SALEM — It's been a decade since Bev Clarno left state politics, but she's still keeping tabs on what's happening at the Capitol.
“I follow politics closely,” she said. “Sometimes it's very painful.”
Clarno stepped onto the Oregon political scene in 1988, when she ran for the House of Representatives. She was 50 years old and had spent years as a hog rancher in Central Oregon. She became the first female Republican Speaker of the House, and later led her party in the upper chamber in the Senate as well. She quickly carved out a reputation as being tough but fair and willing to work across the aisle.
“I'm a Democrat. She's a Republican. She's from rural Oregon. I'm from the Valley,” said longtime Senate President Peter Courtney.
But, Courtney said, the two hit it off and became close colleagues.
“It was Bev and Peter. She was a card-carrying conservative and I'm a moderate Democrat and we just related. That's the kind of person she is, she is totally solid,” Courtney said. “She was straight up ... I wish she was still in the Legislature.”
She even had a Democrat on her staff.
Former reporter Mike Beard remembers when he got the call asking if he wanted to be part of Clarno's staff.
“I said, 'Geez, but I'm a Democrat,” Beard said.
And she said, “We just won't tell anybody ... it was always a joke, but it worked fine and it worked well. I loved working for Bev.”
Clarno gained a reputation as the taxpayer's protector. She wanted oversight on how dollars were being spent and she wanted state agencies to run more efficiently.
She spent eight years in the Oregon House and later ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer. She took a four-year break and came back to the Senate, where she served until being appointed by the Bush administration to serve for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
On a recent morning, she was heading to breakfast with her husband near their home in Eagle Crest. It's clear the 77-year-old hasn't slowed down. She checked off a handful of organizations she volunteers for and boards she sits on. She helps young students with their college applications, and she's active on the Redmond Chamber of Commerce board. She's researching her family history and spending a lot of time in Clarno, Ore., at the historic Grange Hall she bought with her husband. Oh, and there's her consulting business through which she advises those setting out to run for office.
She's keeping a careful eye on the so-called “grand bargain” that could be struck between raising taxes and slashing state pension benefits.
The governor will decide soon whether to call lawmakers back into a special session to hash out a deal to raise more state revenue by making changes to the public pension system and raising taxes.
“I'm worried about them raising taxes,” she said. “Too many business people I've known have downsized and I worry we're never going to have a strong economy in Oregon.”
She's talked to House Republican Leader Mike McLane, she said.
“I've told Mike McLane to hold strong and not vote for taxes. He's an up-and-coming leader in our state.”
But, she said, controlling a caucus is sometimes akin to “herding cats.”
“All the Democrats need is one or two Republicans that go sideways, and then you have a tax increase,” Clarno said.
McLane's current chief of staff, Shawn Cleave, worked for Clarno a decade ago
In 2003, the Senate membership was split 15-15. There were tense moments.
At the end of the day, she would call her staff into her office, pour them a drink and say, “How do we fix this?” he said.
Clarno's priority was often building trust with other lawmakers. That's what produced good policy.
“Building strong relationships and trust with people, regardless of party, that's what I really learned from her,” Cleave said.
These days, Clarno is enjoying some more family time, if not more down time. She misses politics and still says “never say never” when it comes to the possibility of running again. And she's still working on her memoir, titled “Pigs to Politics.”
“My only regret is I couldn't change more things, but I don't regret serving,” she said. “And what I tell people is don't be so critical of our politicians; they are trying hard to do their best, and if you don't like it, run for office yourself.”
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