By Kimberly Bowker for The Bulletin Special Projects
Sally Russell, Bend’s newly elected mayor, believes in bringing people together to find common ground
Central Oregon is a place that has been in Sally Russell’s life and heart forever.
She grew up swimming with the tadpoles in Elk Lake on vacations at her family’s cabin, traveling from the Portland farmhouse that her grandfather built in 1919, where she was raised. As a young girl, Russell could often be found climbing trees, walking logs, and building forts. She cared for sheep and other animals on the farm, learning the values of hard work and giving back and the truths about life and death.
She grew up with a curiosity about everything that creates a sense of place—the people who once occupied the land and the people who are there now, animals, plant life—and she continues to carry that curiosity into her career as a community leader.
“There is always a sense of place and values,” Russell explained. “What is it that keeps a place special? For each of us it is the same, and for each of us it is different.”
Residing in Bend for almost 35 years, Russell’s life hasn’t necessarily unfolded in a straight line but always with purpose, which has led her to this moment. Over time, her motto has been “Bringing people together and finding common ground and trueing up the facts,” which is how she works to find solutions that benefit everyone and are sustainable long-term.
Russell finds it interesting to look at a situation, whether it be a project or policy or conflict, as pieces of a puzzle to see how they can come together to build an end product. The next chapter for her will bring together all the pieces of her life thus far, and she is excited for the opportunity to be Bend’s first elected mayor since the 1920s, ready to work hard to set the stage and show what the possibilities are in this position.
“It really pulls together all the work in my career and personal life,” Russell said. “I can take every single connection and skill set and put it together. You never stop learning, and I am a huge fan of that.”
Russell was raised in an environment of learning and discovery. Her ancestors came west on the Oregon Trail, and her parents set out to explore the trek. They procured original maps of the Oregon Trail from the 1840s, which now hang in Russell’s home, and studied detailed journals while contacting farmers to match the stories to the landscape. The couple created a slideshow presented at the Oregon Historical Society, where Russell’s mother worked as a docent, and the information was incorporated into the Portland public schools’ Oregon Trail curriculum.
Fueled by her passion for the outdoors and nature and her work at the Oregon Historical Society, Russell’s mother took on the complex and often contentious project of working with scientists and two states to identify all the flowers in the Columbia River Gorge, leading to the creation of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Early on, Russell worked with her mother on the venture and recalled leaving a heated public hearing to find her mother’s car tires slashed.
“A formative person is my mother,” Russell said when asked about her inspirations. “She is the epitome that if everyone in the world tells you no, she will say that there is a way to do it.”
After attending Smith College and earning an MBA in marketing from Portland State University, Russell moved to Bend in 1984, eventually landing a job with a developer. She learned about local development and land use and building codes and irrigation and interfacing with banks, using the love of organizational skills she’s honed since the beginning of her career.
Organization is a tool that Russell has cultivated, and that has been a major thread throughout her life. She always enjoyed planning camping trips with her friends—deciding when and where to go, compiling food lists, and determining transportation. The skill came in handy as Russell continued on her path in Bend, joining the Tower Theatre board of directors, serving as a founding member of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance, a coordinator on the Deschutes County Committee of Recreation Assets, and the executive director of the Cascade Festival of Music, and starting local bike races such as the Cascade Chainbreaker Mountain Bike Race and Bend’s Big Fat Tour.
“She is a positive force professionally and personally because she has a positive outlook,” said Ellen Waterston, writer and president of the Writing Ranch. Waterston met Russell in Nordic skiing competitions more than a decade ago and witnessed Russell’s commitment to collaboration as she moves through the world with positivity, deep thought, and analysis. “She confronts whatever she comes up against with that same outlook.”
Bend’s new mayor loves to play outside, where she finds creativity, insights, and balance. She might be spotted skiing on local trails, kite-boarding in the Columbia River Gorge, or cruising on her mountain bike. When Russell had just begun riding, she was asked to organize the Cascade Chainbreaker; she did her homework by participating in various mountain bike races so she could organize a better experience for the competitors.
“I will do a better job if I know this from all sides,” she said, which is her approach to pretty much everything in life.
Russell likened the campaign for mayor to a hard mountain bike ride—focused on time and energy distribution and requiring training, endurance, and grit. During the campaign, she was sleeping with it, dreaming with it, eating with it. She looked at everything that went out and rewrote pieces to make sure the facts were right and true to her.
The campaign started in May, after Russell had served for nearly 10 years on the Planning Commission and since 2012 on the Bend City Council. In 2014, she was approached to be the mayoral heir apparent, but as a single mother with two daughters in school, she did not feel she could have done the job the way it should be done.
“I am a lot more seasoned,” Russell said. “I’ve worked a lot on understanding not only how the city functions, but to develop skill sets that I could really make the time to invest in and focus that I knew I didn’t have.”
Russell looked into running for House District 54, but after talking with many in legislature and researching the position, she felt that it was not where she could contribute her best work. Realizing that her real passion and interest was right here in Bend, Russell decided to run for mayor.
Every day of the campaign, she awoke not knowing what would happen next. Russell and her team investigated the issues and values important to the community so they could provide accurate, meaningful responses, and created a campaign that really reflected who she is.
“You don’t know what is coming at you or what story you haven’t told yet that will really make a difference,” she said.
When the election results came in and Russell—unsure of the outcome until that very instant—heard that she would be Bend’s mayor, she threw back her head in joy. Standing in the Liberty Theater surrounded by family, friends old and new, volunteers, supporters, and people from all political stripes and corners of her life, she was genuinely thrilled to be taking up a strong leadership position in a community that she cares about.
“She’s earned it,” said Dale Van Valkenburg, director of planning and development at Brooks Resources Corporation, who has known Russell for almost 30 years. “She’s put in the time to understand things and pretty much knows everyone and their perspectives. She is always willing to listen.”
Russell is excited to continue to listen and put the pieces together—people and place, projects and policy—while remaining aware that her job is not necessarily about making all the decisions herself but bringing people in the community together to craft those decisions. She wants to gather the perspectives necessary to create a cornerstone for a sense of place that will exist and flourish over time, and to find what works for everyone so that foundation can survive.
“What kind of city do I want in 20 years?” she said about her vision for Bend. “A city that embodies all the values underpinning why we love it here now: the natural outdoors, friendliness, clean air, an acceptance of each other, and a pretty good lifestyle overall.”
One of the things that Russell has learned over time is to take advantage of opportunities when they show up, and to be brave enough to step into them. As Russell steps into her new role as Bend’s mayor, she will carry all the elements of her own life to this point into the next stretch of her path.
“My dad taught me the value of living your life with integrity and the value of working with people and the value of having a good work ethic,” Russell said. “I feel really fortunate to be wherever I have been and doing whatever I have done, because those values have stayed with me.”