Barbara Roberts, a fourth generation Oregonian, was born in Corvallis, Oregon on December 21, 1936 and grew up in Sheridan, Oregon, where she graduated from Sheridan High School. She attended Portland State University, 1961-1964; the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, 1989; and Marylhurst College. She has two sons, Mark and Mike Sanders, and was married to state senator Frank Roberts from 1974 until his death in 1993. [The legislative records of Senator Frank Roberts are open for research at the Oregon State Archives.]
Barbara Roberts began her career in public service as an advocate for handicapped children. She began as an unpaid lobbyist in 1969 spurred by concerns for her autistic son, Mike. She served on the Parkrose School Board. She married Senator Frank Roberts in 1974 and soon was part of a political team. She joined the Mt. Hood Community College Board. She was appointed to finish the term of a Multnomah County Commissioner.Then she won election to her husband's former seat in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1981,who had moved on to the Oregon Senate. During her second term, she became Oregon's first woman House majority leader.
In 1984 she was elected secretary of state, and became the first Democrat elected to that post in 114 years. She was reelected in 1988. Significant achievements of Roberts' terms as secretary of state include election reform legislation, the construction of a new Archives building, and broader audit powers for the secretary of state. She also chaired the Governor's Worker's Compensation Reform Task Force and was the Governor's Representative to the Hanford Waste Board. [The records of Secretary of State Barbara Roberts are open for research at the Oregon State Archives.]
Roberts ran with strong opposition from Sen. Jim Gardner in the Democratic primary in 1990 and but after winning the primary was subsequently elected to succeed Governor Neil Goldschmidt. She defeated Dave Frohnmayer (Republican)who was expected to win but due to the presence of a right wing candidate Al Mobley (Independent),who drew votes primarily from the Republican nominee. Barbara Roberts was inaugurated as Oregon's first woman governor on January 14, 1991. She completed her term as thirty-fourth governor in 1995. During her term as governor, Roberts was recognized as a strong advocate for public education, human rights and services, environmental management, and streamlining state government. Due to her having been a single mom without a college education, she was sympathetic to the downtrodden. Her husband, Frank Roberts mentored her and served as her closest advisor and was able to help her greatly til his health failed.
In 1989, Oregon voters passed Measure 5 which established constitutional limits on property tax rates. Responding to voter discontent with rising property taxes and perceived government inefficiency, Roberts initiated a project which she called "Conversation with Oregon" to gather public advise from ordinary Oregonians, hoping to build a sense of inclusion that would enable her to get a sales tax passed to help support government service. The Conversation With Oregon Records document the organization of this project which relied on volunteers to solicit citizen opinions and suggestions. The project also made use of ED-NET, the statewide telecommunications network, to enable the governor to meet with citizens throughout the state to discuss Oregon's taxation system and state government spending priorities following the passage of Measure 5.Unforunately, this long and expensive experiment did not win support of the tax reform she felt was the answer. Oregonians were seemingly not won over to a sales tax. This was part of the reason her popularity declined and it became clear that she would even face primary opposition for reelection.
Roberts worked with the Clinton administration to secure federal waivers and funding for the Oregon Health Plan. Additional accomplishments include an increase in the number of children in the Head Start program, the financing of additional units of affordable housing, and programs to help move Oregonians from welfare to the workplace. The Roberts administration was known for its strong gay rights advocacy and its appointment of women to positions in state government.
These and many other issues are documented in the Governor Barbara Roberts Records and her speeches.
Roberts' environmental record is documented in the Environmental Project Records and the Natural Resources Records. Both of these series include topically arranged files covering a broad range of issues such as the Columbia River Gorge, the spotted owl, rivers and water, salmon and the restoration of fish runs, forest practices, and mining legislation.
Roberts took courses at Marylhurst College and was awarded credits for her experience as well as coursework. Roberts decided not to seek re-election in 1994. Her popularity had declined,it was clear that she faced a primary battle from John Kitzhaber and she had lost her husband in 1993. Soon after she left office, Roberts accepted a position at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University as director of the Harvard Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government which was a position which had been filled as a transition by other politicians after leaving office (former Gov Michael Dukakis for example). The position is one which allows freedom to pursue an independent networking effort to encourage attendance at the Kennedy school by state and local officials. Later, she was given a senior fellow status to the Women and Public Policy Program which meant she could be used as lecturer to such programs at the Kennedy School.
She was followed by John Kitzhaber as Governor.
In 1998 Roberts joined Portland State University where her husband had taught and where she had political colleagues. She was given the title of Associate Director of Leadership Development for the Mark Hatfield School of Government's 's Executive Leadership Institute as Associate Director of Leadership Development.