PORTLAND — Pioneering Oregon Republican Norma Paulus, who was the first woman elected to statewide office, has died.
Ms. Paulus died Thursday after spending time in hospice for health problems related to dementia, according to Kerry Tymchuk, a longtime friend and her successor as director of the Oregon historical society. Ms. Paulus was 85.
“She was a pathbreaker and a history-maker,” Tymchuk told the Oregonian/OregonLive.
Ms. Paulus was a member of the Legislature, Oregon’s secretary of state from 1977 to 1985, her party’s nominee for governor in 1986 and the state’s elected superintendent of schools for two terms in the 1990s.
Fiscally conservative, Ms. Paulus was a feminist and environmentalist who crafted bipartisan legislation with Democratic women in the House in the 1970s and championed the auditor’s role in the secretary of state’s office.
As the state’s top elections official, she helped bring about a fair election when the Rajneeshees tried in 1984 to bus in homeless people to hijack a Wasco County election. And she first instituted vote by mail in Oregon, backing its use in normally low-turnout special elections.
As an environmentalist, she required recycling in state office buildings, wrote legislation to limit the use of off-road vehicles on state lands and, according to her autobiography, played a key role in preserving Cape Kiwanda as a state-owned natural area.
Ms. Paulus grew up in Depression-era poverty in eastern Oregon, didn’t go to college but landed a secretary job through a hometown connection and then worked for the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.
Eventually she was admitted to law school at Willamette University, where she studied part-time while continuing her secretarial job. While in law school, she married William “Bill” Paulus and gave birth to a daughter before graduating with honors in 1962. The couple’s son, Fritz, was born the next year.
She won a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives representing Salem in 1970, at a time when the Legislature had only a handful of women.
Republican Sen. Jackie Winters of Salem said in a statement that Ms. Paulus was a role model.
“She paved the way for so many women in Oregon as the first Republican woman elected to statewide office, Winters said. “She was a trailblazer and a true force to be reckoned with. Norma was a neighbor, a dear friend, a mentor, an inspiration, and a true servant to all Oregonians. I will miss her deeply.”
Ms. Paulus also was a founding member of the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus and helped push the Equal Rights Amendment in Oregon.
Ms. Paulus’ autobiography, written largely by Gail Wills and Pat McCord Amacher after Ms. Paulus’ health and memory began to fail, is titled “The Only Woman in the Room.”
As a legislator and secretary of state, she often literally was the only woman in whatever hall of power she occupied, said Tymchuk.
In 1986, Ms. Paulus easily won the GOP nomination for governor. But in the fall, she narrowly lost her campaign to Neil Goldschmidt, then one of the most popular politicians to seek the governorship in the modern era.
Ron Saxton, a lawyer and politician who advised Ms. Paulus during the campaign decades before he also became his party’s nominee for that office, said she didn’t like to call herself a feminist. But, he said, “she was the most feminist person I ever met, in terms of pounding away at opportunities for women.”
In 1990, Ms. Paulus was elected superintendent of public instruction. During two terms in that office, she championed revamping the state’s educational system to place greater emphasis on performance standards and school accountability.
The fragility of her own early education, in the small schools of Burns where she grew up, fueled her passion to make sure a higher quality of education was available to disadvantaged children in Oregon, said Saxton, who served on the Portland School Board during much of Ms. Paulus’ tenure over the education system.
In 1995, Ms. Paulus entered the Republican primary to fill Bob Packwood’s seat in the U.S. Senate but lost to Gordon Smith. She continued as superintendent until her term ended in January 1999.
She contemplated retiring early to care for her husband, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer, but he insisted she finish her service, according to Fritz Paulus. Bill Paulus died in March 1999.
Ms. Paulus served as director of the Oregon Historical Society from 2001 until her retirement in 2003.
Fritz Paulus said he and other family members remember his mother as “a politician with integrity and determination.”
“She fought for what she thought was right and was willing to stand up for that and speak out for that. She embodied the Oregon spirit, and she helped bridge the divide between east and west of the state. She really got a sense for both sides of the mountains.”
Besides son Fritz, she is survived by his wife Jennifer Viviano and their son Will; daughter Liz Paulus; and her sister Gerri Pyrch and brother Paul Petersen.
A public memorial service will be held in Salem at Willamette University’s Smith Auditorium on April 27.