Leading for Change

by Carolyn Shea

Joan Dukes '73 crosses boundaries to
balance the economic and environmental needs of the Columbia River.

joan at the bridge

Former Oregon state senator Joan Dukes now works to balance the energy and environmental issues facing the Columbia River region. She lives near the historic Astoria-Megler Bridge, spanning the mouth of the Columbia.

In the 1990s, the world was in the dark ages about treating chronic pain, the kind that lasts for weeks, months, even years. Physicians had been arrested for prescribing narcotic painkillers to cancer patients. Yet, survey after survey found millions of Americans were suffering from unremitting, uncontrolled pain, making it a major public health problem with serious consequences for not only the afflicted individuals, but also for society at large. One study estimated that pain cost the country $120 billion a year in healthcare expenses, lost income and diminished productivity.

At the time, Joan Dukes '73 was senator of northwest Oregon's 1st District (later redistricted to the 16th), representing residents in Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties, as well as portions of Washington County. One day, a constituent from Astoria called her about a concern of his. The man was a hospice physician. "He told me a lot of people were dying in pain and they shouldn't have to," says Dukes. He wanted her to take up their plight.

Dukes did–not only for end-of-life patients, but for all patients. As a result of one citizen's request-and a decade of effort–in 2001, Oregon's assembly passed a bill Dukes sponsored to create what is believed to be the nation's first state commission to address pain management. Among other responsibilities, the commission oversees curriculum development for licensed healthcare practitioners, who are now required to complete pain management courses to improve patient care.

Dukes helped clinch Oregon's reputation as a leader in diagnosing and treating a serious health issue. "We fought for years for this," said Dukes, who along the way encountered opposition from a number of factions, including local medical associations. The outcome was worth it, she says. "I've had people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you! I was in constant pain and I'm finally able to manage it.'"

Dukes' pioneering work in this arena continues to reverberate in her state: In 2008, Oregon garnered the highest (and rarest) "A" rating from the Pain & Policies Group of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health for "having the most balanced pain policies in the country."

Dukes was exposed to politics from an early age. "My parents were very involved," says the Tacoma native, who as a child was introduced by them to Washington Governor Albert Rosellini, who held office from 1957 to 1965. "They knew their government officials and knew how government worked and they passed that on to me."

While studying political science at Evergreen, she worked at the state capitol on the House transportation committee. "I was a committee assistant and I learned how a bill becomes law," she recalls. This background served her well when she relocated to Oregon with her husband, who had taken a job there. "I needed a job and there was an opening to run the elections department for Clatsop County. My unique experience from Evergreen helped me in the position," she says. After two years as the county elections supervisor, she ran for and won a seat on the county board of commissioners, becoming the first woman to do so. She served on the commission for four years.

In 1986, the Democrat was elected to the state senate, an office she held for 18 years, gaining experience in budget, education, transportation and environmental issues. A resident of Svensen, near Astoria, Dukes also made a point of holding town hall meetings to bring together people in her rural district to advise her and communicate their ideas and concerns. The way she sees it, "No one can expect that any one person is going to come with all the ideas needed to make government run," she says.

arm pain image

I've had people come up to me and say, "Thank you! I was in constant pain and I'm finally able to manage it."

During her tenure, Dukes was actively involved in fisheries concerns. "Living here, I don't know how you could not be concerned about fish," she says. She chaired the Pacific Fisheries Legislative Task Force, a multi-state clearinghouse for various regional fishery interests. Made up of lawmakers from five Western states and British Columbia, the council has members report to their respective legislatures and U.S. congressional delegations on relevant issues. "Being on the task force moved me up to federal involvement," says Dukes. "It gave me a broader venue to address Pacific fisheries."

Two years into Dukes' fifth senate term, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed her to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an interstate body created by Congress to balance the region's energy and environmental needs. The organization is composed of two representatives each from Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, who address the multiple resource challenges common to all four states, which share the same power grid and Columbia River system.

In announcing Dukes' appointment, Gov. Kulongoski said, "I am confident that her experience in the Senate has prepared her to strengthen Oregon's partnership with our neighboring states on critical natural resource issues so we can work together-not compete-on growing the region's economy while also protecting the environment."

In this leadership role, Dukes sits on the council's fisheries committee, known as the "Fish Four," which focuses on protecting, mitigating and enhancing fish and wildlife impacted by hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin. The other main committee, the "Power Four," focuses on energy issues. She describes the council as "the table that tries to pull everyone together. There are four states, several federal agencies and a lot of Indian tribes. This is the one place where everyone can come together and have their say.

"We draw artificial boundaries," she says, "but we're all connected to a greater extent than we realize."

From fighting to improve patient care to fighting to improve the conditions fish need to survive, Dukes has a record of making those connections. "I do what I do because it needs to be done," she says. "I've been fortunate enough for constituents to trust me and happy to take their ideas and run with them."