Politics & Government

In a first, woman will serve as speaker of Washington state House. She’s from Tacoma

The ABCs of Washington state’s government

Washington ratified its constitution in 1889 and created three branches of government modeled after the federal government: executive, legislative and judicial. Here is who serves in each branch.
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Washington ratified its constitution in 1889 and created three branches of government modeled after the federal government: executive, legislative and judicial. Here is who serves in each branch.

For the first time in Washington state history, a woman will serve as the speaker of the House of Representatives.

House Democrats on Wednesday elected Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma to the post. She will be speaker-designate until the entire chamber votes at the start of the 2020 legislative session in January.

The speaker wields enormous power, from who serves as committee chairs to which bills reach the floor for a vote. Democrats control the House by a 57-41 margin.

Jinkins’ victory was announced after a two-hour, closed-door meeting at a hotel near Sea-Tac Airport. In addition to becoming the first female speaker, she noted that she also is the first lesbian. Jinkins introduced her wife, Laura Wulf, at the press conference following the caucus vote.

“This caucus is the most diverse caucus in the Legislature, and it has been more diverse than it’s ever been,” said Jinkins. “I’m really proud to be the first out lesbian serving in this position. I believe very, very strongly that the diversity of our caucus really more and more represents the diversity of our state and helps us make better decisions for the people of this state.

“I’m proud to be part of carrying that forward, but there are a bunch of members who all represent that. I’m excited to serve all people, but also to have representation that helps a lot of people — who have never seen themselves in these roles before — be able to start seeing themselves in these roles,” she added.

The election for a new speaker was the first in 20 years. Frank Chopp, the Seattle Democrat who was the longest-serving speaker in state history, stepped down shortly after this year’s legislative session. Chopp is remaining as a House member.

There are seven female House or Assembly speakers nationwide.

Jinkins will become the first speaker from Tacoma since Democrat Brian Ebersole, who held the position in 1993 and 1994.

“We got a University of Washington campus that may or may not have happened otherwise,” said Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma. “It’s a good thing for Tacoma, but it’s a much bigger job than that. She will be busy.”

Jinkins represents the 27th Legislative District in Pierce County, which includes much of Tacoma as well as Ruston and Fife Heights. She was elected to the seat in 2010. She also is director of organizational initiatives at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

“All the people of Washington state are my concern. The people of the 27th are my special concern. The transportation chair in this body also is from the 27th,” she said, referring to Democratic Rep. Jake Fey. “I plan and expect it means great things for Tacoma, for Pierce County and for the whole state.”

Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, said Jinkins will lead the House in a way that benefits all state residents, but she said it’s a major victory to have a speaker from Pierce County.

“We have someone who understands life outside of Seattle very well, and I think that is an important perspective to bring to the Legislature,” said Kilduff, who added she hopes that the power of the speakership will translate into more business investment in Pierce County, among many other things.

The other speaker candidates were Rep. Monica Stonier, the Vancouver Democrat who is majority leader; Rep. June Robinson, the Everett Democrat who is first vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Rep. Gael Tarleton, the Seattle Democrat who is chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.

“This will be the first time in Washington state history that the House Democrats have elected a speaker who is not a white male,” said state Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, in introducing Jinkins at a press conference. “As you can tell, we are very, very proud of that.”

Monisha Harrell, a Seattle political consultant who like Pettigrew is a person of color, said Jinkins is “determined and diligent and knows how to build thoughtful coalitions that move things forward.”

Jinkins will become one of three openly LGBTQ people currently serving as the leader of a state legislative chamber, joining California President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Oregon House speaker Tina Kotek, according to the Victory Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group which works to increase the number of LGBTQ people in public office.

Jinkins will be the sixth openly LGBTQ state House speaker in U.S. history when she takes the gavel in January, the group said.

Harrell also is chairwoman of Equal Rights Washington, a statewide political advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Asked about Jinkins becoming the first lesbian speaker, Harrell said: “What it means is that it will be more explicit that legislation that is designed to divide our communities will no longer have a place. Speaker Chopp was an amazing ally to the LGBTQ community. He oversaw non-discrimination protections, marriage equality, anti-bullying legislation.

“It is markedly important and symbolic — particularly given that we are in a time period right now where there is so much divisiveness — to have somebody who can clearly say, and show through their life, that we will be a state for all people,” Harrell added.

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, sits down with reporter Melissa Santos to eat tater tots and talk about why the Legislature is in overtime, again. What happens during the first week of a special session? When will the Legislature actually agr

To win the speaker’s race, the magic number for Jinkins was at least 29 — a majority of the 57 House Democrats. Voting was done by secret ballot. Jinkins defeated Stonier on the third ballot after the two other candidates dropped out. House Democrats were not advised of the results of the three ballots, but several referred to the meeting as “very open and congenial.”

Jinkins has served as chairwoman of the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee. She also has sponsored major legislation over the years that became law, including reforming the state’s mental health system, enacting affordable housing policies, addressing homelessness and protecting people from discrimination and harassment.

Chopp discussed Jinkins’ work on tackling the state’s long-term care crisis, saying her bill this year that became law will serve hundreds of thousands of people over several decades.

“Laurie was the prime sponsor, and she worked for several years with a lot of allies, a lot of work and teamwork. That was critical. It makes a major difference in the future of the state of Washington,” he said.

Asked about what her leadership style will be, Jinkins replied: “Mostly, I want to have an open door. I want to have engagement with people. I want to make sure that people can feel like they can push back on ideas. Those are the things that make our policies better.”

Flanked by her House Democratic colleagues, Jinkins emphasized to reporters that she will work to expand the Democrats’ margin over Republicans in the House.

“I feel really strongly that almost everything that millions and millions of Washingtonians can be thankful for from Washington state government is because the House Democrats have maintained control of the people’s House for 20 years. My intention — and I know everyone’s intention here — is that we will continue to build on that and work collaboratively to do that,” she said.

House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, referred to Jinkins’ victory as a “historic moment for our state” in congratulating her.

“She and I came into the Legislature together in 2011, and we’ve been friends ever since. And while the Speaker must always have a statewide perspective, I’m pleased a representative of Pierce County is taking the gavel. It’s where I grew up and still live to this day. It’s a special place now further distinguished by being home to the first female Speaker,” Wilcox said in a written statement.

Gov. Jay Inslee also congratulated Jinkins.

“I’ve appreciated Laurie’s ongoing partnership in behavioral health and health care, her passionate work on behalf of hard-working families and children, and her commitment to advancing civil rights for all Washingtonians,” Inslee said in a written statement.

Fey, the Tacoma Democrat who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said having a speaker from Tacoma is similar to the dynamic when a legislator becomes a committee chair.

“Stakeholders and state agencies, they’re going to check in and have a good relationship. It’s a natural fallout,” he said.

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.