Eight years ago, my then 15-year-old daughter, Anna, and I journeyed to the state capitol to interview Senate President Peter Courtney. Anna was a journalist for the school newspaper at South Salem High School.
After surviving 15 minutes of Courtneyisms, we walked down the hallway to see how the senate offices were laid out in the Capitol. There she encountered Sen. Elizabeth Steiner. The senator extended her hand for a welcome greeting, and Anna responded with a sheepishly lame hand of her own.
“Not good enough,” Steiner replied firmly. “You are a young woman who needs to hold her head high, deserve respect, and shake hands with confidence.” Anna was a bit startled.
“I want you to go back around the corner and then come back and try it again,” Steiner directed. Anna followed her instructions, returned, eyes straight ahead, and delivered a firm, confident handshake. “That’s better,” Steiner said. “Don’t ever give anyone the impression you are not worthy—because you are.” Anna, who graduated from the University of Oregon School of Journalism, never forgot that encounter or the lesson she learned.
Now an 11-year veteran of the Oregon Senate, Steiner keeps her own firm grip on the legislative process as co-chair of the powerful Ways & Means Committee. And she gets plenty of hands extended from all the new friends her position attracts. In many cases, the hands are looking to grab money—sometimes lots of it.
The state revenue forecast will be released this week, and with it, the hopes and dreams of some advocates will be dashed as pencil meets pad and concludes that the math does not add up.
Co-chair can be the most stressful job in the legislature, but Steiner handles it with a mixture of calm and discipline. Discipline was on full display when some colleagues urged her to tap into the state’s “rainy day” fund to pay for programs and services that the current budget may not be able to accommodate. She dismissed the idea quickly and firmly. Times may be challenging, but it’s not raining, and she wants to make sure the dollars are there when a real downturn threatens to impact core services. Her calm is the product of grace under pressure.
“It really isn’t more difficult than a lot of other things I have had to do,” Steiner said, referring to her long career as a family physician. Moving from one exam room to another, dealing with loss, grief, anxiety, and fear. But also to offer comfort and encouragement. And, most importantly, listening.
“I believe in active listening,” Steiner explained. “So many people are so busy formulating their answer they fail to really listen and hear what the other is saying. I believe it is important to respond with clarifying questions. ‘Tell me what this means to you,’” she said.
She is a firm believer in inclusion. She has dined with Republican colleagues, visiting their districts and practicing active listening to their issues and concerns.
“I learn new stuff all the time. It makes me more effective,” she said. “I appreciate someone who can bring institutional memory to many of the issues we face.”
Steiner stepped into the Senate when she was appointed to succeed Suzanne Bonamici, who had won election to Congress in 2011. She didn’t know what to expect when she entered the Senate for her first session but was eager to learn.
“It’s a lot like parenthood,” she explained. “Until you are a parent, you really don’t know what it is like. It requires good communications skills, listening skills.”
She particularly enjoys traveling around the state, conducting remote hearings to hear from Oregonians on their turf.
“Problem-solving comes by getting everyone in the room together, letting people talk.”
Steiner has observed one thing about the legislature that mirrors her experience in medicine.
“Legislators seem a lot like doctors in that they tend to self-specialize. I am a generalist. I think it is important in this work to see how everything ties together and look at the whole picture. We need more generalists,” Steiner said.
Staying grounded is another quality she embraces. When not handling complex agency budgets, she likes cooking, baking, hiking, and engaging with the congregation in her synagogue.
It is her own personal prescription for health. And health is what drives her in the legislative arena.
“I want to help Oregon be the healthiest state in the nation. I am very proud to be a part of a state that takes a leadership role in health care.”
For Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, it’s just what the doctor ordered.