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From PCC to D.C.
Photos and Story by Dana Haynes
What’s the shortest route from Gales Creek, Ore., to the U.S. Senate offices? (Hint: the path takes you through Portland Community College.)
Such was the case for Lori Prater, counsel to U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith. She advises Smith on issues ranging from education to the judiciary, and from investment to ethics and lobbying.
And she took her first political science class at the Rock Creek Campus in 1988.
Not bad for a girl from Gales Creek, which she describes as “the last blinking yellow light before you hit the Coast Range.”
Prater, 36, graduated from Forest Grove High School and had no real career plans. “I wasn’t quite sure of the direction I wanted to go in school. I liked writing and had done some theater production, but there wasn’t anything I knew I wanted to be.”
When she told her mother she wanted to take some time off, her mom had other ideas.
“Mom said, ‘If you’re going to take some time off, at least take some classes at PCC and get some of the basics out of the way.'”
So she did. She enrolled at Rock Creek and took basic classes, such as writing and history. But more importantly, “I took my first poli. sci. class from Dr. Sonnleitner.”
The same Michael Sonnleitner who is still teaching political science at Rock Creek.
“He was very dynamic,” Prater said. “He was just a really warm person who was focused on teaching and wanted the students to be engaged. I really enjoyed his classes.”
Prater spent about a year and a half taking classes at PCC. “I had a thoroughly enjoyable experience,” she said. “It really re-focused me on wanting to do humanities-based course work.”
She transferred to Portland State University where her PCC background served her well. She was accepted into the Honors College, where she focused on philosophy, history and political science. She was named “most outstanding senior in political science” in 1993, which launched her into a graduate teaching position in the master’s in political science program. She won the “outstanding graduate student” award in 1995.
“Those are my nerd credentials,” Prater added, laughing.
Upon leaving PSU, Prater ended up in the San Francisco Bay area, working for a nonprofit and, later, for U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif. She also took night classes at Santa Clara Law School and obtained her law degree. When Campbell challenged U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein and lost, Prater briefly left politics and joined the Northern California Innocence Project, which works to exonerate people who have been wrongly imprisoned.
But in 2003, Sen. Gordon Smith’s office called. And Prater answered.
“He’s wonderful to work for. He’s a very genuine person and thoughtful,” Prater said of Oregon’s junior senator. “It’s fun to work for somebody who’s from Oregon, who represents the state well, who has that Oregon flavor of politics and is not afraid to be independent.”
The job has its amenities, too. Prater lives two blocks from the House buildings. Her walking commute takes her past the Supreme Court on one side and the Capitol on the other.
“D.C. is fun. It’s exciting,” she said. “There are a lot of really good people, which is surprising. I think people have this jaded look at D.C. You have all these people who came from somewhere else. And some people come for the wrong reasons but a lot of them come for the right reasons. To make a difference, not only for their state but for the country.”
But that doesn’t make it “home.” Not for Prater, at least. “The nice thing is, you get to come home in August. You get reminded of what’s really important: family, the lifestyle here. It’s so much better,” she said.
“It’s a temporary place. I know I’ll always come home to Oregon.”