Doherty reflects on 11 years of House service
When state Rep. Margaret Doherty leaves the Oregon State Capitol next year, it will be with the knowledge that she contributed heavily to all things educational — from ensuring that all students have access to free lunches to the expansion of student health centers.
Earlier this month, the Tigard Democrat announced that she won't run for reelection after her term expires, marking 11 years of having represented Tigard and Southwest Portland residents in House District 35.
Appointed in 2009, and elected in 2010, Doherty said she thinks it's time to leave, pointing out that of all of the legislators who began serving with her, only five remain.
"I think what I'm going to miss is the camaraderie of the legislators," Doherty said during a recent interview, likening them to a group of soldiers who have served together in the military. "They understand each other and have gone through things nobody else has, and so nobody can understand it, and that's what it is with the Legislature."
A Tigard resident since 1989, Doherty said the relationships between the two main political parties is evident when she walks into the Capitol's second-floor lounge.
"If you look at it, you would never know who was a Republican or a Democrat — you really wouldn't," she said. "It's just friends having lunch."
Having grown up in a household of "Tom McCall Republicans," Doherty said, she was the lone Democrat. However, by the time her parents passed away, both were Democrats, angry in large part about what she said was former President Ronald Reagan taking away many of their retirement benefits.
An avid attendee of local meetings, events and retirement gatherings, Doherty said when dealing with anyone, she always thinks back about how her late father, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, urged her "to treat an apprentice seaman as you would an admiral."
"That's how we were raised," she said.
While Doherty's accomplishments range from pushing to allow HIV testing in emergency rooms to a variety of consumer protections, the former teacher also has been a tireless advocate of bills that focus on school nutrition programs.
She also had three bills that were rolled into the recent Student Success Act, which taxes business sales as a means of injecting more money into Oregon's underfunded public schools. Supporters like Doherty say the law, which passed the Legislature last year on mostly party-line votes, is designed to improve opportunities for students who in the past have been underserved in education.
Part of the Student Success Act makes free lunches available to students who need it. Another part is something called "Breakfast After the Bell," which allows districts that have 70% or more students on a free and reduced-price lunch program to ensure they have breakfast even after school starts.
For Doherty, her departure from the Legislature isn't her first retirement. She's been engaged in a number of different careers throughout her life, including a decade teaching speech, history and English at Milwaukie High School.
"Teaching's the best thing I've ever done, I think," Doherty said. "When you have students 40 years later who are still in contact with you and ask you for advice, that's kind of cool."
Doherty later spent 22 years working for the Oregon Education Association where she negotiated labor contracts. She likes to jokingly refer to herself as a "labor goon," based on a comment made in 2016 by an anonymous observer in Willamette Week. She retired from the association in 2006.
Doherty said she learned a lot from those years working for the teachers union.
"The tools you learn negotiating contracts are invaluable in the Legislature, because if you don't start moving towards the middle or start listening to both sides when trying to deal with the issues that they have in education, you're out on strike," she said.
Doherty also spent eight years on the Tigard Planning Commission and has volunteered at the Tigard Public Library for 20 years as well.
As a library volunteer, one of her duties included overseeing community service hours for students participating in the now-defunct Tigard Peer Court.
"It was a phenomenal program," Doherty said of the program, in which young people charged with misdemeanors would allow their peers to determine their punishment instead of going through the county's juvenile system. The program was cut due to city budget constraints.
"The recidivism rate was less than 2%," she said. "What was cool is (defendants) did community service and then they (later) served on the jury."
During her time as a Peer Court volunteer — or what she calls being a "warden" — Doherty heard both poignant stories as well as excuses students made for their actions.
She vividly recalls the day a girl who had shoplifted some clothes was sent her way. At one point, Doherty asked her why she took the clothes.
"She said, 'You know, I'm starting my sophomore year and I've never had anything new the first day of school,' and that's a big deal," recalled Doherty, who was moved by the girl's honesty.
Others involved students who were more impulsive.
"We had two freshmen boys who stole a sweatshirt and I go, 'What were you thinking?' and the kid goes, 'Well obviously, we weren't.'"
It's her hope the Peer Court program returns at some point.
Doherty pointed out that she doesn't think everyone knows how much work legislators put in for their $31,000 annual salary.
"I don't think people realize about how much personal and professional time is given by legislators and that's something when you talk about a citizen Legislature, this is truly a citizen Legislature and … they really care about their constituents in the areas they're in," Doherty said.
Having said that, she doesn't think the Legislature will ever hold yearly sessions such as those held in larger states, saying she doesn't think there will ever be a need for that frequency.
Oregon has a full-length session every odd-numbered year. Since 2012, the Legislature also holds what is often called a "short session," which is typically focused on one or two major issues, and often serves as a way to either resolve unfinished business from the previous year or set the table for the following year, in every even-numbered year.
Blunt in her assessments of people and events, Doherty makes no apologies.
In the Legislature, she's shown she has no time for foolishness, receiving national attention last year after refusing to allow Holocaust deniers to overtake a House Education Committee hearing on mandatory Holocaust education in schools.
"I'm Irish," she offered, by way of explaining her frankness. "Irish diplomacy is the ability to tell somebody to go to hell and have them look forward to the trip."
She credits her legislative staff over the years with many of her successes, pointing out they have gone on to have successful careers, whether it be running large food banks or working with the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
One former staffer, Ben Bowman, was elected to the Tigard-Tualatin School Board last year. At 27, Bowman is believed to be not only the youngest board member ever to serve but also the first openly LBGTQ member.
"Working for Margaret in the Legislature was one of the best experiences of my career," said Bowman. "It was a master class on how to take your job seriously, but not take yourself too seriously. She works very hard — showing up to just about every community meeting, forum, picnic, fundraiser, and theater production in Tigard and (Southwest) Portland."
Bowman said he believes Doherty has served with humility and "not an ounce of self-importance."
"She has close relationships not just with Democrats, but with Republicans and the nonpartisan staff who help run the Legislature — a rare thing in today's politics," Bowman added. "Oregon will miss having her voice in the Legislature."
Tigard Mayor Jason Snider has also appreciated Doherty's work in the legislature over the years.
"Rep. Doherty has been a great advocate for the City of Tigard and surrounding community," said Snider. "She has been an excellent community leader and done everything she could to move issues forward in the state legislature that matter to the people of House District 35. Our entire community and the state are better because of her work over the last decade."
Meanwhile, Doherty said House District 35 has always had great representation and she believes that will continue.
"There's some good people that will come in and do a very good job," she said.
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