the boundaries of respect are.

[] It’s really interesting. There are different reactions to these systems and discrimination based on our experiences and our generation. You’re also incredibly beloved by your constituents, so no matter what happens you have them at your back. Speaking of your time in government, is there a signature groundbreaking policy or accomplishment that you like to be known for?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Being co-chair of Ways and Means is a tremendous honor and responsibility. I am very respectful of my two colleagues and I like them a lot, which makes this a pleasure. I hope the three of us are able to deliver a budget that makes a difference in the lives of Oregonians—a sustainable, durable budget that sets us on a path that is a little less volatile in future biennium. That’s my total focus this session.

[] Going back to women in government, do you think that there are any unique challenges that women face or like you, do you think people should put their heads down, put in the work, and develop that thicker skin in order to get through it?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Oh, I don’t know. I’d hate to have you put it that way because it wasn’t as though I was being dismissive of people who may be a little less sanguine than I am. We all have our own path and far be it for me to dictate to anybody else how they should feel or how they should react.

I was talking to a colleague the other day who is a medical doctor. She was talking about a much senior colleague saying something derogatory about her as a medical student in front of a patient. She didn’t make a big scene about it. She took the much senior doctor in a private place and said, “You demean my professionalism by doing these sorts of things and this will not happen again.” And it didn’t.

It is not my place to comment on how others react. I row my own boat and I am responsible for my reaction to people and my interactions with people. I just don’t think I have the license to editorialize on others.

[] That’s a great response. I admire that. I think the last thing I want to ask is what advice do you have for other women who are interested in becoming senators?

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Well, you’ve asked a much more complicated question than I think you realize you’ve asked. Things are changing. They’re changing on a national level. They’re changing at the state level.

Every decade or so, some of the people that have been in the process for a long time either choose to retire or are defeated. And there is a new group of activists that are coming forward. This new group of activists is a little less eager to try to find middle ground. There are very closely held views about how the world is ordered.

My advice to a candidate is that the people who send you to the legislature are your primary concern. You must be a reflection of your district. Secondly, don’t let go of your own core principles. It is very easy to develop a kind of herd mentality. One should have one’s own set of core principles.

I have frequently been asked, “Why do you buck your party occasionally?” Well, I buck my party because I don’t think of myself as a Democrat. I don’t think of myself as a partisan at all. I think of myself as an Oregonian and as a champion for Senate District 16 that comes to my service with a set of grounding core principles that I try to let be my North Star.

I think that we have made the whole debate both at a national level and at a state level far too partisan and far too intolerant of other views. I sit with my colleagues and if you think about my district, I represent a lot of rural people who still derive their livelihood in a natural resource environment. And they take very unkindly to having urban Portland people tell them how they ought to be treating their dairy cows, for example. Those dairy cows are incredibly valuable assets of their livelihood. They’re not going to do anything to endanger those animals and they don’t need people from Portland telling them how to take care of them.

I find myself in my caucus when someone opines about the base and I have to remind them that my base and Arnie Roblan’s base and Caddy McKeown’s base is not their base. We represent people who have worked generations—have made their living fishing, logging, and dairy-ing and relying on those natural resource-based economies. And I think the arrogant supposition of some at the national and the state level is that everybody ought to think the same within a political nomenclature. It’s just erroneous.

[] I respect that. Serving your constituents.

[Senator Betsy Johnson] I still have a paper mill in my district that represents some of the finest jobs in Clatsop County. Those are jobs with retirement [accounts], medical benefits, and a high rate of pay. And I think it’s my job to help protect those jobs.

[] I’m not sure of the specific circumstances of that paper mill, but some people have environmental concerns.

[Senator Betsy Johnson] Let’s take a big mill like Roseburg Forest Products that has spent millions of dollars on pollution control. For some, it still isn’t enough. Let’s take a company like Entech down in Lebanon that has been operating within their state permit and for some, it still isn’t enough.

Am I cognizant of those concerns? Sure I am. I would hope that my colleagues would reciprocate by being cognizant of my concerns. If you’re operating within your permit, that’s the standard that you operate to.