Hello. My name is Laura Cooper. All you have to do is take one look at me to know that I am not a typical candidate for public office; I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to undertake this campaign for a legislative seat for obvious reasons – after all, I can’t even get to most people’s front doors! So, you may wonder, why did I decide to run? Let me tell you a little something about myself, and I think perhaps you will have a better idea of who I am and what motivates me to run for this position.
I am a native Oregonian — born in Corvallis in 19586 while my father was a student and football player at Oregon State University, raised on the coast in Douglas County, and a 1974 graduate of Reedsport High School. In 1978 I was a bright, fresh young graduate from the University of Oregon with a B.S. in General Science and a secondary science teaching credential. I had grand visions of developing a visual math curriculum to help young girls who struggle with math so that they could stay on track for college math and science. At the time I was drowning in student loan debt, so I took a job in a “disadvantaged” school district on the Colville Indian Reservation in northeast Washington State — where there was a federal program that promised to forgive student loan debt in exchange for teacher service. At that school I was offered health coverage, but no disability insurance.
In the fall of 1978 I took the Graduate Records Exam (“GRE”) in preparation for my application to the Graduate School at the University of Washington to obtain my master’s degree in education. The GRE had instituted a new analysis section on their exam, and I obtained the highest score available on that portion, so my admission to the Graduate Program beginning the summer of 1979 was assured.
My seemingly bright career was soon marred in January of my first year of teaching by a diagnosis of acute, fulminating multiple sclerosis – years before federal law required COBRA continuation for health insurance when an illness causes work cessation. I had that rare case of multiple sclerosis with an explosive onset – within 6 weeks I was using a wheelchair; within a year I had my first episode of respiratory failure, and needless to say I was too sick to continue working – which also meant that my health insurance would discontinue just when I needed it the most.
I also discovered to my astonishment that even though I found myself with no income, no housing and no food support, that I nevertheless fell outside the eligibility rules for every social benefit I could find – I had not worked long enough and was too well-educated to be out of work at my age under SS rules; I also did not qualify for any social safety-net government program then in existence because I was either too young or too old, neither pregnant nor raising dependent children, not addicted to any substance, not accused of any crime or threatened with incarceration, not an illegal alien nor a native non-English speaker, and I had been responsible enough with my own money that I owned a car (but owed more on it than it was probably worth) and had savings (for a while). In fact, the welfare social services intake worker in Washington told me to “just go home.” So, that’s what I tried to do.
To our astonishment, after I arrived in Reedsport and was staying in my parent’s home my family discovered a quirk in federal law – “developmental disability” is defined as any disability that occurs before the age of 23; January of 1979 was 3 months before my 23rd birthday, so I was technically classified as “developmentally disabled” under federal law. The legal consequence was that if I were to continue to live in my parent’s home that they would become legally responsible for all my uninsured medical bills. Those rules were written to allow disabled children to stay on a family health plan indefinitely; however, despite the fact that I was not on my family’s health plan and had no way to become eligible for that coverage, there was no way for my parents to “opt out” of the enormous liability they would now face if they had simply allowed me to live in their home. Instead my family did what little they could, took over payments for my little blue Toyota pickup truck and when summer arrived I began living on student loans in an inexpensive student dorm when I began graduate school in Seattle.
By the fall I still had neither support nor a plan but continued with graduate school and lived in a University of Washington dormitory. In November of 1979 I had a bout of MS-related illness wherein I suffered my first episode of respiratory failure and was flown back to Spokane by my family to seek the care of Dr. William Bond – who was familiar with my rare condition and hospitalized me in the acute care unit of Deaconess Hospital. When I recovered the hospital had nowhere to discharge me to that was “safe” so in the early winter of 1980 I found myself involuntarily placed in the 2d Floor Alzheimer’s unit of Southcrest Nursing Home in Spokane, at the tender young age of 23.
That experience was like a living death, but I was nevertheless determined to have a full and meaningful life. I will never forget in that winter of my discontent I had my “Scarlet O’Hara” moment when I vowed that with God as my Witness, I would never be dependent again! Instead, I was determined to find a way to support myself, pay all of my own bills, and live a self-determined life. After a lot of research and soul-searching, I made a 10-year plan designed to accomplish just that. Even if it meant that I would spend my entire life working to overcome the medical, financial, and social challenges of serious disability – that is what I would do.
After crafting a bold plan for achieving self-support, I made what for me was an enormous decision to attend law school, knowing that it would be extraordinarily challenging in the America that existed before the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Nevertheless, I could envision no other career path that could provide the opportunities necessary for me to achieve full self-support, given the extraordinary demands of resources and logistics that my disability could present over time.
To execute my plan, the first step would be to attend law school. My family would help by purchasing for me a lift-equipped van with a sink, porta-potty, and bed that could serve as a mobile home if necessary. The law school application process was itself daunting because no accommodations were provided for the LSAT in that era, and anything I did that disrupted standard testing conditions would cause a “red flag” to be placed on my score for prospective law schools. That meant I had no guarantee of an accessible testing location, and no extra bathroom breaks even if I had to struggle mightily to use whatever facility might be available. So, I spent the few dollars I had in savings to take the LSAT.
My LSAT scores were good, but not stellar ( I am sure the time loss due to my bathroom visits did not help). However, also voluntarily submitted by GRE Scores that were off the charts and knew that I should be admitted based on those scores alone.
Little did I know that disability would be such a problem in the admission process – many schools required photos and personal essays, and it was essentially impossible to “hide” my disability in the application process. As school after school declined me admission I almost lost all hope. Then one day I received a letter in the mail from Gonzaga University School of Law asking me to apply for one of ten full-tuition academic scholarships for first-year law students at that time called their “Presidential” Scholarship. I applied and was thrilled shortly thereafter to not only be accepted by Gonzaga for admission, but to be awarded with a full-tuition scholarship to boot! I was on my way….
I knew that I would have trouble landing a job with my disability despite I how well I might do in law school, so I also knew that I would have to have straight A’s if possible, Law Review, and every award I could obtain along the way. So, I studied every moment of every day I could; I lived, ate, and breathed law that first year. During my first year I was selected to be a member of Gonzaga’s National Appellate Advocacy moot court team, and at the Regional competition, our school team placed second in the region and I was given the “Best Oralist” award. At the end of my first year of law school, I was 2nd in my class of 233 students. The next summer I was invited to serve in one of 6 law student clerk positions at the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Office of Staff Attorneys.
Nevertheless, the architecture of Spokane was inhospitable, and there was no accessible transportation I could use. As my health declined at the beginning of my second year of law school, my ability to drive became doubtful. Without transportation, the only option was to try to find on-campus housing. Gonzaga did not have dormitory space for law students, but the school made an exception for me.
As I was clerking in San Francisco at the 9th Circuit in the summer of 1982, I was informed that Gonzaga would no longer allow law students to reside in their dormitories. Tried as I might, I could not find alternative housing within wheelchair distance of the law school, and no transportation options could be found in Spokane. So, I made the difficult decision to investigate transferring to another law school. The only two cities with accessible transportation in the region were Seattle and Eugene – both of which had law schools. The University of Washington had one of the top law schools in the country, but Eugene would be close to my parents and family. To cover my bases I applied for transfer to Seattle and was surprised that my application to the University of Washington was quickly accepted (I was the first law student in the history of Gonzaga Law School to be admitted as a transfer to University of Washington Law School, and I had not even been admitted as a first year student!). However, that transfer came with a steep price: I would have to spend an additional year in law school to qualify for graduation under American Bar Association accreditation Rules. So, instead of graduating in 1984 I would have to settle for 1985. Also, because I would no longer have the scholarship, I would have to finance my education and subsistence with loans. Nor would my academic credentials transfer: I lost my membership on the Law Review and would not be eligible for moot court. I put my head down and forced myself to overlook the injustices; I had to keep my eye on the goal of legal employment that would provide me with the resources to maintain lifelong independence and keep me away from that darned institution.
Despite the fact that the University of Washington was a state school, their attitudes to disability were archaic. I arrived at a school built during an era with few women attending law school, and as a consequence there were simply not enough bathroom stalls. Between classes, all the women made mad dashes for the bathroom to avert the predictable delay required standing in line for facility use. As a consequence, women were routinely late returning to class through no fault of their own, but as a result of that were often the people “targeted” by professors in class for recitation upon their late appearance. When the Law Women’s Caucus discovered my special dilemma – not an accessible bathroom anywhere in the entire building – we joined forces to demand that one of the janitor’s closets be converted into an accessible women’s bathroom. The University dragged their feet; meanwhile, I had nowhere to relieve myself and the women continued suffering their uneven treatment in class. Finally, on my graduation day, the “Laura Cooper Memorial Bathroom” was opened on the first floor of the University of Washington School of Law.
Meanwhile, other accessible struggles abounded after transfer. The University complained that other students did not want to live with a student with frequent hospitalizations and other health problems and pressured me to leave the dorms. I had nowhere else to go and refused to leave, and was eventually isolated by myself in a unit intended to house five students. I was enormously pressured – including nevative press in the local Seattle newspaper decrying me by name for my “misuse” of University resources. I kept my head down and continued on, and eventually recruited my own friends to occupy the other units – at a substantial discount over standard University Housing rates to boot!
In my second year when I began looking for employment, the school offered on campus interviews. However, many were held in locations that were simply inaccessible, and in any event most recruiters were shocked and completely unprepared for my disability. Needless to say, I had no success in Seattle so I widened my field of vision. After all, I had stellar academic records. Nevertheless, a curious pattern began to emerge. When I sent letters highlighting my credentials, I invariably was offered an interview but the interviews would be uncomfortable and short. So, I began putting a neutral signal in my cover letter to inform about my disability (“please assure that any interview be conducted in a wheelchair accessible location”). The interview requests immediately ceased. After hundreds of interviews I had not one bite. Classmates with mediocre grades were getting jobs at firms that told me no opening were available. By graduation date, I was still unemployed, whereas most top-tier students were employed a full year or two before graduation.
Graduation also presented me with a literal fiscal cliff: once I graduated my loan deferment period would eventually come to an end. To continue deferment, I had to stay in school. So, I moved to Eugene and moved into the dorms at the University of Oregon to study for the Oregon bar exam while I continued my job search. After summer term, I applied to continue taking classes to continue my loan deferments as well as eligibility for cheap and accessible on-campus dorm living. To generate pocket money I took in typing in my little room in Carson Hall on campus. While my classmates were working as attorneys, I was doing part-time secretarial work. I had come so far—but yet I was still haunted by the knowledge that failure could land me right back in that nursing home. Despite the fact that I was eligible for graduation in 1985, I did not apply for my degree and could not do so until I had a job offer that would allow me to pay my student loans. Fall of 1985 turned into the winter of 1986, and I was still unemployed, living in Carson Hall, eating dorm food, and taking in typing. Then one day my phone rang…..
The caller was Steve Felsenthal – staff attorney director at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The office had an opening mid-year, and he was scrambling to find a suitable candidate for replacement. He had called his fellow staff directors around the U.S. and was informed of my situation as well as my abilities by Peter Shaw, the staff director for whom I had worked as a summer extern at the Ninth Circuit. I was interviewed via telephone and hired as a judicial law clerk and staff attorney for the Fifth Circuit. I made preparations to relocate to New Orleans, finally applied for my degree (dated 1986 now), and began the process to assume a legal position that was quite possibly the best job I could have obtained after law school graduation. The same year I sat for and passed the Oregon State Bar on my first attempt.
At the time of my clerkship, the savings and loan cases were beginning to hit Texas, and I developed enough of an expertise that when a large San Francisco California firm came looking for lateral hires to do work as outside counsel to the FSLIC during the California savings and loan debacle, I was the natural choice. So, in 1987 I took and passed the California State Bar and went to San Francisco to practice law with one of California’s largest law firms– Pettit & Martin, and served as outside Counsel to the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. While working in San Francisco, I also began performing a substantial amount of pro bono work on behalf of people with disabilities.
In 1989, I was invited to testify in a U.S. House of Representative Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, during its consideration of passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act Title III [the public accommodations section]. Based on that testimony and my other disability work, including assisting in passage of Titie III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, I was named in 1989 as one of twenty outstanding young American lawyers “who make a difference” by the Barrister Editorial Board of the Young Lawyer’s Division of the American Bar Association. In 1990, I was present in the Rose Garden at the White House during the ADA’s signing ceremony with President George Bush, Sr.
After my testimony in D.C. I was offered a political appointment to serve as Counsel to the Chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission. I accepted that position in the fall of 1989, and then moved from San Francisco to the Washington D.C. area. I served several years in that political position until I left government service in 1992 to resume private practice, which included serving as Outside Counsel and National Independent Living Consultant to the national office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In 1994 that Society awarded me its national Distinguished Service Award, In 1997 I was appointed as a member and subsequently was elected Chairperson of the National Advisory Board for Medical Rehabilitation Research within the National Institutes of Health. In 2000 I relocated from the Washington D.C. area back to my native Oregon, after which my first book title “Insurance Solutions: Plan Well, Live Better, A Workbook for People with Chronic Illness & Disability,” was published in paperback. In 2004, I was the recipient of the Oregon State Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award – given by the President of the Oregon State Bar annually to a member in recognition of distinguished legal service to the Oregon Community. In 2007, I was the recipient of the Paul G. Hearne Award for Disability Rights, a national award presented by the American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Disability Health Law recognizing exemplary service in furthering the rights, dignity, and access to justice for people with disabilities. Since I have returned to my native Oregon, I have maintained a pro bono solo law practice, and spent my life advocating for civil and constitutional rights – especially for the most vulnerable citizens in our community.
My run for this office is quite literally the natural culmination of my demonstrated lifelong advocacy for the equal and constitutional rights of vulnerable citizens against a relentlessly- expanding and increasingly tone-deaf state.
Oregon needs citizen statesmen who will maintain their core values despite enormous pressure to do the bidding of insider interests. My demonstrated dogged determination will serve Oregonians well; I will be relentless in pursuing innovative policies with the real, honest effect of helping families work their way up and leveling the playing field to put corporate and political insiders back to work for the rest of us.
Why I am Running For Office…
My central guiding principle is that every life is precious and has been placed on earth for a reason. Thus, I believe that every person has something valuable to contribute to our community. By contrast, it is my view that “dependency” programs arise from a set of lowered expectations: when society offers dependency it has essentially “given up” on expecting productivity or any form of meaningful contribution.
I have spent my entire adult life working to overcome the medical, financial, and social challenges of serious disability for both myself and others. I am well aware of what it truly means to be “vulnerable,” but I am even more familiar with what is required to move from vulnerability to real, honest self-support. I have the skill and tenacity to peel back the layers of the onion to find solutions to complex problems, and I ask you for your vote for State Representative House District 13.