Paulette Pyle is a Reagan Republican and Katy — everyone calls her Katy — is a Robert Kennedy Democrat. But Pyle, who for many years was grass roots coordinator with the pro-industry Oregonians for Food and Shelter, loves Katy Coba.
When Pyle deemed The Oregonian newspaper was picking on Katy in its coverage of pesticide mishaps, she called a reporter with a rival publication to complain.
Because everybody loves Katy.
Not literally everybody, of course. Some in the media believe she’s been a lax regulator of Oregon agriculture and some in activist groups believe she’s too friendly to what they define as Big Ag. But it’s fair to say most people who have dealt with her for more than a decade love Katy Coba.
“We do,” Pyle said.
And as Coba leaves the Oregon Department of Agriculture after 13 years as director — she’s both the first woman to hold the job and the longest-serving — people who make a living in farming, ranching and natural resources are bidding her bittersweet goodbyes.
They hate to see Coba leave the ag department, but they’re pleased Gov. Kate Brown appointed her director of the state Department of Administrative Services and her administration’s chief operating officer. They hope Coba’s model of collaborative problem-solving and her calm, respectful manner will spread in state government.
Coba herself said the Governor’s Office made multiple pitches before she said yes. She finally asked what the governor was looking for, and the answer swayed her. Brown didn’t want someone focused on the internal workings of DAS. She wanted an ambassador for public service.
“I have two passions,” Coba said during an interview in her Salem office as her final month as ag director unwound.
“One is agriculture, the other is public service. I believe in it. I’m concerned about the disconnect between citizens and government, between Oregonians and state government.”
She asked herself if she could take the new job and make a difference.
“I would say it grabbed me right in the heart.”
Born to it
Jill Thorne says her daughter, Katy, and son, Todd, were immersed in public service.
Jill and Mike Thorne were Pendleton wheat ranchers, but their world views extended beyond the blonde stubble that covers the rolling hills of Eastern Oregon this time of year.
Recognizing the region’s isolation from Oregon decision makers in Portland and Salem, they threw themselves into politics.
“Our theory was, we’re so far from the Willamette Valley, if we didn’t get involved, who would?” Jill Thorne said.
In 1968 they found themselves hosting a campaign breakfast at the ranch for Robert Kennedy as he swung through in a bid to win the Oregon primary and secure the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. Kennedy and the campaign press corps descended on the ranch. In a favorite family story, Todd Thorne, then 3 1/2, demanded to know who CBS reporter Roger Mudd supported. “If you aren’t going to vote for Kennedy, you can’t eat breakfast here,” he told Mudd.
Katy Thorne, then 5, sat in Bobby Kennedy’s lap. A black-and-white photo of her father and Kennedy, taken during the ranch breakfast, is in her Salem office. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles a month later.
Mike Thorne, now 76, served in the state Legislature, headed the Port of Portland and Washington State Ferry system, and worked on numerous state and local civic projects in the decades that followed. Jill Thorne, 75 in November, was and is equally involved, and among other things worked for Gov. Neil Goldschmidt.
The Thornes’ children accompanied them on campaign trips and sat through dinners and meetings where the Thornes and guests debated issues of the day. Katy Thorne absorbed it.
“She’d just sit there and listen,” Jill Thorne said. “She just grew up with it. How do you come to solutions? How do you work with people? She’s got a gift.”
Katy was a legislative page as a teen, earned an economics degree from Whitman College and her early government work included a stint at the ag department and positions in the first Gov. John Kitzhaber administration as chief policy adviser, economic development and international trade policy adviser and director of executive appointments.
But she worked the family wheat harvest, too, lettered in basketball and volleyball, competed as a barrel racer and was queen of the Pendleton Round-Up in 1982. All of that served her well when Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed her ag director in 2003, Jill Thorne said.
“She brought to the director’s office that background and empathy for the work farmers do and their care for the land,” she said.
Being the first woman to hold the job was significant as well. Male farmers in Oregon “sometimes walk to one tune,” Jill Thorne said. “To have a woman leading them, that’s a compliment.”
Jim Johnson, the Department of Agriculture’s land and water planning coordinator, is a big man with big opinions. He’s a fixture at public hearings, frequently testifying as local or state officials wrestle with land-use decisions that might affect farming. By public employee standards, he is unusually self-assured, direct and plain-spoken. It’s a trait some elected officials don’t appreciate.
He says Katy Coba is one of the best he’s seen at managing inter-governmental relations.
“She’s always had my back,” he said. “She trusted me to do my job.”
Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said it takes a certain skill to advocate, market and regulate agriculture at the same time, as the ODA director is required to do.
Katy Coba was unique in her ability to do so, he said.
“She wasn’t just the referee between staff and stakeholders, or even stakeholders and stakeholders,” he said. “She also tried to get ahead of issues.”
An example: The recession hammered Oregon’s nursery industry, as the sale of landscaping and ornamental plants is closely tied to development, especially housing. In 2010, South Carolina began pulling aside and inspecting trucks from Oregon, the leading nursery state, looking for plant diseases.
Stone said other states were attempting to use the regulatory system to protect their own markets. One thing Oregon can’t afford, he said, is a trade war between states.
Under Coba, the Oregon Department of Agriculture worked with USDA and other nursery states to adopt a “presumed clean until proven otherwise” stance.
“It had tremendous impact, especially at the height of the recession when any sale was critical,” Stone said. “She was an advocate of proportionality.”
Following that, the nursery association and Oregon State University wrote a Safe Procurement and Production Manual to guide the industry.
“That’s a lot of trust, when it means staying in business or not. To have faith in the department to solve a problem that really could bring you to your knees,” Stone said.
“Trust between industry and the department, those things aren’t assumed — they are earned.”
Anne Marie Moss, communications director with the Oregon Farm Bureau, heard about it late last fall and reached out to the woman she’d met but didn’t know well.
“Oh my God,” she recalls her email to Katy Coba, “I have breast cancer, too.”
Diagnosis brings a flood of information, Moss said, “It’s like learning a new language.” Over the winter months the women supported each other by phone and email, and a couple times ran into each other in the “chemo corral” at the Salem hospital where both received treatment. Each lost their hair to chemotherapy and radiation. Moss opted for a wig; Coba chose to wear a scarf.
“I have to say she always looked healthy and radiant even going through chemo,” Moss said. “It really helped to have a friend — frankly, a friend in Oregon agriculture. It helped me a lot.”
Each is now cancer-free. As their hair grows back curly gray, each has adopted a stylish bob.
“And I kind of love that both Katy and I are rocking the chemo curls these days,” Moss said by email. “I think we look fabulous!”
Jill Thorne said Katy’s breast cancer diagnosis was a shock to the family, but Katy was always upbeat. It helped that it was discovered early.
“She just rolled with it,” Thorne said. “It’s been a family challenge, but our daughter set the tone for all of it.”
Katy Coba, 54, says she’s blessed to have a happy and supportive family. She and her husband, Marshall Coba, a lobbyist on behalf of engineering firms, have two grown daughters, Claire and Meredith. She said her parents, Mike and Jill, are her most important role models. They took the ideals the Kennedys espoused, she said, and “put them into action that I witnessed and experienced.”
In her new job, she will seek to develop leadership within state government and attract a younger and more diverse workforce to public service. She’ll push for accountability and transparency.
She wants to restore trust in government. The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in southeast Oregon was an “explosion” of the public’s angst and frustration with government, she said.
The biggest change she’s seen in agriculture is consumers’ interest in food, she said. “I sometimes say ag suffers from too much love,” she said. “If you’re a farmer and figure it out and take advantage of it, good for you.”
The biggest surprise of her tenure was the development of tension within the industry over farming practices and crop co-existence. Organic versus conventional, or canola growers bumping against specialty seed producers, “Who could have predicted that?” she said.
Political challenges for Oregon ag include labor, maintaining transportation infrastructure and continuing land-use disputes and competition for water, she said.
Ag hasn’t seen the last of Katy Coba.
“I’ve already told the governor I’ll be an advocate for Oregon’s natural resource industries, I’ll be an advocate for rural Oregon in this new job.
“And she said, ‘Good.’”