When Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts '78 was in college, had you asked her if she would ever run for public office, she said she "would have looked at you like you had two heads."
The first woman to hold the position of lieutenant governor in Rhode Island, the former human biology concentrator spoke to a group crowding the first few rows of MacMillan 117 yesterday about women in politics, finding an unexpected career path and her potential run for governor.
By Rhode Island standards, Roberts said, she is not quite a Rhode Islander - she grew up near Washington D.C. and moved north to attend Brown. While in college, she volunteered at Women's and Children's Hospital, which solidified her interest in health care and established her connection to Providence. Most of her classmates went on to medical school, but Roberts was "fascinated" by the health care system itself. She earned her MBA in health care management from Boston University, attending school part-time while she worked at Pawtucket Memorial Hospital.
Roberts got her first taste of local Rhode Island politics volunteering for campaigns, which she recommended as the best way to get started in politics and mull over electoral politics as a career. In working for races "you really care about," she said, you have the opportunity to learn a lot and make a difference. Plus, she added, "It's almost like summer camp."
Roberts worked doing issue research for a candidate in the early 1990s. Though the candidate lost, Roberts was next hired to be on Gov. Bruce Sundlun's policy staff at the State House. But with two preschoolers and a minimal government salary, Roberts only stayed for 14 months.
In the spring of 1996, she received a call from a state senator who said he was leaving the state and wanted her to run for his seat. At this point in her talk, Roberts referenced the two main points Assistant Professor of Political Science Jennifer Lawless often makes about women in politics - when women run, they win, but people tend not to ask women to run - both of which prove to be true, Roberts said.
The senate seat offer came right after President Clinton's health care reform failed, leaving the topic - Roberts's area of focus - to be dealt with on the state level. She said she thought, "Let's see what happens," though she acknowledges now that, "I had no idea what I was doing."
"No one's qualified to run in a political race," she said, and the system is built for bringing your own experiences, particularly in Rhode Island. Running for Rhode Island State Senate is "like running for City Council," Roberts said - she raised minimal funds and spent most of her time knocking on doors.
In a three-way primary and general election, Roberts won the seat and became the first woman elected in Rhode Island in 12 years. She said being a woman is an advantage when running for local office - people never hesitated to open their doors and share their thoughts and concerns with her.
After being reelected to the seat five times, Roberts said she knew she wanted to leave the state senate. There was little independence in the body and she "got tired of compromising." Though she would vote against what the leadership wanted, there was "pressure not to do that." The position of lieutenant governor offered the most flexibility because of its vague role.
The fundamental role is constitutional, but "no one should vote for someone who is waiting to be governor," Roberts said.
In the majority of states, the position of lieutenant governor is elected on the same ticket as the governor, making it an easy way to run as a female candidate. "It's an easy way to diversify the ticket and say, 'See? We have one,'" Roberts said.
But in Rhode Island, the two are elected separately, and Roberts is in the somewhat unusual position of being in the opposite political party from the governor, Republican Donald Carcieri '65, which makes the job frustrating at times - Roberts said she sees first-hand "things I want to change, but can't."
The broader community doesn't have faith and respect in government, Roberts said, and young people tend to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by shying away from the political arena because of who is already in it. The reason Roberts stays with it is "because I believe I'm someone who can make a difference," she said.
Young women in particular often undervalue themselves when thinking about politics, Roberts said. Many of the women she knows in politics got involved not for political reasons, but "because they had a mission or a cause they cared about." For Roberts, it was health care that put her on her unexpected road to the State House.
Though her science background earns her credibility when she talks to doctors about health care reform, she said her undergraduate education has served her less in curriculum-based ways, and more in what it taught her about learning. The New Curriculum taught her to set priorities, make decisions and manage herself, she said.
"My organic science?" she joked. "Not that helpful to me."
Roberts said she is "not a huge believer in planning out your entire life," a piece of advice she offered to current Brown students.
"I discovered something at mid-life I absolutely loved," she said. "Had I been locked in, I never would have done this."
Being among the few women in Rhode Island public office - she is only one of two elected female Democrats in the state's history - Roberts believes that a government that looks like the people it represents would be more respected.
She said traditional paths of going through the "crowded pipeline" of candidates is harder for women, which is why elected women are more likely to find opportunities in the minority party.
Accordingly, within the state legislature, partisan differences were less important among the women, she said. There was a "respectful collegial relationship" and the politicians avoided unnecessary fights. In an effort to diversify Rhode Island politics, Roberts tries to be personally supportive of local female candidates whenever possible.
Carcieri's term as governor will expire in 2010 and a "crowded pool" of Rhode Island politicians is starting to test the waters to take his seat, Roberts said. As of now, she is saying she is "very seriously considering running" and has started fundraising, but she noted that the election it is still 20 months away.
When a student asked why she would want to be governor in such a tumultuous time, Roberts said, though the state is in a public mess, "it's a moment of enormous opportunity" and an opportunity to "think about our state differently."
Students had the opportunity to ask Roberts questions about a broad range of topics, given the intimate setting. Herald Opinions columnist Jeremy Feigenbaum '11 said he "appreciated her honesty" about everything from running for governor to the state of health care reform.
"From start to finish, it was an easy-going talk that could broach any topic," said Ali Wolfson '12.
Roberts' lecture was sponsored by the Sarah Doyle Women Center as part of Women's History Month.