The Stateswoman

When she took public office in 2005, Gelser became the youngest woman serving in the Oregon State House of Representatives, and was quickly tapped by colleagues for leadership roles, including several years as Assistant Majority Leader. She is also co-chair of the House Education Commitee. A Democrat, she was also appointed by President Obama to serve on the National Council on Disability. She was a 2011 German Marshall Memorial Fellow. This is an expanded version of an interview that appears in the Winter 2012 issue of the Earlhamite, which focuses on leadership.

Tell us about an issue you are focused on right now.

Obviously, education issues are a priority for me. However, much of my work cuts across all policy areas addressing those who often have the smallest voices in politics: children, people with disabilities, victims of abuse, domestic and sexual violence, and low-income people. I've been most proud of the work I've done to strengthen Oregon's response to child abuse, and the abuse of adults with disabilities. I was also proud to help create the nation's first statewide standards for modified and extended diplomas.

What's your definition of a leader?

A leader is someone who sees a problem and refuses to believe it can't be resolved. She works with those directly impacted by the issue to find solutions that actually work. An effective leader doesn't quit, isn't afraid to make mistakes, and takes responsibility for and learns from those mistakes. Finally, leadership is not about seeking credit-it is about delivering results and making sure that all the voices are heard in the decision making process. If you aren't listening to what everyone has to say, you will miss the opportunity to find the best solutions.

What are your struggles with taking on leadership roles?

My drive and passion can get the best of me. I am always trying to learn to be more patient, and to become better at discerning when to push forward and when to pull back. Sometimes my sense of urgency about resolving a problem can overwhelm others, or lead me to push too hard and too fast. In some cases, this urgency is important to making progress on particularly intractable issues, but there really is a balance to be found. I also find that in a legislative position, it is hard to find people to give honest and constructive feedback. Leadership is an ongoing learning experience, so seeking out mentors who are willing to criticize my work and help me plan to do better is a high priority for me. I think government and politics would be much more effective if we had better methods for evaluating the professional quality of the work we do.

How do you strike a balance between your own beliefs and the need for compromise?

The legislative process itself really helps with this. It isn't enough for one legislator to want something to happen. For any bill to pass, it requires convincing a majority of the members of two chambers to support the idea. I generally try to take ideas that I know will be controversial and go directly to those I assume will be concerned about the idea. For example, I worked on a bill a couple of years ago related to how confessions are handled in sex abuse cases involving adults who are not competent to testify in court. There had been a case in my district where an individual had confessed to raping several women with Alzheimer's. He was convicted, but the conviction was thrown out because the victims could not testify to corroborate that the crimes had occurred. When writing legislation to address this, I enlisted the counsel of the attorney who successfully represented the defendant on appeal. The result was a good bill that balanced protecting the rights of defendants with the need to protect access to justice for the most vulnerable victims. I was humbled when this attorney came and testified in favor of the bill in committee even though he was initially opposed to the idea. This idea of actively seeking opposing perspectives is something I learned at Earlham. It has served me well.

What experiences at Earlham prepared you for life as an elected official?

At Earlham, I was deeply impacted by the [Quaker] testimony on respect for others. Whether I am meeting with constituents, chairing a meeting, or negotiating with colleagues I try to be intentional about respecting everyone I encounter. Sometimes we hear bills that are not very exciting, but I remind myself that each bill we hear is the most important thing in the world to someone that day - and therefore that bill deserves attention and respect. I also think about this principle when dealing with difficult people. When we receive angry phone calls and emails, my staff and I really try to step back and listen to see if we can discern what is motivating that anger. Listening in this way, and trying to respect that people are usually doing the best they can at all times, is something I learned from Earlham. I'm not always successful at doing this, but I am grateful that Earlham gave me the opportunity to practice these skills in a variety of ways.

How has your exposure to Quakerism affected your experiences in government?

Government is not a particularly Quakerly process. The idea of working by consensus, sharing success and failure, and looking for solutions that benefit the whole body are somewhat foreign to the culture of American politics. As I write this, I am traveling in Sweden as part of a German Marshall Memorial Fellowship. As we meet with political leaders here, I am struck by the more consensus-driven nature of politics and government in this country. One mayor explained that when Swedes see a problem, they bring everyone to the table and try to find a solution that works for everyone. She went on to say that if you don't have every voice at the table, you won't come up with the right solution. I was struck by how "Earlham-like" her description of the process was, and am now wondering how we might bring some of that perspective to the American political system.

What's one thing you'd like every Earlhamite to know about Oregon?

How could I possibly choose just one thing? It is a beautiful state, and I am happy to host any Earlhamite who passes through. Be sure to bring your bike, as we have some of the best and most developed bike paths in the country. Two weeks ago Corvallis (the city I live in) was named as the city with the most bicycle commuters per capita in the nation. Of course, we also have beautiful beaches, deserts, mountains and farms.

What are your hopes and plans for the next 5 years?

I love the work I am doing now, and hope to continue doing it for as long as I have new ideas and can contribute in an effective way. I hope that in the process I can work with families, educators, and political leaders to raise expectations for all students and improve life outcomes for all kids. I'd like to become more involved with disability related issues on a national level, and after this German Marshall Fund experience, even on an international level. It is an exciting policy area that sorely needs attention. While I do hope to pursue a higher office eventually, right now I'm in the place I need to be both for work and family. In all things, I want to focus my energy where it makes a difference and hope I will have the discernment to know when it is time to move on to new opportunities.

What's your idea of a great day off?

It's funny to answer that question right now. As I mentioned, I am participating in a German Marshall Memorial Fellowship right now, which is a rigorous nearly month long program in Europe. This is Day 10, and for the first time we have a free morning. Several of us planned to go sightseeing, but I elected to use the time to work. So did everyone else. We've realized that perhaps this is why we don't get much free time - the organizers must know that a bunch of work addicted type A personalities will not use free time for leisure and exploration!

That said, when I do have a free day I enjoy cooking and baking with my kids, working in my very messy and very accidental garden, and like any good Earlhamite, I still love to read. When we can find the time, I also love to travel and check out new things whether that is in another county in the state, or on another continent! And, of course, my husband, Peter '94, and I have made a hobby out of trying to recruit our kids to go to Earlham.

Sara Gelser
Sara Gelser 1994, Member, Oregon State House of Representatives

Master's degree, Oregon State University

Hometown: Corvallis, Ore.

Major at Earlham: History

Print Friendly and PDF