Politics & Government

Puyallup lawmaker Leonard Sawyer brought Legislature ‘into the 20th century’

Leonard Sawyer
Leonard Sawyer Courtesy

Leonard Sawyer, a former speaker of the state House who helped reform and modernize the state Legislature, died last month at the age of 90.

Sawyer, a Democrat from Puyallup, served as House speaker from 1973 to 1976. During that time, he revamped the Legislature to employ teams of full-time, nonpartisan staff who could advise lawmakers and research policy issues throughout the year.

House members later credited Sawyer’s reforms as putting the Legislature on more equal footing with the governor’s office, which previously had greater access to year-round professional staff and researchers.

“He modernized the Legislature, no question,” said Bill Baarsma, a former Tacoma mayor. “It became far more professional and far more effective during that period.”

Born and raised in Puyallup, Sawyer represented Pierce County’s 25th Legislative District for 22 years, including the two terms he spent as House speaker. Among colleagues and friends, Sawyer generally went by Len or Lenny.

Sawyer is survived by his wife, Dawne Friesen Sawyer, as well as five children and eight grandchildren.

During his time as House speaker, Sawyer championed the use of computers and data processing technology to help lawmakers analyze policy proposals and spending plans. That gave the Legislature access to even more information that previously was available only to the governor’s office, according to a 1988 House resolution passed in Sawyer’s honor.

In the honorary resolution, House members praised Sawyer for how he “helped correct the power imbalance between the legislative and executive branches.”

“Before Speaker Sawyer’s reforms, legislators had to rely upon the executive branch for expertise and even upon lobbyists to provide some research services,” the House resolution said. “...Now, legislators have independent expertise and research capabilities in their own staffs.”

House members further credited Sawyer “with ushering Washington’s legislature into the 20th century.”

“He was a gentleman,” said Brian Ebersole, a former Tacoma mayor and past House speaker who introduced the resolution honoring Sawyer in 1988.

In a phone interview, Dawne Friesen Sawyer described her late husband as “an innovator” who was determined to see his ideas through. Several of the reforms he enacted in the Legislature took years to develop and put in place, she said.

“He’d get a hold of one of those ideas and he wouldn’t stop until he achieved it,” Dawne Friesen Sawyer said.

An informal reception to honor Sawyer will take place from 2-4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9 at Toscano’s Italian Grill, located at 437 29th St NE in Puyallup.

Donations in Len Sawyer’s name can be made to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma.