Kicking open the boys club
Southern Oregon politics has a reputation of being a “boy’s club,” but the region has had a number of strong women leaders who have worked hard to dispel that notion.
Among them are Carol Doty, Sue Kupillas, Cathy Shaw and Lindsay Berryman — all longtime residents but none Southern Oregon natives — who stood up for issues such as air and water quality, schools, crime prevention, land use, economic development and health care.
Doty and Kupillas presided over Jackson County Board of Commissioners sessions, and Shaw and Berryman over City Council meetings as the first female mayors of Ashland and Medford, respectively. Today, their fingerprints and footprints can be seen along the trails they blazed.
Carol Doty, with her husband and toddler son, moved from Pennsylvania to the hills above Talent in September 1970. Six years later, she was elected to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
Her co-commissioner, Isabel Sickels, was elected as the first female commissioner in 1974.
“Isabel and I served together for two years. We were the first county commission in Oregon with a female majority … at least that’s what Ms. Magazine published,” Doty recalled in a recent interview.
Doty said her interest in the county’s early land-use planning process prompted her to seek office in 1976. She was buoyed too, she said, by her success in turning around the Jackson County Head Start program during her five years as director.
Doty credits various mentors with giving her the confidence to “do anything, even repair the Head Start program that was threatened with defunding. “Before I left, it was the highest-rated Head Start program in Oregon and was receiving funding for innovative programs.”
When she became Head Start director in January 1971, the center was situated where the Jackson County Jail sits today. In a twist of fate, the first vote she cast on her first day in office in 1977 was to approve construction of a new county jail.
Despite the support she received during her campaign for commissioner, Doty later discovered that “being on a female-controlled commission was a challenge for some residents.”
“We were definitely not one of the good ol’ boys,” she said. “At least one attempt was made to recall Isabel. Two attempts were made on me before one was successful.”
Doty believes land-use planning was the tipping point. In her role as board chairman, she took to task those who violated state land-use planning laws.
“Working without an administrator to make the county’s comprehensive plan comply with Oregon statutes was the greatest challenge,” she said.
Even after she was forced out of office in 1979, she continued to work with groups, including the 1000 Friends of Oregon, to monitor the county’s land-use decisions and policies. Maintaining a balance between preserving agricultural land and allowing commercial development remained a fiery hot issue at public hearings.
“Rooms were always packed, with people standing around the edges,” she says.
Though her time in the county commissioners’ office was short-lived, Doty is proud of her achievements, including the construction of Britt Pavilion in Jacksonville. Her most notable accomplishment, however, was the establishment of the first air-quality committee with fellow commissioners Sickels and Tam Moore.
“Jackson County’s air is clean today because that committee was the most effective one I’ve seen operate in county government,” she says.
A cooperative relationship with the city of Medford and mayors Al Densmore and Lou Hannum helped the county introduce vehicle-emission testing and reduce woodstove smoke by helping residents meet state and federal air-quality standards. The committee also worked in concert with the wood products industry to reduce sawdust and carbon particulates, and with the fruit growers to replace smudge pots with windmills.
“People were made ill by the air quality, and we wanted to make sure everyone understood about the extent of the health problems that worsened during an air inversion.”
“I believe my legacy, and that of Moore and Sickels, was to get the air clean enough that the White City industrial park area could begin to attract much more industry.”
Today, Doty serves on the board of directors for the Jackson County Library District and is working on a five-year strategic plan to expand library services.
“I have lived and continue to live a very fortunate life,” reflected the woman who spent her childhood some 70 years ago in Virginia’s Appalachians.
Sue Kupllias served four terms as Jackson County commissioner. Her 16 consecutive years on the board is matched only by the late Jack Walker.
Kupillas, with her husband and children, moved from Salem to an Eagle Point cattle ranch in 1976. She entered politics almost immediately, not by design, but with determination to save the floundering Eagle Point School District.
With children in first and fifth grade, Kupillas was appalled to find that the District 9 tax levy had failed and that schools were closed.
During the eight-week closure, the former teacher home-schooled her children, as well as neighborhood children. She also showed up at school board meetings, began knocking on doors and making telephone calls to stress the importance of education, she said.
“It was an overwhelming task, and a bit daunting,” she said. “That was my beginning.”
She later served several terms on the District 9 board and was president of the Oregon School Boards Association.
Elected to the Board of Commissioners in 1988, Kupillas lists the formation of the White City Community Improvement Association and the White City Urban Renewal Agency in 1990 among her achievements.
When she took office, White City was “a mess,” she said.
Area schools were experiencing a high rate of turnover and declining enrollment, and “children were coming to school hungry, without shoes, unprepared as far as social skills and school-readiness,” she recalled.
White City’s alarming crime rate also gave the area a black eye.
“It was a dangerous place,” she said.
The challenge to turn White City around was one “nobody (on the Board of Commissioners) wanted to take on,” she said. “Improving the area proved to be a challenge.”
“Roads were in such bad condition that school buses wouldn’t run and mail delivery stopped along some routes,” she continued. “Industrial and residential areas were classic examples of blight.”
Community development grants shored up the urban renewal district. The area’s infrastructure was upgraded, residential areas were renovated, and the industrial park revitalized.
A community policing district was created, and within the first year crime and vandalism dropped by 10 percent.
Kupillas also launched the Rogue Family Center in White City, bringing state and county health and human services under one roof and creating Oregon’s first one-stop program.
Her work in White City earned accolades across the state, and she received a planning award from the state of Oregon.
During her tenure as county commissioner, Kupillas saw the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990, lived through the timber wars that followed, and was in Portland when President Bill Clinton convened the 1993 timber summit that led to the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994.
Since then, as commissioner and on the executive board of O&C Counties and various natural resources councils and committees, Kupillas has testified before Congress 15 times in favor of federal forest management policies that ensure healthy forests, sustainable timber production and jobs creation in the wood products industry.
Kupillas said her work has afforded her the opportunity to meet three presidents: “Both Bushes and Clinton,” and “some amazing women leaders like Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Dole.”
Pretty heady stuff for a “small-town impressionable girl,” she said.
Cathy (Golden) Shaw discovered she had an aptitude for organizing and running elections in 1986 during her then-husband’s successful campaign for Jackson County commissioner. However, it was an off-hand remark made by an Ashland Public Works director that launched her 1988 campaign to become Ashland’s first female mayor.
“Everything began to die off,” she said, of the once pristine wetland on the 2-acre Ashland property she shared with former husband, Jeff Golden, and her children.
“I suspected a broken sewer main because of the smell and called the city in to inspect. I was assured there was no sewer main running in that area and further assured that what I smelled was just decomposing vegetation.”
Unconvinced, she asked the Public Works Department to inspect the impacted area.
"He told me, ‘if I inspected what every housewife asked me to inspect, I’d get nothing done.’ With that remark, the die was cast,” she said. “It was my opinion that government should be in service to the people it serves.”
As it turned out, there was a broken sewer main, and the “housewife” won the 1988 election, serving as mayor for three terms, 1989-2000.
Two years on the Ashland Budget Committee had given her a primer in collaboration with the city’s administrative departments. She was able to make many changes in both policy and management, she said, with the “help of the many, many citizens of Ashland.”
“Without that help … nothing would have succeeded,” she said.
During Shaw’s 12-year tenure, Ashland implemented an Open Space Plan, and along with the Parks Commission established a park within walking distance (one-quarter mile) of every home and an extensive trail system. Hillside development standards also restricted unlimited development on the city’s steep, forested hillsides.
“It’s important to note that Ashland’s tourism isn’t just about the plays,” she commented. “It is also about the city and activities that are immediately available in and around Ashland. Open space and protection of natural features are part of the allure.”
Other initiatives saved timberland above Southern Oregon University, encouraged affordable housing beyond the commercial district and promoted pedestrian traffic downtown. Innovative water conservation programs also were implemented.
“We hired staff to help citizens with water inefficiencies in their homes and landscaping; the city did the same,” Shaw recalled. “Residents were given money to replace toilets, and in conjunction with Bonneville Power, we replaced shower heads at no expense to the residents or the city. There were lots of moving parts to water conservation. When I left office, we were using less water per capita than we did in 1970.”
Under Shaw’s tutelage, Ashland residents approved tax levies other municipalities rejected.
A meals tax supported the parks system and paid for upgrades to Ashland’s wastewater treatment plant.
After Measure 5 limited local money going to schools, a Youth Activities Levy funneled money through the city into Ashland school programs.
Late in Shaw’s tenure, Ashland voters approved a proposal to fund renovations of the crumbling Carnegie Library, “but we waited to float our bonds until the county had an opportunity to pass a capital improvements measure on all of the branches the following year,” she said. The move inspired the future renovation of all 15 Jackson County libraries.
While in office and in the decade or so since, Shaw honed her skills as a political strategist. She spearheaded successful campaigns to elect state legislators Alan Bates and Peter Buckley and county Commissioner Dave Gilmour, as well as pass a Medford school bond levy.
Her book, “The Campaign Manager, Running and Winning Local Elections,” first published in 1996, is now in its fifth edition.
In 2014, Shaw led the successful Libraries for All campaign that established a library district independent of Jackson County government.
“I love the collaborative aspect of political campaigns,” she reflected. “Having a competent and capable campaign committee that helps get the ball up the hill — people I love spending time with. And then there’s the whole thing about activating a community to rally around a common cause.”
Lindsay Berryman’s foray into city government, much like Shaw’s, began in her own backyard.
“When we first moved to Medford in 1974, we thought we’d moved to the country,” said the Midwestern transplant. “Pretty soon, there was a huge subdivision being planned.”
Though she was dismayed about the encroachment, Berryman was even more alarmed by the lack of roads and infrastructure to support the development.
“I did my research and discovered that the City Council was not enforcing its own comprehensive plan,” she said. She organized a neighborhood group, hired a lawyer, and filed and won a lawsuit against the city of Medford.
The decision set a precedent for the city’s future land-use planning. It also spurred Berryman to run for a seat on City Council.
Berryman served on the council for three terms,1980 to 1986, and was council president twice. She was a driving force behind the Medford Urban Renewal Agency from 1988 to 1998, which initiated the city’s first strategic plan. It included the removal of the Jackson Street dam and rehabilitation of Bear Creek, creation of the Bear Creek Greenway, improvement of the city’s aging infrastructure, and “restoration of downtown’s history and purpose.”
Berryman’s own sense of purpose launched her campaign in 1998 to become Medford’s first female mayor.
Berryman loathed Medford’s reputation as “Deadford” and “Dreadford.”
“It was a sickness that spread,” she said, recalling empty storefronts, rundown buildings and not much downtown traffic.
“The city had lost its heart, its sense of self-worth. Nobody felt that Medford had a future,” she added.
She was inspired, however, to revive the spirit of commerce and culture that timber barons, farmers, orchardists, and business men and women brought to the corner of Main and Central in the early 1900s.
Berryman’s decade-long push for revitalization while sitting on the MURA board continued from 1999-2004 during her four years in the mayor’s office.
“I was up to my earlobes thinking about projects,” she said.
The goal, she said, of an ambitious agenda that began in 1996 with the $5.2 million restoration of the historic Craterian Theater was to draw more folks downtown to shop, dine, patronize the arts and experience the diverse culture in “Medford’s neighborhood.”
“We wanted to get more feet on the street,” she said.
A cultural and education district encompassing the revamped Craterian Theater, the Southern Oregon Historical Society, the Medford library and the Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University campuses was created. Also, an annual arts festival, Art in Bloom, was born.
Although the Craterian was “the cornerstone” of the district, Berryman said the restoration project was the biggest challenge of her career. After much “push and pull,” more than 600 individuals, businesses, foundations and agencies eventually “caught the vision.” And, with “tremendous support” from Ginger Rogers, whose early career included performing on the Craterian stage, the theater reopened in 1997.
“She got people to open up their wallets,” she said, recalling a fundraiser gala, where the actress, then living in Southern Oregon, made an appearance.
Berryman believes the formation of the cultural and education district and major construction projects undertaken by Lithia Motors, One West Main, the Holly Theater and many others sends a message that Medford is alive and well.
“We have been able to send a signal that business is thriving, and the arts are embraced,” she said.
After Berryman left office, she was appointed twice by Gov. John Kitzhaber to serve on the Land Use Conservation and Development Commission, as well as the Oregon Progress Board.
But she is most proud “that we have been able turn around the attitude of downtown Medford.”
Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at email@example.com.