Norma Paulus, who served as Oregon’s first female secretary of state and was the Republican nominee for governor in 1986, died early Thursday in a Portland care facility.

Paulus, 85, had vascular dementia for several years and had weakened considerably over the last month, according to her son, Fritz Paulus.

In the last decades of the 20th Century, Paulus was one of the most well-known politicians in Oregon, anchored firmly in the moderate-to-liberal wing of the Republican Party that also produced such statewide leaders as Mark Hatfield, Tom McCall, Bob Packwood and Dave Frohnmayer.

She was a key proponent of Oregon’s pathbreaking land-use laws, and as secretary of state pioneered the use of vote-by-mail in the state. She lost the 1986 governor’s race to Democrat Neil Goldschmidt but later served for nine years as the superintendent of public instruction when it was an elected position.

Norma J. Paulus

Norma J. Paulus

Vivian Johnson/Family collection/Wikipedia

Norma Paulus grew up as Norma Petersen in Burns — one of seven children. She was “dirt poor,” her son said.

At 19, Paulus was stricken with polio and spent weeks in an iron lung. OPB interviewed her in 2015.

“I would put my good leg out like this and the girl that was with me would pull us together and … we would play pinochle,” Paulus recalled.

There was a mirror above her head, so she could see what was going on in the ward. Eventually, Paulus got better. She moved to Salem and was hired as a legal secretary to the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, Earl Latourette.

She remembered the day he changed her career trajectory.

“He called me up and said, ‘Kiddo, Judge [Hall] Lusk and I want to see you after work,’” Paulus said. “And I just assumed I was going to be fired. … They wanted to tell me that they thought I should go to law school and I nearly fainted.”

The idea excited her. But without an undergraduate degree, it seemed impossible.

A few years later, however, the Legislature passed a bill to help returning vets go back to school. Latourette pointed out that the bill could help her too. By 1956, she was attending Willamette University Law School where she met her husband, William Paulus of Paulus Brothers Packing.

She made many useful contacts there – like Packwood, a future senator, and Wally Carson, a future chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.

It was their ambitions, and those of all the other lawyers around her, she said, that drew her to politics.

In 1970, Paulus was was elected as the Republican representative for Marion County.

She sponsored civil rights legislation and delved into lobbying disclosures. She also worked on land-use law, and in 1973, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 100, which forced Oregon cities to adopt urban growth boundaries.

Paulus said they’d all witnessed what happened to the lush farming valleys of California.

“We made bumper stickers that said: ‘Don’t Californicate Oregon,’” she said.

About that same time, the feminist movement was in full force. Paulus was a founding member of the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus, which was formed in 1972. She remembered seeking entry into various fraternal organizations.

“Women couldn’t go into certain places,” Paulus said. “And so, by this time Vera Katz and I were just hell on wheels, you know. And so was Gretchen Kafoury, the three of us. And that was absolutely something that we were not going” to accept.

Melody Rose, former president of Marylhurst University, said it didn’t matter that Paulus was a Republican and Katz and Kafoury, also legislators, were Democrats.

“That was a time at which conditions for women were so strained on every front,” Rose said, that “women came together across party lines.”

After one demonstration, Paulus found herself becoming the first female member of the Portland Lions Club. Fritz Paulus remembered her being given a lion to put on her desk.

“The national policy was that there be no women in the club. And the top brass, wherever they were, in D.C., heard about this. They said: ‘Well, we need that lion back,’” Fritz Paulus said, pointing to his mother.  “And you said: ‘Hell no, I’m not going to give that lion back!’ And you kept that on your desk.”

Paulus was elected secretary of state in 1976. One of her successors in that job, Democrat Phil Keisling, said her crowning achievement was mail voting.

“She encouraged the experiment,” Keisling said. “People started doing it at the county level. She pushed for legislation allowing it. Starting to set up the process. Starting to set up the rules. And becoming a big advocate for it.”

Mail voting became standard for all elections several years later, with the passage of an initiative in 1998.

Paulus was also remembered for her role in Wasco County elections of 1984 during the saga of the Indian religious cult leader who had moved to Oregon.

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Rajneeshpuram

Followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had been busing in large numbers of people from out-of-state and helping them to register. The aim was to tip local elections in the commune’s favor.

Paulus called for emergency voter registration hearings and found many lawyers more than happy to help.

Tensions were high, but U.S. District Judge Edward Leavy later determined that Paulus’s emergency procedure was proper.

“She didn’t want to be coming out against a religious minority,” said Gail Wells, who co-wrote a biography of Paulus along with Pat McCord Amacher. “And she didn’t want to pander to these xenophobic fears of outsiders. But she could also see that the Rajneeshes were not all they were claiming to be.”

After Paulus’s loss to Goldschmidt, he appointed her to serve on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. In 1990, he appointed her to fill the vacant position for superintendent of public instruction. She was elected later that year and re-elected in 1994. In that position, she led a major restructuring of Oregon’s public school system.

Paulus ran for the U.S. Senate in 1995, after Packwood resigned. But she lost the Republican primary to Gordon Smith.

Reacting to news of her death Thursday, Oregon Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick underscored how influential Paulus was to female politicians in the state.

“Norma Paulus came from humble beginnings and was determined to be successful, working through law school and achieving victories as a woman in a field at the time dominated by men,” Burdick said. “She was an inspiration to women leaders throughout Oregon. She was ahead of her time, and I will miss her.”

Oregon House Republicans issued a statement, calling Paulus a “towering figure” in the state’s politics.

“Norma Paulus broke through gender barriers in 1976 when she became the first woman elected to statewide office in Oregon and served as Secretary of State for eight years,” the statement read. “She was an advocate for women and an environmental leader, serving in the Oregon House for three terms.”

In addition to her son, Paulus is survived by her daughter, Liz Paulus; a sister, Gerri Pyrch, a brother, Paul Petersen, and one grandson. The family will hold a private funeral service. A public memorial service is set for Saturday, April 27 in the Smith Auditorium at Willamette University in Salem.