Third-year law student Angela Wilhelms grew up watching her father help run the Oregon House of Representatives.
Now she has his old job.
This spring’s short legislative session in Oregon had all the makings of a political disaster: an evenly split House, a state climbing its way out of a recession, and a governor demanding big changes in the state’s education and health care systems. But by the time the end-of-session gavel came down in March, lawmakers were drawing praise for their ability to cooperate and avoid the gridlock that has stymied other legislatures around the nation.
Less publicly noticed were the legislative staffers who tamp down rivalries and smooth disagreements before they blow up into major issues. Angela Wilhelms, chief of staff for House Republican co-Speaker Bruce Hanna, was a key player in Hanna’s negotiations with Democratic co-Speaker Arnie Roblan and Gov. John Kitzhaber. Wilhelms, who is pursuing a joint JD/MBA degree and expects to graduate in 2013, sat in on budget talks, managed the flow of bills and alerted legislators to eleventh-hour changes in their proposals.
“She has a depth of understanding of public policy that is amazing,” said Republican Rep. Matt Wand of Troutdale. “You can spend hours and hours just to get a toehold on an issue, but she has the toeholds nailed. She has a striking memory for details.”
That’s not surprising, given her background. Wilhelms’ dad is Gary Wilhelms, the Republican House minority leader in the late 1970s and, more recently, chief of staff for former House speakers Lynn Snodgrass and Karen Minnis.
Wilhelms was 12 months old when her mother brought her to former Gov. Vic Atiyeh’s office to uncork Champagne at the end of the 1979 session; her father toted her along with him to high-level meetings around the state and in Washington, D.C. Wilhelms, the youngest of four children, grew accustomed to sitting at dinner tables with congressmen and top policy makers. When they asked the high schooler her opinion, she offered it.
“I grew up in an environment where you don’t get to sit back,” Wilhelms said. “There was never any pressure to be involved, but we were always taught that if you’re not going to be involved, you didn’t have the right to complain.”
Wilhelms said she never intended to go into politics, but after working a few years for a medical device company in the San Francisco area, she decided to return home. She ran campaigns and ballot measures and worked as a lobbyist before deciding to try law. Now she juggles classes and externships with the chief of staff job.
Wilhelms describes her political philosophy as “center right” and refers to herself as a moderate Republican with Libertarian tendencies. After all these years, Gary Wilhelms says he has no idea of his daughter’s position on abortion or gun rights because they’ve never discussed it.
Besides managing the day-to-day operations of the House staff, Wilhelms — and her cohorts in Roblan’s office and the Senate president’s office — work together to ensure that key bills progress through both chambers. They settle internal disputes among office staff so their bosses can focus on the needs of their caucuses and their negotiations with the governor. Wilhelms apprises Republican members of budget talks and the status of their own bills. She flatters, cajoles and steers them toward reason.
“She’s not afraid to get in peoples’ faces and tell them they’re wrong,” Gary Wilhelms said. “In this atmosphere, there are a lot of people more in love with themselves than with anybody, and you’ve got to be able to deal with that. I happen to believe my daughter is excellent at it.”
One day during the interim, Wilhelms seemed to be everywhere: texting madly, strolling into House members’ offices to listen to proposals about a rainy day fund and reassure them that firefighters wouldn’t be cut from the budget before Oregon’s fire season. (On her rounds through the Capitol, Wilhelms lightens the mood by carrying several folders labeled “STUFF,” with the subheads “to do/to avoid/ to postpone entirely.”)
One member proudly told her that the municipal employees’ union liked him. “That’s because you’re an undefeated Republican who won’t have a problem getting re-elected,” she shot back. “True,” he smiled. “But they still like me.”
Oregon politics being the longevity career that it is, there are still people around the Capitol who remember Wilhelms when she was in diapers. Now she tells them, politely but firmly, whether or not they’ll get their way on a bill. This past session Gary Wilhelms returned to the House Speaker’s office, so Wilhelms got to boss her dad around. He said he didn’t mind that so much because he got paid more.
The upcoming session could be even more of a challenge for lawmakers than the one this spring. Public pension costs are eating away at the state’s budget. An outside panel is set to deliver recommendations on prison sentencing. Lawmakers still haven’t tackled tax reform. And Wilhelms will be in the thick of it.
Joked Rep. Vicki Berger, a Republican from Salem: “You know she runs the state of Oregon, don’t you?”
Angela Wilhelms shares a laugh with Oregon House Reps. Matt Wand, R-Troutdale, (left) and Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte.
“I grew up in an environment where you don’t get to sit back”
Related Resources: Willamette Lawyer
Fall 2012 Vol. XII, No. 2
- The Willamette Lawyer Interview (Note: web version)