Name: Mary Rose Oakar.
District 11: Elected in Nov. 2008, re-elected in 2012, term expires Dec. 31, 2016. Covers parts of Cuyahoga and Lake counties.
School board committees: Urban Education; Legislative and Budget.
Political affiliation: Democrat.
Occupation: Mary Rose Oakar & Associates Inc.; former U.S. congresswoman.
Education: Private schools; bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the arts.
Family: Not married, no children.
Other boards, affiliations: President, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 2003-2010; Housing Board member, Project Afford; volunteer, West Side Hunger Center.
Mary Rose Oakar, Ohio’s first woman to go to Congress, has been in politics on the Democratic side of the aisle off and on for 40 years.
Elected to the state school board last year, she began her political career on Cleveland City Council in 1973, where she served until voters sent her to the U.S. House in 1977.
Capitalizing on her name, a campaign trademark was rose-decorated pens.
Handily winning her congressional district with sometimes 85 percent of the vote, she gained a reputation as a liberal advocate for the rights of women, particularly in the workplace. However, she never gained full support of women’s rights organizations because she maintained an anti-abortion position.
But she acknowledged in an interview that popularity can change.
“I served in Congress and the state and city council, so I have served in the legislative bodies,” she said. “People don’t approve of what you do, you get rid of ’em. That’s it.”
Her career in Congress ended in a scandal involving about 20 members of Congress who had overdrawn their accounts at the House bank, costing her the 1993 election. She later was indicted on a number of charges involving the bank and her campaign funds, pleaded guilty, was sentenced to two years of probation, community service and fined.
She has recovered since then, serving in the Ohio House from 2000-02 and as president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, 2003-10. She’s received five honorary doctorates and in 2012 was elected into the Cleveland Hall of Fame.
Winning a seat on the state board marks her return to public office after a 10-year absence. Several unions, including the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Ohio Education Association, contributed about $14,300 of the $17,215 that she raised for her race.
She said her primary goal is to “ensure a quality education for all students, whether they are special needs, gifted, or average.”
The youngest of five children, Oakar was born in Cleveland into a family of Lebanese and Syrian descent — her father was a laborer; her mother was a homemaker. Her childhood education consisted of a religious-based education at Lourdes Academy.
She worked as a telephone operator while she pursued her bachelor of arts degree at Ursuline College. From there, she obtained a master of arts degree from John Carroll University in 1966, studied at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, Westham Adult College in England, and Columbia University in New York, and taught at a Cleveland high school and at Cuyahoga Community College.
Today, Oakar, 73, attends St. Patrick’s Church in Cleveland. Despite her pro-life views, she said she believes in a separation of church and state and has become a voice for the funding of traditional public schooling.
“The reason I’m for that even though I didn’t go to a public school is that’s the school system that has equal access to every student …”
She finds herself in agreement with some of Gov. John Kasich’s ideas.
“I do think that making sure kids know how to read by the time they’re in the third grade is very, very important — and that is one of the goals the governor has that I agree with,” she said.
Oakar also advocates sexuality being taught in schools, citing a recent panel in Cleveland of young mothers, ages 13-14, who spoke about teen pregnancy and their experiences of having to raise their children as single mothers.
“I think a good part of it is that they don’t know what the ramifications are if they have relations and they better understand that,” she said. “I think they have to know the ramifications of what happens with the sexual content.”
Answers to some interview questions:
Q: What should children understand about history, government and economics as they graduate into adulthood?
A: They need to know history and economics — there’s not question that those courses are important. It’s my understanding that some people think that we shouldn’t offer kids world history. Are you kidding? Of course we should. This is a global environment now with the Internet and all the access that people have to the world, so I think that history and global history — not just American and English history — but global history, is very, very important to understand. They’re going to have to live in a world that gets smaller and smaller because of our access to communication.
Q: How do you think Ohio is doing with school voucher programs?
A: The governor has increased them very dramatically. I went to [Catholic school] so my parents would have loved to have had a voucher because it was expensive for them. I do think that for poor kids, who are not getting a good education elsewhere, it’s not a bad program because it gives you an option. On the other hand, let’s make sure that the traditional public schools do well. I’m not opposed to vouchers, but I am opposed to overdoing it if they could easily go to a good public school as well.
Q: In what ways is the Ohio education system changing for the better?
A: I’m not sure it is. I think that we do not have enough funds for public education. I think that there is a number of charter schools that are very inferior that are getting more money than the good charter schools, so there’s an imbalance in respect to funding of charter schools. Poor charter schools take away from the traditional public school and that’s why Cleveland had to pass a levy. In other words, the state cut funding … there isn’t a commitment to traditional public schools. I do think that when 70 percent of the charter schools are inferior and we have the state legislature that rewards them … something’s wrong.
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