The Real Housewives of Benton County Present: State Representative Sara Gelser

I first heard about Sara Gelser from Chris when she was a member of the school board and he was teaching at Linus Pauling Middle School. Whether or not they were on the same side of an issue, Chris always admired Sara as a politician and person. Chris says that Sara is respectful, a good listener, and a person of integrity. I’m not sure how many politicians today would be described the same way. Oh, and don’t let me fail to mention  that Sara is the busy mom of four. I was excited to interview Sara, and it is obvious to me that she is a caring and passionate leader/mother.  I’m feeling so inspired, hey, maybe I’ll go and run for public office someday. I could totally use the slogan that I used when I ran for Senior Class Vice President, “Kara Cares!!” Do I have any votes :)??

Kara-You are currently the state representative for Philomath and Corvallis. Tell us a little bit about how you arrived to where you are today.

Sara- I  was lucky enough to meet mentors who encouraged and supported me.  When my oldest son, Sam, was a toddler, I spent a lot of time in Salem advocating for early childhood programs for kids with disabilities.  During that time, I met then Corvallis Representative Barbara Ross.  Even though I was a difficult constituent, she took me under her wing.  She encouraged me to pursue a seat on the Corvallis School Board, and then urged me to run for the Legislature.  She taught me that mentoring and lifting up others is probably the most important task of leadership.  I hope I can follow in her footsteps in that regard.

It’s also worth acknowledging that I lost my election the first time I ran for the legislature.  As it turns out, many of my colleagues had a similar experience.  I’ve tried to teach my kids that how you lose is as important as how you win— whether in an election, on a soccer field, auditioning for a play or when you are pursuing a goal.  It’s also important to stand back up and try again.

Kara-How has being a mom influenced how you do your job?

Sara-  My kids have introduced me to more people, more ideas, and a broader diversity of experiences than anything else in my life.  When we debate issues in committee or on the floor, I know that I will go home and hear about how these things are really impacting people on the ground.  I get to hear directly from people at the grocery store, the park, the soccer field and pick up time at school.  It constantly reminds me that lofty ideas aren’t good enough.  It has to work on the ground.  The families I get to interact with because of my kids keeps me engaged with people of all political persuasions, and reminds me of what really matters.  A bill not passing may be frustrating— but not as frustrating and scary as not being able to pay the mortgage or not being able to afford taking a hurting child to the dentist.

Being a mom also feeds one of my greatest weaknesses.  By nature, I’m not a patient person.  Having kids and seeing how quickly their childhoods go by gives me an even greater sense of urgency. Sometimes that means I push too hard or too fast.  On the flip side, politics needs a sense of urgency. The truth is that kids and families don’t have a lot of time to wait for access to quality, affordable childcare, good schools, health care providers, and clean air and water.

Finally, all moms multi-task, remember lots of names and can tackle a to-do list without writing everything down.  That’s definitely been a help!

Kara-What are a few of the issues you are most passionate about right now? What are you doing about them?

Sara- I’m very concerned about the achievement gap among kids.  How kids do in school impacts their entire lives, and the lives of their children.  If we could make real progress in closing that gap, we would really start to eat away at generational poverty.

It really isn’t just about education.  It’s about access to good nutrition, quality health care, and support for parents who need to access social or educational services. It’s also about confronting tough questions about ourselves and how our own ideas and practices get in the way of kids’ growth. Students of color, students who speak English as a second language, and students with disabilities lag their friends in every learning category.  This isn’t because they are less smart or less capable— it’s because we haven’t learned to meet their needs, and we’ve bought into low expectations for these kids.

You can’t fix this problem by passing laws.  In fact, laws and mandates often make it harder by encouraging us to focus more on process than outcomes.  My hope is to constantly raise expectations for kids.  The best gift any parent or teacher can give to a child is very high expectations and the support to meet those expectations.  (I learned that from Mo Ruzek, a veteran teacher at Jefferson Elementary School.)  As a legislator I’ve tried to get at this by shining a light on outcomes for subgroups of students, expanding diploma options for kids, increasing access to alternative education options, focusing more on proficiency than seat time, and opening doors to higher education through tuition equity for immigrant students.

Kara-How did your work on the school board compare to your work as a state representative now? What was the best part of being on the school board What was the hardest part?

Sara- As a legislator, I have much more freedom to express my own opinion and advocate directly for my constituents.  As a school board member, there was a greater sense of being part of an organization and supporting the work of an executive team.  Oregon’s inadequate and centralized funding system makes it nearly impossible for school board members to shape policy and outcomes in the way they might like.  As a legislator, I’ve advocated changes that would restore some of that fiscal authority to local school boards and superintendents.

What I loved most about being on the school board was the direct connection to students and teachers.  It was inspiring to hear from kids on a regular basis, to see what was happening in schools, and to have a sense of the creativity and dedication of the incredible cohort of teachers we have here in Corvallis.  Passing out diplomas each year was also a lot of fun.  As a legislator, it is much more difficult to find that direct connection to what is really happening on the ground.  That is one reason why I’m so grateful to have four kids in public school— I get an on the ground view of what is happening in our schools each day, and I get to hear directly from parents, teachers and kids on a regular basis.

Kara-What are your long term career goals?

Sara- I am really happy where I am at right now.  I’m focused on serving my constituents to the best of my ability and continuing to learn how to be more effective at what I do.  I’m interested in pursuing statewide office or the US Congress later on, but it is far too early to know where the best fit will be.  My goal is to be attentive to what is going on around me, to learn from my mistakes and to find the best place I can to contribute to a better future— whether that is in an elective office, as a community volunteer, or working in a public agency or advocacy organization.

Kara-How do you find balance in your life juggling your many roles?

Sara- This is an ongoing struggle for me.  I’m blessed to have family and friends who help fill in the gaps in the logistical areas of life (driving kids, school events, athletic events, etc.), but I still haven’t figured out how to go to bed at night feeling like I’ve done all I need to do for my kids, my husband, my work and my friends.  Not to mention—my house is messy and there are way too many weeds in my garden!  I always feel guilty when I get a compliment about juggling roles because it’s easier for me to see the balls I’ve dropped than the ones still flying in the air.  I think we’d all feel a lot better if we acknowledged that it’s impossible for any human to get everything done in a day that needs to be done, regardless of their job or the number of kids they tuck in bed each evening.  We need to learn to forgive ourselves for being human, having dirty dishes in the sink, and dog hair on our suits.

Kara-What else do you like to do when you’re not running kids around or saving the world?

Sara- I love to cook and bake, and I really enjoy working in my garden.  Meeting a good friend for coffee is a special treat, and so is taking a long walk alone with no particular destination. I get to travel Washington DC for work fairly often, and I’ve found I enjoy walking alone late at night in the city— it gives me space to think and recharge, and lets me pretend I’m on an adventure.  I love surprises!

Kara-Just for fun, if you could go out to eat to any restaurant in Corvallis right now, which one would you choose?

Sara- Terminus!!  It’s locally owned, the food is great, the price is right, the staff is amazing, and the passion the Ottens have for their business shines through every part of the experience there.  I’m also a big fan of Jon Gold’s Sunnyside Up— great coffee, delicious muhammara and the most welcoming atmosphere for community conversation.  And, of course, Sam’s Station is my favorite solo getaway on Sunday mornings before church.  (You can find me hiding in the corner with the Sunday papers!)

Kara-What is something that people might be surprised to know about you?

Sara- For Christmas last year, my kids gave me a giant stuffed Smurf and recently my mother gave me a soft, fuzzy plush rabbit because I was sick.  Sometimes these critters make their way into our bed.  I suspect it is because we actually miss all the kids piling in with us!   Also, I play the viola and like Madonna.

Kara-What brings you peace and happiness?

Sara- The sound of my kids laughing, my husband’s smile, the smell of bread baking, the tree swing in our yard, the finches at the birdfeeder and friends joining us for dinner and conversation in our kitchen.

adrienne w - September 21, 2011 - 10:47 am

When I first started reading this interview I thought I wouldn’t be that interested, because I don’t live in your area (or country :) )and I’m not that interested in politics, but it was a great interview. I really appreciated a lot of what Sara had to say! I love when she said that how you lose is just as important as how you win. What a great thing to teach our kids!!

Camille - September 21, 2011 - 10:03 pm

I recognized the name, but this was great to hear more of Rep. Gelser’s story. I used to be more politically active in my teens and early 20s, but I’ve been feeling a little out of the loop in more recent years. I’m really glad to know that I have a good advocate and a good mom working on my behalf. Thanks, Sara and thanks to Kara for introducing her.