COOS BAY — When Joanne Verger looks back on her 22 years on the front lines of local and Oregon politics, she can do so with her head held high and her values and principles intact.
When I sat down to talk with her this week, in the Coos Bay City Council chambers where it all began, we discussed how she was able to do that. It boils down to this: For all of her Southern-style graciousness, she could be tough and stubborn when the time came to fight for something she believed in.
“I think that my city councils, my county commissioners, will all vouch for the fact that I’ve been able to do whatever they needed doing,” she said. “I don’t want that to ever be confused with having a lack of substance. I never want anybody to feel that in the clutches I’m not tough.”
Verger backed up her toughness with preparation — a quality she displayed when she first arrived in Coos Bay in 1968. The Louisiana-bred Verger moved to the Northwest with her husband, Lawton, who had just bought a car dealership.
“I had literally studied the community like a research paper,” she said. “I moved from such a different culture, I had to do that. We were in business. Lawton and I both needed to totally understand who Oregon people were, so we studied the history of Oregon and traveled all over the state.”
Her preparation and intensity grew when she entered politics, first as a city councilor, then as Coos Bay’s mayor. She became a pen pal of John Kitzhaber, then in his first stint as governor. She wrote him at least a letter a month, explaining Coos Bay’s situation and needs.
When she joined the Legislature, she commonly worked from 7 a.m. and until 7 at night. With hard times afflicting her district, the people back home needed that kind of commitment from her, she said.
“Actually, the economy of the coast has been the driving force behind my participation my entire political career. My impact in the Legislature has been being willing to stand on the floor and criticize the process where my district has suffered economically and wail about it, not just stand up and be nice.”
Verger gives credit for her successes to her late husband. The future senator met the future auto dealer in grade school in Louisiana. She remembers him as a good-looking all-state basketball player.
“We were very, very close friends before we, as college students, fell in love,” she said.
Decades later, when her interest turned to politics, he offered support and encouragement, but never advice. He willingly turned over their dealership to their son, freeing himself to assist her in Salem — even answering phones in her office.
“It was not unusual to see Lawton, here this guy was, really successful in his own right, on his knees filing papers at the Capitol.”
When he died in January 2006, she fought through the heartbreak to go back to work. She served seven more years.
Senate President Peter Courtney described Verger as the best representative of Oregon’s coastal communities ever to step on the Senate floor. But her legacy will go deeper than that. She proved that moderate-centrist politicians do have a place in politics, and that one persistent voice can make a difference. She takes pride in upholding her principles.
“I think that will be my legacy, because I have fought the battle. I have not always won, and I’ve been outnumbered, but I have been steady on principle.”
Verger’s just-completed Senate service won’t be the last word from her. A book is in the works, though it’s not about politics. When that is finished, the 82-year-old says she will look for places to apply her skills.
“I feel that most people have an opportunity in life to be of influence, and I think that there is a place for everybody,” she said. “I think that it is critical that you find that place, and I found my place in motherhood, which was the joy of my life, and now as a grandparent.
“Then I found my place in politics, and I loved it.”
If you are ready to tell The World about an outstanding individual in the community, contact reporter Tim Novotny at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or at email@example.com.