Former state Rep. Helen Sommers, a Seattle lawmaker who carved out a powerful perch over decades in the Washington Legislature, has died.
Sommers died early Tuesday in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where she lived, according to her sister, Joan Coach. She was 84.
In a political career that spanned from the 1970s to the 21st century, Sommers, a Democrat, built state budgets, took on the Legislature’s good-old-boy culture and tussled with political rivals — often notching wins.
Known for her short stature and tough demeanor, Sommers was described by former colleagues as “resolute” and “stoic,” with “a brilliant mind.”
In the words of Rep. Eileen Cody, a Democrat from West Seattle, Sommers was “a little thing with a lot of power.”
Colleagues credit her with helping build a state pension system that to this day keeps Washington at the top of national rankings. Meanwhile, Sommers, who retired in 2008, wrote budgets, advocated for family planning and worked to recruit women to run for office.
She juggled those roles in 36 years at the state House — the second-longest run for any representative.
Born in New Jersey during the Great Depression to a car salesman and an office worker, Sommers worked as a clerk for Mobil Oil after she graduated high school.
At 21, she had the opportunity to take a posting with the company in Venezuela, and she stayed there more than a decade, according to an oral history interview Sommers gave in 2009.
While there, a colleague suggested she take a correspondence course from the University of Washington. Sommers took the advice, eventually earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the university.
Along the way, she came to love Seattle from visits during summer classes and moved there in 1968.
First she got involved with the National Organization for Women, and while living on Queen Anne in 1972, Sommers ran for state House against a Republican incumbent.
“I was a newcomer to Seattle, and my opponent had served for a long time, so she and her party didn’t consider me as much of a threat,” Sommers recalled in the 2009 interview. “They didn’t think a Democrat and a feminist could actually win in the 1972 election.”
Running for office meant walking up and down the hilly precincts of Queen Anne and Magnolia, knocking doors seven days a week, Sommers said at the time.
Her victory that November gave the district its first Democratic lawmaker in decades.
During her House campaigns, Coach said, “I can remember visiting and she would be walking the sidewalk and listening and just trying to talk to her neighbors and let them know who she was.”
In Olympia, Sommers chaired several committees, eventually becoming the most powerful Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. Chairing that committee, briefly in the 1990s, and then for several years in the 2000s, provided Sommers one of the most powerful positions in Olympia: lead budget writer.
While socially liberal, she gained a reputation as a fiscal moderate.
“Helen was fastidiously attentive to spending the people’s money wisely,” said King County Councilwoman Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who served for years aside Sommers in the House representing the 36th District.
Her efforts on the state’s pension system over the years allowed Washington to avoid the trouble many states have had with fully funding their benefits.
“Great foresight,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville who served in the House with Sommers.
While describing her as “tightfisted” with the public’s money, Cody said Sommers would make sure money got in the state budget for family planning.
She also worked on the political side to recruit women to run for the Legislature. The ranks of women in office increased dramatically over her time in Olympia.
“That wasn’t by accident,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, a former state lawmaker, said in a statement. Sommers “fought sexism and an old boys club,” Murray said, adding, “Helen inspired a generation of leaders, myself included.”
Despite the “tough look on her face at all times,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who replaced Sommers in the House after her retirement, “she was the symbolic representation of the integrity of public service.”
Around the time he replaced her, “People would stop me in the supermarket, literally, and just say, ‘you do right by Helen,’ ” Carlyle said.
Sommers, married and divorced during her time in Venezuela, had no children, Coach said. Memorial services have not yet been determined.