When Dan Rayfield contemplated his run for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives, he started at home, with his family and his wife, who works in child welfare.
“We all give back in some way, and she derives meaning in giving back on this real one-on-one level,” he says. “When I step back and ask, ‘How do I give back,’ I find that the legislature is just the place to be.”
Rayfield joined the House in 2015.
“You see your community, you see your state, you see the nation: Where do you want the state to be in 10 years? Where do you want the state to be in 20 years? How do you want to shape that? And to me, the legislature is how you do that,” he says. “That’s why you wake up in the morning.”
He wasn’t expecting to become House speaker. But that happened earlier this year after the previous speaker, Tina Kotek, stepped down to focus on a run for governor. The NCSL Leaders’ Center recently caught up with Rayfield to hear his thoughts on his first session presiding over the House, and how his experience helped prepare him for the moment.
Your path to becoming speaker was a bit unusual with the previous speaker leaving midterm. Can you walk us through that?
I actually feel very fortunate in the way that I stepped in. I served about three and a half years as the co-chair of Ways and Means, and I was involved in the process of governing and had a partnership with the former speaker. We worked on a ton of issues together, and I worked really closely with the speaker’s staff as well. So I had preexisting relationships, and trust, in a way that I assume many other speakers have not had when they first come into the job. When I came in, the first thing that I had to do was make sure that I kept the really good staff I had formed relationships with. It was fairly a natural progression to step in with really amazing staff. So I feel very fortunate at the end of the day that things transpired the way that they did. Now I think I have a lot of built-in advantages that I don’t think a lot of folks have coming into the role.
What were some lessons you learned from your first experience leading the chamber?
We live in a world that’s very divisive, and right now where there’s a lot of partisanship. We all talk about trust and the importance of trust, but I think, deep down, we all have a sense of commonality in what we’re trying to accomplish. I don’t look across the aisle and say, “They’re from a different party, they’re here for the wrong reasons.” But at the same time, there is a lack of trust that just builds up for whatever reason.
For me, the investment of having conversations and creating relationships to build that trust paid dividends in the long term. Then people within your party, and people on the other side, can all at least look at you and say, “OK, this person is trying to do the right things.” We may disagree with what the outcome is, but at least we’re operating from a values-based position.
As we look ahead to 2023, there will be several new speakers in legislatures across the country. What advice would you offer them?
This role is important. The function that it serves is important. The actions that you take are important. But who you are is not important in the longevity of this institution. So for me, it’s thinking about how you want to be known 10 years from now—not just in the Legislature, but in your family, too. That’s another grounding principle for me. I want to be known as someone who lived with their values and stuck to their values. I don’t want to be known as somebody who neglected his family. We all know that politician. We all know that person who let this job take over. I don’t care whether you’re a speaker or a brand-new member, we all have the same set of challenges of balancing work, family and all the other complications of increasing demands. It’s just a matter of constantly looking back at yourself and looking back at your workflow to try and perfect that balance—and I don’t think you ever do. The true legacy that you leave is with your family. Anybody can be a speaker. Only one person can be a dad. Only one person can be a husband or a spouse.
What hopes and dreams do you have for the future of Oregon? What challenges do you foresee?
We have this immense division in our communities between two polarizing parties. And there’s peer-reviewed literature that shows that we as politicians contribute to that. We feed into it with the way that we talk about each other; we feed into it in the way that we talk about issues. And I believe that we, as politicians, have a responsibility to start trying to heal those things. There are certainly inherent conflicts built into the system where you have different sets of values or visions to get from point A to point B. But I always believe the point B is the same. There isn’t a party that says, “I’d really like to have bad schools.” That doesn’t exist. We all want good schools—it’s how you get there. But we villainize each other even though I think we have more in common than we ever want to admit. What I would like to see, and maybe it’s through groups like NCSL, is to start building up leaders who have that vision for staying true to their values while finding commonality in the process.
Who do you view as a role model for leadership?
If I think about historical figures, FDR was always someone who was trying to bridge the urban and rural divide in a fairly meaningful way. I try to learn something from that and bring that into my own mosaic of leadership. I also think there’s the nontraditional leadership. Frankly, I struggled when I was younger; I didn't graduate high school on time and was a horrible student. But I had a geography professor who provided that one-on-one mentorship and leadership that I needed. And so that’s the way I think about it. It’s not about one individual; it’s a collective set of values that have interacted with your life throughout the years and you want to take on. We all put our socks on the same way, we all travel the earth the same way. We’re all broken in our own ways. That’s who we are, and we try to be better each day.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Now, if you know me, it’s probably not surprising that I was a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disney World. If you know me, it’s probably not a terrible surprise that there was a period in my life where I wanted to be a magician. You probably know that there was a short stint after I graduated law school where I dabbled with being a karaoke DJ. For people who know me well, this all makes sense.
Taylor Huhn is a senior program specialist in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.