For 200 pages, it’s the revealing, tender and intimate life story of Oregon’s first female governor. But it stretches to a Dostoyevskian length of 436 pages with too many narcolepsy-inducing anecdotes about her in-laws, ex-in-laws and mingling with Portland Trail Blazers and other minor celebrities.
Yet if you can get past the minutiae, there are rewards here. Roberts may have been a Portland politician, but she was truly of Sheridan, the Yamhill County farming and timber town, where the 1953 high-school class of 37 included Barbara Hughey: honor student, oratory champ, cheerleader. Goals set, goals achieved.
She married before graduation, as did many young women in Sheridan. Her life changed when her first son, Michael, by age 6 wasn’t toilet trained, avoided eye contact and displayed unusual gestures.
When she and her husband, Neal Sanders, took him to the University of Oregon Medical School in 1962, she writes:
“[T]he diagnosis was a devastating one: The doctor’s label: ‘extremely emotionally disturbed.’ They recommended Mike be permanently institutionalized! These ‘experts’ predicted Mike would never be able to go school, never work, never be able to live independently. I was stunned.”
She fought back, ferociously, mustering the courage to transform herself into an amateur Capitol lobbyist. In 1971, she led the fight to require that public schools guarantee educational rights to special-needs children. Meanwhile, her marriage had ended (her high-school sweetheart husband left her to marry one of her best friends), and she found a new love, state Rep. Frank Roberts, the Portland Democrat who championed her bill.
The next decade saw her political rise to legislative aide, Multnomah County commissioner, state rep and, in 1984, secretary of state. When Gov. Neil Goldschmidt abruptly announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in 1990, Roberts jumped into the race.
Her chief opponent was Republican Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, a Rhodes Scholar who had been marked for greatness and was expected to stomp her in debates. But the matchup highlighted Roberts’ foremost skill: She’s a great communicator. In four debates, Frohnmayer gave laborious answers to the simplest questions. Roberts sparkled with direct and quotable quips. She won in a three-way race.
She became an unlucky governor on the same night as her election, when voters passed the Measure 5 property-tax limit that has complicated the lives of every governor since. She spent her years cutting budgets. Roberts tried to persuade voters to pass a noble but disastrous sales tax proposal.
She fought Oregon Citizens Alliance attacks on gay rights and supported expanding the Oregon Health Plan, but these are positions any Democratic governor would have taken.
Roberts had reveled in the campaigner role, but once in office seemed to enjoy ceremony more than policy duties. In that regard, she was the mirror opposite of her introverted and bookish successor, then-Senate President John Kitzhaber.
During Roberts’ first term, Kitzhaber sensed growing dissatisfaction among other Democrats, and asked for a meeting in late 1993, as her re-election approached.
“[Kitzhaber] came into my private office, not even taking a seat, [and] informed me he intended to run against me in the 1994 primary election, and turned to leave....” Roberts wrote. “He simply walked away.” Kitzhaber’s iciness stunned her—Roberts says he never even asked about Frank Roberts, his onetime Senate colleague, who was then dying of cancer.
Barbara Roberts’ background suggests that however steep the odds, she didn’t fear a political fight with Kitzhaber, but after Frank died in the fall of 1993, she announced in January 1994 she wouldn’t run again. Her background suggests she stepped down largely because she was deeply torn by family issues, including her son’s continued needs.
That comes back to her own signature story, of the single mother with a special-needs son, climbing the steps of the Capitol to change state law and, eventually, reaching the governorship.
It’s an inspiring outsider’s tale, a great campaign speech, but Roberts had a tendency to overplay it. Succeeding as an executive requires stretching into new issue areas as Kitzhaber did, as well as Roberts’ former legislative colleague and future Portland mayor, Vera Katz.
That more of the energy of Up the Capitol Steps is devoted to her family adversities than to issues and her accomplishments is a metaphor for Roberts’ time in office.
Mark Kirchmeier is the author of Packwood and previously reviewed Wayne Morse: A Political Biography for WW.