This month marks the end of my 20-year career as Director of Government Relations at OSU. I was drawn to OSU by President Paul Risser in 1999 after working with him while I served on a temporary federal appointment in Governor John Kitzhaber’s office. The Governor asked Risser to chair a citizen commission charged with resolving intractable water quality problems in the Willamette River Basin, and I was serving as the Governor’s liaison to the commission. At its first meeting, Risser, an ecologist, asked the members to briefly address the issues of interest to them. After listening to an hour-long free-ranging collection of concerns which fully described Oregon’s urban-rural divide, Risser briefly synthesized the discussion into a cogent summary that eventually became the commission’s work plan. I thought he was the smartest person I’d ever met.
A few weeks after I returned to my real job with the Bonneville Power Administration, Risser called suggesting that I look into an opening in the Government Relations Office at OSU. I didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity — the ignominy of becoming a “lobbyist” was a barrier. I also didn’t really know very much about OSU, except that its football team rarely beat Cal, which rarely beat anyone else. After a visit to the campus, like any recruit, I was taken by the potential of living in a college town and working at a university. When the legislature was not in session, my commute would be a leisurely bike ride across a bucolic, brick-structured campus. I was drawn to the opportunity of advocating for a cause that had changed my life. Both of my parents were first generation college graduates, and had, in fact, studied under Linus Pauling. Although I did not attend OSU, both of my degrees are from two land grant universities. Just out of college, I had been employed on a Sea Grant project.
Upon my arrival, Risser further affirmed my impression of him. I was immediately deployed to work on a well-planned effort with the Governor, the State Board of Higher Education, and the legislature to meet Central Oregon’s higher education needs with the establishment of a branch campus in Bend. What I didn’t know, and came to love and appreciate, was that I had been enveloped by a great university and a wonderful family.
When Risser departed two years later for the Chancellorship in his native State of Oklahoma, my wife was certain that once his replacement was named, I’d soon be sent home with my possessions in a cardboard box. That, fortunately, did not turn out to be. And even more notable, the State Board of Higher Education managed to find someone who was clearly on par with Risser.
Much of the responsibility for introducing Edward John Ray to Oregon fell on me simply because I was the driver and there were always legislators to meet on the itinerary as we visited OSU’s multiple and far flung outposts. Over Ed’s first year we covered the highways that connected Corvallis to Hermiston, Condon, Pendleton, La Grande, Union, Ontario, Burns, Bend, Medford, Klamath Falls, Coos Bay, Newport, and Astoria, among others.
My first experience with Ed in the car was indicative of the many miles that were to follow. Prior to actually taking office we had arranged for him to meet with Oregon’s natural resource stakeholders in Hearing Room 50 of the State Capitol. After the meeting, I had the privilege of driving the newly-named president back to Corvallis. I chose 99W because it was the more scenic route on a beautiful early summer afternoon. Ed was initially a polite conversationalist, even after I cautiously suggested that farmers and ranchers do not use the term “exploit” when talking about natural resources. Maybe as a result of that comment, Ed spent most of the drive with his nose buried in a sheaf of papers drawn from a bulging briefcase. But he looked up briefly somewhere between Rickreall and Monmouth and observed, “this is really pretty.” And then dove back into his reading.
Over the next 17 years, the hours in the car included a grueling game of “my great aunt’s trunk” (he won), conversations about our kids (they’re wonderful and challenging), our spouses (wonderful), John Denver’s music (odious, to me but divine to him), and a million other topics, including how many miles the hay truck in front of us would have to drive before it scattered its entire load to the headwinds of the highway. Our frequent drives to Salem were often characterized by cathartic grumbling about what we wanted to say to those “knuckleheads” and “dumb-dumbs.” By the time we reached Ankeny Hill and were descending into Salem the conversation rationally decompressed into what we were actually GOING to say and how fortunate we were to have time with those who were elected to serve our state. Following our meetings, we reversed this process as we returned to Corvallis.
Ed Ray is the second-best boss I’ve ever had. (The first-best was the late Orcillia Zuniga Forbes, a fellow native New Mexican, who served as Vice President for University Advancement and was my actual supervisor when I was first hired at OSU. In case you’d like to know, the worst boss was a guy who fired me three times from a summer job on a Colorado dude ranch.) Following his arrival, Ed changed the organizational chart, had me report directly to him, and added the oversight of OSU’s federal agenda to my responsibilities. That was a milestone in my career because with the addition of a federal director, I had a fellow political junkie as a colleague. Finally, somebody with whom I could commiserate.
Ed requires yearly plans which, for the sake of accountability, are to include a review of how we have fared in accomplishing the previous year’s plan. His feedback is to the point, both when it is positive and negative. He absorbs every detail in briefings and reproduces them precisely when they are needed in a manner that is typically more adroit than how they had been presented to him. When a decision is easy and obvious he makes it right away. When it is difficult, he weighs the options cautiously and thoroughly. His moral and ethical compass is steady and always pointed in the right direction. And he never misses a typo. In short, Ed is a primary reason I never looked up over the last 17 years to see if there were other opportunities on the horizon.
But Ed is not the only reason my time at OSU has been so long and so enjoyable. It would be folly to list all those who have had profound, lasting, and positive impacts on my life at OSU. This includes a long list of legislators, legislative staffers, agency people, and even other lobbyists. But I do want to briefly mention my two current professional colleagues in the Government Relations Office – Gabrielle Serra (Director of Federal Relations) and Claire McMorris (Coordinator). Both were hired following grueling, inclusive processes that involved multiple interviews with a range of stakeholders. At the time the decisions seemed difficult due to the competitive field, but in hindsight both decisions were remarkable for the quality of the individuals they brought to the university. Claire and Gabrielle meet two of my most important criteria in hiring: They are smarter than me and they like to argue.
Over her five years with OSU, Gabrielle has increased the breadth and depth of our federal presence both in DC and in the Pacific Northwest. She is highly regarded by her colleagues and counterparts, by university leaders, and particularly by those in the Congressional and agency offices with whom she works. In her first months at OSU she helped to solve a federal statutory issue that had lingered for years. Each Congressional appropriation cycle is characterized by a formidable accounting of funding achievements that reach across our research, extension, and teaching responsibilities. Nevertheless, to Gabrielle, it’s not about the money – it’s about the impact that OSU has on the health of our people, planet and economy.
In just over two years, Claire has transformed the Coordinator position by increasing its scope, responsibilities, and interactions with legislators and university leaders. Since I first encountered Claire at OSU, I have grown to know and appreciate her as an accomplished student, an unsurpassed employee, and a highly valued and respected colleague and collaborator. On many occasions I have experienced the joy of synergy as we discuss a problem or concept. I can count on Claire to tell me when an idea can be improved. She is not shy about suggesting that an idea simply can’t be improved and ought to be dropped. She is a respected colleague and leader among our counterparts across all seven of Oregon’s public universities. She is directly responsible for the creation and success of the Presidential Student Legislative Advocates (PSLA) program at OSU.
And that leads me to where I am now headed. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to continue to work with OSU students both in the classroom and in Oregon’s political and public policy venues. As a part-time faculty member I will continue to lead the PSLA while teaching an occasional course in OSU’s School of Public Policy. This spring we will be expanding the PSLA to include a trip to Washington, DC and I will be working with colleagues in the School and the College of Agricultural Sciences on an upper-division class – “The Politics of Pesticides in Oregon.”
I am also relishing the opportunity to spend more time on activities that have been patiently waiting by the wayside – like high altitude vertical snow pack research; riding trains, planes and automobiles; staying ahead of projects on our 90-year old house; brewing kombucha; and exploring the art of silk-screen printing.
Being able to continue to work with students is a crowning achievement for a career in Oregon that started in 1983 when I arrived from Boston to work as a non-partisan legislative analyst in Salem. I well know the benefits I received from my time as a student in public universities, and I have greatly valued and enjoyed the opportunity to seek continued investments in the education, research, and outreach that OSU provides to the people of Oregon. But the most rewarding experience of my time at OSU has been the privilege of working with and for students. I am most thankful for the opportunity to continue in that role.