Like many young people with a passion for politics, Samantha Berrier was idealistic, bright and looking for a way to affect change in the world.
“I had some great ideas and saw things I wanted to change. If you get involved in politics you have a voice, so that would be the way to do that. I definitely wasn’t cautious at all,” Berrier said.
Berrier has been at the center of intense media scrutiny over the past two weeks for her allegations against Oregon Rep. Matt Wingard, R-Wilsonville, for whom she worked as a legislative aide in 2010.
Berrier experienced unwanted sexual advances from Wingard and was repeatedly pressured to make their relationship more than just professional, she said.
While the relationship that resulted was consensual, Berrier, now 23, claimed that Wingard used his position to isolate and take advantage of her.
Since the relationship between the two has gone public, Wingard, 39, has since stated that he will not seek reelection.
How it started
Berrier’s introduction to Oregon politics was not the typical route young people take. Without a network of colleagues, she was alone and without experience when she first met Wingard at a party for college Republicans in Salem in 2010.
Even though Berrier had never taken a political science class or done related volunteer work, Wingard offered her a job as his aide. Seeing a rare opportunity to work with a politician she admired, Berrier gladly took the job. She ignored red flags such as not having an interview and skipping an internship.
“It was definitely abnormal, but I also felt that I had really lucked out,” Berrier said. “If someone just picks you out of a group and says, ‘Hey, I want you to work for me,’ without ever having a conversation, it might seem amazing, but it’s probably not good.
“Usually people have to volunteer and go to phone banks. It’s a lot of work, and then they are finally an intern, and later on they might get paid. I was just paid from day one, and I didn’t know anything,” she added.
As a conservative, making friends and finding people with common views at PSU was difficult, Berrier said. In debates with classmates, she felt shunned and misunderstood: “It could never be like, ‘Look, we disagree, but I just want a friend.’ I never had a community at PSU, so it was very lonely.”
In the minority
Joshua Brainard is a senior studying political science and founder of PSU Students for Liberty, a group focused on libertarian and conservative ideas. He said Berrier’s sentiment isn’t rare.
“It’s sometimes difficult for people to comprehend our motives,” Brainard said.
“Dialogues are pretty few and far between if you can’t explain your point of view, which is the case a lot of times in the classroom setting when the teacher has the floor and controls the dialogue. If you’re given enough time, you can find common ground with pretty much anybody,” he explained.
For Berrier, a lack of common ground left her few peers to talk to about her concerns with Wingard. Just days after hiring her, Wingard provided then-underage Berrier with beer at a party at the GOP’s Dorchester Conference in Seaside in March 2010, Berrier said.
Though Berrier has since retracted statements that Wingard drugged her, she describes waking up in his bed after the party, fully clothed but with no memory of what happened. Embarrassed and confused, she blamed herself, trying to maintain the trust of her employer.
“I was in a position where I didn’t want to lose what I had. I had been in it for a week and a half at that point, so it was so fast, and he kept playing these mind games with me, and I kept blaming myself. And meanwhile he was saying things like, ‘I pay your rent,’ and ‘I don’t know if I can trust you.’”
Berrier quit working for Wingard in July 2010, ending their relationship. “Had I had someone close to talk to, it would have never gone that far,” she said.
“I think for young people trying to get involved, community is really important, and making sure you are talking to other people about what you are doing. When you do go through the regular channels and volunteer a lot, you see a lot more and you’re in a community, whereas I was very isolated,” Barrier added.
Berrier, now 23, graduated from PSU in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science in Social Science and has since taken a step back from politics. She currently writes articles for a conservative blog, resist44.com. In spite of the stress from being scrutinized by the media, she found relief in having her story told.
“It’s healing to finally see it for what it is. It’s easy for me to talk about it now. It was this older man, twice my age, who really took advantage of his position as my employer and someone I looked up to,” Berrier said. “I can respect that he’s done a lot of great things, but what I think is hard for people to understand is that someone who’s out doing so many good things can also do a lot of bad things.”
Berrier hoped her experience would help other young people avoid the same situation, emphasizing the need for community and communication amongst colleagues.
As a young person with her first serious job, Berrier was anxious to prove herself but found that doing so could mean very different things.
“If you are uncomfortable, tell someone. Because once someone else gets involved you’re going to see the picture way more clear.”
Another path to politics
Dr. Richard Clucas, a professor of political science and head of the political science internship program at PSU, said that often an internship opens doors for college students.
Clucas described the work of interns as group-oriented, in large offices with other interns and officials.
“I tell all my students what their responsibilities are but also that I’m here to watch out for them and that if they have any problems whatsoever that they need to talk to me, but it’s generally a positive experience for everyone. I haven’t had any problems,” Clucas said.
Another place where political community develops is the Center for Women, Politics and Policy in PSU’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. Nova Newcomer, head of community outreach for the school, said they try to develop empowered and skilled new leaders to send out into politics, nonprofits and the business world.
“In some cases you can’t prevent these situations from happening, but you can make sure that there’s someone that feels empowered to voice when they don’t think something is right,” Newcomer said.
“That’s one of the things that we teach our participants—that they have a voice in the world that they are entering, and that their voice is really important.”