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Interview with Nancy Nathanson, Oregon Representative

Nancy Nathanson

Prior to being elected to Oregon’s legislature in 2006, Representative Nancy Nathanson served on the Eugene Planning Commission and City Council, where she won numerous awards, including the Outstanding Elected Official Award (2001) and the West Eugene Wetlands Award (2005). Notably, she was elected president of each during her separate terms of service.

Rep. Nathanson also formerly worked for the Orbis Cascade Alliance, a nonprofit association of 38 colleges in the western U.S., which connects the services and missions of member libraries. She also founded and managed her own small business, Photoscapes.

Rep. Nathanson currently works with countless nonprofits to keep her finger to the pulse of civic priorities. She is celebrated for her role in shaping OregonSaves, a statewide retirement savings program, as well as her work to secure sensible gun legislation, affordable housing, and consumer protections.

In addition to being a member of many legislative committees, she also holds several leadership positions. She is the chair of the House Committees on Conduct and Revenue and the co-chair of three others: the Joint Committee on Information Management and Technology, the Joint Committee on Tax Expenditures, and the Joint Committee on Student Success Subcommittee on Revenue.

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

Interview Questions

[] Several years after attending the University of Oregon, you joined the Eugene Planning Commission and the City Council. What shaped your decision to enter government?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] I got my degree in urban geography. I thought I was going to go into urban planning because I was fascinated with cities and the way humans organize their existence on the planet. How do we chose where we live? How do cities work? How do we get fresh water? It all had to do with location decisions and then how we govern ourselves in a physical space.

My husband noticed an article in the paper that said there was a vacancy on the planning commission. He told me, “I know you’ve always wanted to get into city planning, but you could go into it from a different angle in the policy arena. That’s how you shape decisions.”

I applied for the planning commission and was appointed! I was fascinated and eager—the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. After serving for about five years, I learned that the city council member who represented my region had announced that he was not running for reelection. So that was the opening.

Back then, the part of town where I lived did not have even one developed park. That wasn’t fair because other parts of town had many parks—small, large, some with swimming pools. There were playgrounds for kids and paths for adults, all sorts of different facilities. There was one park in my area, but it was vacant and never developed. It was astonishing. There was also a fire station that had never been opened, and we lived in a part of town that was in extreme risk for wildfire coming down the hill.

A couple of friends and my husband pointed out, “You care so much about this city, and you know a lot. There are things you think need to be fixed. Run for city council!” And so I did. I never thought of myself as a politician, but I became involved because there were things I thought should be done differently.

I loved all that came with the city council, everything that was on my plate. Later on, someone approached me and said, “There’s likely going to be a vacant seat in the state legislature. If you’re willing to run, you may be successful.” And after announcing his retirement, the incumbent ended up endorsing me!

So that’s how it started. I saw things that I wanted to improve, and I think for many women that’s how we end up being involved. We’re trying to make people’s lives better.

[] You’ve already had an illustrious career in politics. I really admire your commitment to so many non-profits, keeping your finger to the pulse of people’s civic priorities. You have worked on sensible gun legislation, environmental protections, and forward-thinking healthcare and education policies—a very progressive agenda. So I’m curious, what are your top three legislative priorities for this session?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] My first priority relates to my responsibilities as chair of the Revenue Committee and co-chair of the Revenue Subcommittee of the Joint Committee of Student Success. A top priority for the entire legislature, in fact, is how to meet the needs of kids. The K-12 system has been suffering from underfunding for many years. It’s time to face the music and address the problem. So that’s my first priority.

I also have a list of 18 or 20 bills now. I never thought I’d be working on so many, but when I see an issue and no one is addressing the problem, I want to get something done. For example: urban search and rescue. We used to have urban search and rescue teams with some state funding. They’re housed in local fire departments, but they bit the dust several years ago. We have got to bring that back.

Another priority is infectious disease control. Three people in our long-term care facilities died of complications from scabies. This is outrageous. As soon as I heard this happened, I started talking to the Department of Human Services, the Oregon Health Authority, the long-term care ombudsman, the Department of Justice, and others. Employees are sometimes afraid to report issues in facilities like that. They can be threatened with being fired.

Another issue is related to public guardians. When a guardian is appointed to take care of someone, and they have control over their finances and decisions are being made for that person. Right now, guardians have almost unlimited control without oversight. They have the ability to take away a person’s access to family or friends. This means that they can drain a person’s money and control who is and isn’t seeing them—and no one will find out. Abuse happens, and I’ve got a bill to fill those legal holes.

[] I would love to see your list of bills. On that note, which Oregon laws would you like to see adopted on a national level? I know the “boyfriend loophole” was closed in our state’s gun legislation, which was very important.

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] Yeah. We have some important state laws related to gun safety, protecting women’s rights and control over their bodies, data privacy, consumer protection, election and voter registration reform, and others. We do a number of great things in Oregon that haven’t passed on a national level.

[] Absolutely. You had mentioned in your quarterly newsletter that Oregon is one of only four states where women make up 40 percent or more of its legislators. Why are women still relatively underrepresented in government?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] There are papers and academic research about this, but I can give you my gut-level guesses. Women are still the primary caregivers for families. Usually, that means kids, but sometimes it’s the parents who may be elderly or disabled. It can be self-limiting because women believe they can’t give as much of their time.

Women are also more likely to be collaborative as opposed to combative and may be less willing to get into campaign mode. And as the years go by, it’s gotten harder and uglier.

[] How do you think that states like Oregon with a higher share of female leaders are governed differently than those with predominantly male legislatures? I know it’s a big question.

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] I want to be really fair about how I respond to this. I do think that women have a somewhat different leadership style, but not always. There have been exceptions. Women can be cutthroat or abrasive. It’s related to personality, but in general, I think that women govern differently.

I’ve also heard that in Oregon, it’s easier to become involved in government. I don’t know if it’s because we have a smaller population. I think it’s values and lifestyles. People feel like they can become involved in democracy.

[] Yes, I agree it’s definitely civic-minded compared to a lot of other states.

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] And I wonder what it feels like in other states with a similar population. I have heard from colleagues who moved to Oregon from other states that they’re really glad to be here. This is because they never felt like they could be directly involved in helping shape the life of their community as you can here.

[] Related to that, what are some of the major challenges that women face in government?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] There’s still the unequal pay issue. We’re a citizen legislature. You have to have a kind of a job where you can take a leave of absence. If you’re self-employed, a contract employee, or you have your own business, can you take the time away from it?

And since women earn less than men, generally, it’s even more difficult to get to the point where women say, “Yes, I can afford to do this.” You have to be at a place in your career where you have savings or seniority or job assurance.

[] If I’m understanding correctly, states like California have full-time legislatures that are better-paid?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] That’s right. Members of a professional legislature can earn $70,000 or $100,000 annually.

[] A living wage.

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] The National Conference of State Legislators website tells you exactly how much legislators make.

[] I have one more question about this particular issue. Have you ever faced any gender discrimination in your time in government?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] My attitude about it is different than the attitude of women your age and younger.

[] I’d love to hear about it.

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] And I’d love for you to listen to an interview with my aunt whose picture is on the wall here: Adlene Harrison. The Dallas & Morning News did an interview with her a few months ago and she and I are more similar in a couple of ways than we would be to my young legislative aide sitting out there.

We got used to just being treated a certain way and you get tough. It doesn’t mean you have to act like a man to be with men, but there are certain things you just decide you have to ignore and get past it.

Discriminated against? Maybe not because I spent almost my entire adult life in Oregon. I feel like Oregon is a different state. I probably did better here than I would have done in Texas where I was born and raised.

I do think I’ve been treated differently by some lobbyists who were men of the old guard. I think I was treated differently than they treated men who came in as freshmen.

[] With less respect?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] Definitely less respect. I could feel it. When they would sit at the table, I could just tell they were dismissive. I would raise a question and they’d say “Well, that’s not important.” Well, guess what, it’s important to me. I never got that feeling from a woman lobbyist.

[] Thank you for sharing that with me. As a leader in government, what is your moonshot? What is a signature piece of groundbreaking legislation that you would like to be known for? Is there something that keeps you up at night that you’re really excited about?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] Oh, I don’t know. There’s always something new! That’s what I love about this job. There’s not something I’ve had on the back burner that I’ve been thinking about waiting to achieve.

[] Because you’ve been proactive with the ideas that do come to your mind?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] Yeah, it would likely be something about election reform or consumer protection.

I’m remembering my aunt’s voice. I was talking to her a couple of days ago. She’s in her 90s. She’s disgusted with the state of the nation and with politics, but she starts to get involved in what I’m talking about! She tells me, “Nancy, you gotta keep doing what you’re doing. Someone’s gotta protect the people.”

[] That’s true, and I’d like to end on a bright note. What advice would you give women today who are interested in running for government?

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] Just do it. The sky’s the limit. This isn’t about having a political science degree from college. It’s about caring. It’s about having an idea and putting in the time. It’s pretty simple. You can do it. And you don’t do this by yourself. It really helps if your family is with you and supports you. If you don’t have a family, then a team of friends.

You can’t do it by yourself, even though in some ways it feels more personal. Everything becomes about you. It’s a criticism of you; it’s your name out there. They see me in my garden or washing my car in the driveway. And sometimes they stop their car and come out and talk to me. So it feels really personal, but it’s also about the team around you. Your campaign team gets you elected and then your legislative team helps you accomplish your ideas. So for women, I’d say never think that you have to do it alone. You have people around you who will help you.

[] You are actually the perfect illustration of that. I admire how ubiquitous your presence is in Eugene. In anticipation of this interview, I was excited and told several people. Everybody seems to know you, which I don’t think is the case for the majority of legislators, so I really really appreciate your investment in Eugene and the great progressive work you’ve already done.

[Rep. Nancy Nathanson] Thank you.