The sunny spring day when Dmitri Palmateer ’96 first visited Willamette University remains vivid in his mind 22 years later.
A high school senior from southern Oregon at the time, he was walking toward Cone Chapel on the north end of campus when sunlight reflecting off the gold man atop the capitol building across the street caught his eye.
“I thought, ‘That’d be pretty neat to go to college that close to the State Capitol,’” Palmateer says.
The building became integral to his life in ways he never could have imagined — starting when he interned for a legislator during his undergraduate years and leading up to his job today as Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s legislative director.
“You can walk across the street and see debates as people from different perspectives and experiences and party affiliations work out the best way for Oregon to tackle big questions,” he says. “That is happening right across the street from Willamette. The ability to touch it and feel it and see it play out is an experience that sets Willamette apart from other institutions.”
Early Work in Politics
“Dimitri struck me as a student who really enjoyed learning for its own sake, but it was clear he also wanted to have a real, concrete impact on the world,” recalls history professor Bill Smaldone, one of Palmateer’s mentors. “He was fully engaged in the classroom and in student government, so it came as no surprise to me to see him involved first in local politics, and later in politics on the national and state level.”
Palmateer arrived on campus in the fall of 1992 during the final months of the Bill Clinton vs. George H. W. Bush presidential election. Excited to participate in the first election where he was old enough to vote, he volunteered locally on the Clinton campaign.
Energized by the experience, he and a friend revived the Campus Democrats at Willamette to create a pipeline of volunteers and interns for area Democratic campaigns. “We would set up dinners and invite Gov. Barbara Roberts over, and she showed up for dinner occasionally with the group at Goudy,” Palmateer says. “We had a number of state representatives and state senators who came over.”
That networking later turned into an internship for Palmateer, who worked on a successful campaign to elect Bryan Johnston to the Oregon House. He continued volunteering on campaigns throughout his time as an undergraduate, and even ran for an office at Willamette, serving as student-body president during his senior year.
A Life of Public Service
Several years after graduation, Palmateer took a break from politics to pursue his other passion — he headed back to school to earn a PhD in history from The State University of New York in Binghamton. While he enjoyed the personal fulfillment of his studies, he ultimately decided to return to public service and the Oregon State Capitol.
One of the lawmakers he worked for was State Rep. Jeff Merkley, who went on to become a U.S. Senator for Oregon — and asked Palmateer to serve as his statewide business liaison. In 2011, Gov. John Kitzhaber invited Palmateer to join his office as legislative director, and he’s been there ever since.
“My job is to ensure that the governor’s policy agenda passes through the legislature, and that those policies that the governor doesn’t want to see pass don’t,” Palmateer says.
In any given week, that might entail working with Kitzhaber’s policy team to adjust proposals in ways that will gain them more votes, or meeting with the Senate president and House speaker to either collaborate on areas where they share a mutual agenda or iron out differences on issues where they disagree.
He frequently crosses paths with other Willamette graduates and current students in the building — people who, like him, are passionate about public service and are taking advantage of the Capitol’s proximity to campus.
“I’ve always been impressed with the caliber of Willamette grads in the building, and so whenever we’ve had an opportunity to help folks either get an internship or get a foot in the door, it’s paid off for us down the road,” he says.
“I’m a strong proponent of the liberal arts education. The ability to think critically, to be adaptable and flexible, to embrace lifelong learning — those things allow me to do my job well and have served me both in my own academic background and then on into my career.”