OLYMPIA – When the Washington Legislature opens in January, for the first time in 60 years there won’t be at least one woman from central Spokane sitting at a desk on one of the carpeted floors of the House or Senate.
The 3rd District will have an all-guy delegation.
It’s part of the de-feminization of Washington state and Spokane politics that has taken place over the last two years. When the Legislature opened in 2011, a voter in downtown Spokane or the North Side could boast of having more women in elected office than anyone in the United States: Two U.S. senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. A U.S. House representative, Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Gov. Chris Gregoire. The only other place in the nation with that many women at the top of the ticket was southwest Washington, which had Jaime Herrera Beutler in the House.
But Spokane voters also had a female mayor, Mary Verner. And, on the North Side, a female state senator, Lisa Brown. Nancy McLaughlin or Amber Waldref on the City Council, depending on which side of Division Street they lived.
They also had a long list of women in all levels of the judiciary.
It wasn’t just the number of women elected that made this remarkable. It was the variety in age, work background, party affiliation and political philosophy. They were a mix of supporters and opponents of abortion rights, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Some were environmentalists, others decidedly not. But most remarkable, possibly, was that Spokane voters didn’t find this in the least remarkable. Women seemed to have no greater edge, and no greater impediment, in local elections for years.
Nowhere was that more true than in central Spokane’s 3rd District, which in 1939 was the first legislative district in the city to send a woman to Olympia. In 1953, it began its unprecedented 60-year legislative string by electing Margaret Hurley to the House, where she served until moving to the Senate in 1979. In 1981, the district became the first in Washington to have three female legislators: Hurley and Reps. Lois Stratton and Margaret Leonard. Stratton followed Hurley into the Senate in 1985, and when her seat was filled by John Moyer in 1993, Lisa Brown was elected to the House. She ousted Moyer four years later.
Brown finishes her 20 years in office as Senate majority leader and leaves at the end of the year. State Rep. Andy Billig beat McLaughlin to fill the Senate seat, and Marcus Riccelli joins Timm Ormsby in the House, ending the string.
Spokane voters replaced Verner with David Condon last year, and Jay Inslee takes over for Gregoire as governor next month. The number of women in elective office for a central Spokane voter is still good but not noteworthy.
As she was packing up her Capitol office, Brown said that while Washington once led the nation in the percentage of women in its Legislature, that number is down. It was about 41 percent in 2000; it will be about 30 percent in January.
“I think we took for granted that you need to ask women to run,” she said. “It’s harder to recruit women.”
Women with small children are more likely than men in that stage of life to say they’ll wait until the children are in grade school or high school or college before starting a political career, Brown said. She’s done a fair amount of that recruiting over the last two decades and urges them to start as soon as possible to build the seniority important in the Legislature. It’s also sometimes harder to convince women that while elections come around every two or four years, better opportunities for winning, like an open seat, can be few and far between.
She speaks from experience. A single mom with an infant son, she wasn’t the local Democratic Party’s pick for an open seat when she first ran, but she seized the opportunity. Once in office, she caused a stir by bringing the baby to the House floor for an evening session when his day care closed down – although not, as one legend goes, breast-feeding on the House floor – but afterwards no one ever doubted her when she spoke about the problems working moms have finding good day care.